As with all other meets, that year’s Nationals became a story, like an epic poem, to be repeated ad infinitum. We returned to our little corner of the weightlifting world and life—training—went on. Ricky and I, with our bronze medals, walked into the gym amid great fanfare. People wanted to hear the details: how we’d felt, how the lifts had gone, whether the judges’ calls were as bad (or accurate) as they’d heard. We were all more than happy to tell these and other stories. Who we had seen, who we had watched lift, what rumors we’d heard. We had never made it beyond the confines of the meet location in Schaumburg; for us there had been no Sears Tower, no Millennium Park, no Art Institute, not even a real deep dish pizza from downtown Chicago. Rarely had we even left the hotel. Yet it seemed to me there were tales enough from within those borders, and memories both real and imagined were shared and repeated among us all.
But whatever his and my success had been, Libby—and to a lesser extent Myron—were the real stars of the weekend. Word of their performances had trickled out via text messages and on sites like the GoHeavy forums. When we returned those of us who’d been in attendance filled in the details. In a few weeks it became clear that both were provisionally on the World team, pending drug testing results: Libby as a full member, Myron as an alternate. Each reacted in the ways that could be expected: Libby, by training with her usual dedication and intensity, and Myron by disappearing.
“You think he’d get serious, no?” Ricky asked, shaking his head in frustration.
“Maybe he’s just taking a little time off to recover,” I offered.
Ricky laughed. “Recover? He don’t train enough to need to recover!”
I laughed along with him and nodded in agreement. We were training late on a summer night, after the community center had closed, and so I’d gone to his place for a workout. His little garage gym was always open, and if Ricky was around—as he often was—he was more than willing to lend an eye, or be a training partner, even if he’d already trained that day. The doors were up to let in what little breeze there was, while the setting sun lit the world in shades of orange and fireflies began to blink in and out of existence in the yard.
“You ever going to take some time to recover?” I asked as we settled back into the rhythm of lifting.
“What? Hell no. What the hell else would I do? This is my place,” he said, looking around his garage. “What would I do with time off, anyway? Golf? Ha! Ya ever see me swing a golf club? It ain’t pretty. I might take it easy for a bit—I can’t recover like I used to, especially without the restoratives—but that’s about it. Maybe I’ll find a hobby or something.”
“A hobby?” I asked. It was hard to imagine him with a hobby that didn’t involve a barbell. What would he do? Build model ships in his basement? Tend a vegetable garden? Master the art of Chinese calligraphy? It was too ridiculous to even consider seriously.
“I used to do other things,” he said. “Back before lifting. Before lifting became… life.” He was silent for a moment, staring out of the garage door. “You know what I used to do?” he asked.
“You’re not gonna believe this.”
“I mean really…”
“Okay, okay, just say it.”
“I used to write poetry.”
He smiled, almost sheepishly, and nodded. “I wanted to be a poet. Ha!”
This was even more absurd than model ship building. “A poet?”
“Can you believe it?”
“No, I actually cannot.”
He put his hands up. “That was my major, back in college. The first two years I went, anyway. I used to love it.”
“Ricky Pugilio,” I said. “Poet and National medalist.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said, laughing. “The medal, okay. But poetry… man, it’s been years.”
“How the hell did you get into poetry?”
“Music,” he said. “Back when I was growin’ up, as a kid, a lotta the shit I listened to—those guys were real poets. Not like that shit they have now. I’m talkin’ about guys like Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash. I’d listen to ’em and think man, those guys can write. So got me into other kinds of writing, other kinds of poetry. And then I thought that’d be cool, to just write … be able to write like that. And I got lucky. I had a really great English teacher one year in high school, and he turned me on to some other cool shit. Kinda took me under his wing. Now that I look back on it he was probably into pot and LSD and that stuff, since he liked some real trippy shit, but it was cool. And I was just curious to read it. And every so often I’d try writin’ something.
“So I had this dream I’d be a poet, for a little while. I would write and most of it was probably crap but I gave it a shot. And then when I went to college I took a bunch of English classes, thinkin’ I’d be an English major or maybe a poetry major, if they had that. Fucking nuts, right?” he smiled.
