Of Iron and Bronze – 42

42.

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.

“What?”

“You’re not gonna believe this.”

“Okay.”

“I mean really…”

“Okay, okay, just say it.”

“I used to write poetry.”

“What?”

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?”

I nodded.

He whistled in appreciation. “Worlds. She fuckin’ did it, huh?”

“She did.”

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.”

What?

“He got popped! Marijuana. He’s not going. They just called to offer me his spot as an alternate on the team.”

What?

“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…]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 41

41.

My recollections of the rest of that Nationals weekend are mostly vague and indistinct, save for a few scattered flashbulb memories—peeing in a bathroom stall for drug testing while a USADA worker dutifully stared at my member, watching Joe bomb out in the jerk, seeing Pete get turned down on his last snatch for a pressout. These became a few more entries in my collective national competition memory, so much so that I sometimes question if the years haven’t bled into one another.

But there were three highlights from that weekend that still stand out. The first was seeing Myron and Ricky battle it out for a spot on the podium. When or how Myron arrived was never clear to us, as though he materialized in the warmup room on the day of the competition and then slipped away just as inconspicuously when it was over. Even in the warmup room he looked like he wasn’t quite a part of the environment, as though he were always operating on a plane just a half a degree out of alignment with our own.

“Strange bird,” said Ricky at one point, as Myron was wrapping his wrists in athletic tape with surgical meticulousness.

Strange as Myron was, he’d lost nothing in the weeks he’d been away from our gym; if anything he’d improved. When he opened at 145 in the snatch few people knew who he was, although the weight was enough to make many in the small crowd take notice. And if they hadn’t been paying attention earlier they certainly were after he raised the bar: the slow first pull, the violent punch-in-the-gut explosion of the second pull, and then the bar just hanging motionless as his body ricocheted under the weight and brought his feet into sharp contact with the platform.

Suddenly people were taking notice.

“Kid is fast,” I heard a few voices murmur in the crowd, in case there’d been any confusion over that point…

But as good as Myron and Ricky were—going back and forth in the snatch and clean and jerk—they were both fighting for the edge of the podium, along with a few other athletes. There was one outlier, a prodigiously talented athlete who partied as hard as he lifted, who was a lock for first place. Ricky, after his final clean and jerk, was almost certainly destined to be in fourth place, just off the podium. He’d taken a huge ten kilo jump on his final attempt—190—and he ran up to the weight with such confidence that I was all but certain he’d make it, which would have guaranteed him a medal. It’s just like Kakhiashvili at the Olympics in 1992! I thought, only with far less weight and lower stakes on the line and with an athlete at the end of his career rather than the beginning. So really nothing like that, but still inspiring all the same…

And he did get the weight overhead, but with elbows so bent that they were closer to right angles than straight. He held the weight steady for a few long seconds, nearly striking a double-biceps pose with the barbell, and then put it down, no doubt hoping for some sort of miracle from the judges. He even clapped and pumped his fists before looking at the scoreboard, selling the lift until the very end—a used car salesman kicking the bumper off a rusting jalopy and hoping you don’t notice. But there were red lights across the board, and that was it for Ricky.

“Looked like a good lift to me,” said Pete later as we congratulated and commiserated with our coach.

“You oughta get your eyes checked in that case,” said Ricky, smiling and shaking his head.

But the competition wasn’t finished—in addition to a few scattered attempts by athletes jockeying for placement there still remained the category’s top athlete and gold medal favorite.

Or so we thought. Three missed lifts later, as the star of the class was unable to secure a single jerk overhead, everybody moved up a spot from where they’d thought they’d end.

“Holy shit!” said Joe, watching alongside me and Pete. “That old bastard just got bronze!”

“And Myron pulled home a silver,” said Pete.

Sometimes the sport smiles on you. Ricky, who never liked winning due to another’s misfortune, took the podium all the same. We watched with great pride as a marshal—closer to Ricky’s age than any of the competitors were—placed the medals over the big man’s shaggy head. It was hard to say whether Ricky was happy up there. He was smiling, and he beamed when we shouted his name, but in watching I recognized that this was not the reward for him. The reward was the lift, and his moments of true happiness—those under the barbell—had already happened. The medal was just another part of the day, like weighing in or eating breakfast, incidental events that moved in orbit around the bar and the weights.

Then there was Libby. In my dreams of this competition I’d visualized myself back in the warmup room with her, loading the bar, watching the progression, making small talk to keep her mind occupied, and cheering her on the platform from the staging area. Given how extraordinarily bad things had played out between us, this was, unsurprisingly, not the case. I was tempted to ask her, at the last minute, if she wanted me in the warmup room but wisely thought better of it. Or rather, Pete wisely advised me against it.

“Don’t even think about it, buddy,” he said, as we walked past the warmup area and I stared in her general direction, like a lost puppy searching for its owner.

Instead I watched her from the crowd, along with Pete and Joe and a couple dozen other fans. If she had any nerves for her first national competition I could not tell. I realized that, even had we been on good terms, I would’ve been superfluous in the warmup room; her calm came from within. She walked out for her attempts with the same focused, subtle intensity that she brought to every one of her lifts in training. Like her brother she had the ability to appear as though she were lifting in a world all her own, devoid of fans or competitors or anything besides herself and the barbell. Unlike him she still seemed deeply invested in the outcome—she wanted each lift, and that one emotion came through above all others. Of all the athletes from our gym, including Ricky, only she was truly made of iron, stronger even than the barbell itself, while the rest of us, impassioned as we were about this sport, were bronze or baser metals.

She made three good snatches, each one better than the last, and three good clean and jerks. A flawless day. In the end she stood on the podium and took home silver medals across the board, and I think each of us watching knew that the next time she competed nationally they would be gold.

The last thing I recall with any clarity from that weekend—although it gets fuzzy toward the end—is the post competition celebrating in the hotel lobby. We stayed at the bar until well into the early morning. There were many congratulations, many rounds of drinks, many discussions of what might have been. There were speculations on why athletes missed lifts, extensive rounds of coaching in hindsight, as well as predictions for who was most likely to fail a drug test. We spoke and gesticulated wildly, with the fervor of those debating affairs of great importance and doing so in a language all our own. We celebrated our successes, laughed at the failures of others, laughed even harder at our own failures. Drinks were ordered, toasts cheered, more drinks ordered.

Late in the evening I ended up next to Russ, who