“Not that nuts. What happened?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I started lifting more, got more and more serious. I kept at it and I was good at it. And then, I don’t know…” He paused before continuing, bringing up old memories. “You know, I used to think about poetry all the time. Not all the time, but you know what I mean. Like when you got a song stuck in your head you can’t stop thinkin’ about, or a line you just keep going over, and I’d imagine myself writing those songs, or writing lines like the ones I really liked. But then one day I realized I didn’t really think of music or poetry all that much anymore; and instead I would imagine lifting, or doing big weights, or lifting like some of the guys I used to look up to. Somewhere along the way my dreams changed, I guess. Didn’t even realize it until afterward. And by then all I thought of were World teams, Olympic teams, that sorta shit. It was like, lifting took the place of all those songs and poems that used to run through my head. And that was it.”
I nodded, listening in silence. The notion of Ricky with other dreams was a strange one. But stranger still was the feeling that I could no longer think of what my own dreams had been, prior to weightlifting. Had I even had them? I must have, and yet they seemed so distant and ill-formed in comparison to the concreteness of a good lift.
He paused, then went on. “But it’s been good to me. It was always there for me. Met a lotta good guys. Saw some cool shit. I always had lifting. Anytime another girlfriend broke up with me, or something shitty’d happen—when I got divorced—I knew I could go to the gym. Something to keep me grounded. Keep me sane. I knew a lotta guys from my area who got real serious into drugs or booze, or gambling as their escape. Some of them got lucky, made it out okay. Lotta them didn’t; lotta them ended up real screwed, or worse. Maybe that woulda been me, if it hadn’t been for lifting, you know? Some of those poets died young, right? Who knows.” Then, apropos of nothing, or perhaps spurred by some memory of his ex, he asked: “You believe Libby?”
He whistled in appreciation. “Worlds. She fuckin’ did it, huh?”
He considered this in silence for a moment. “Lotta talent. There’s good competition in the 75s, but she’s as talented and hard working as any of them. You ever talk to her anymore?”
“Not really,” I said, shaking my head. “No.”
“Hm.” He slapped a huge hand on my knee. “Better that way. Focus on training! What’s the rush to settle down, right? Another year of good training and you’re right up there. You almost had it this year,” he said, nodding his head from side to side. “But this is good. You don’t go to Worlds now, it means you got another year to avoid getting tested. Get back on shit, put another five, ten kilos on each lift.”
I nodded, considering this.
“You still got plenty of time,” he added.
I trained. We continued talking. The sun disappeared and the late summer twilight hung around, staining the world in pinks and purples and blues. As I was finishing up I heard the phone ring inside the house. Ricky went to answer it and I stripped the barbell, returned my weights to the rack, and began taking off my shoes.
Ricky. Ricky the Poet. It seemed strangely fitting, somehow. Like he was some great philosopher-athlete of antiquity. Maybe now, now that he’d done what he’d set out to do at Nationals, he could find a little peace in something like poetry. Many fine writers have started later in life, I thought. And at his age Ricky was only just beginning what could be prime years of literary output. His weightlifting career, for all intents and purposes, may be finished, but perhaps his literary career was just about to begin. I should buy him a pen, I thought, and a notebook. A computer seemed out of the question. And anyway, what kind of self-respecting poet typed out verse on a personal computer? No, no, for him a proper pen—something wide enough for his big, sausage fingers—was the only thing that would do. He could go climb a mountain, sit there like some bearded sage, and scribble lines in his chicken scratch handwriting. Or maybe a typewriter. Some old Royal or Remington that he could hunch over, tapping out his verse letter by mechanical letter. Ignore the terrible lure of the gym, a place that will only lead to ruin…
The back door to his house opened. I saw him bound down the steps and run up to the garage. He looked terrifically agitated about something.
“What’s up?” I asked.
He stopped just before me, breathing heavily from the exertion of having run five or so yards. “Myron got popped.”
“He got popped! Marijuana. He’s not going. They just called to offer me his spot as an alternate on the team.”
“That’s right. I’m going to Worlds, baby! Time to start training! Haha! Probably gotta give Frankie a call too, if you catch my drift…” And he laughed and began lacing up his shoes.
The gods of weightlifting turned once more to Ricky and smiled…
[more to come…]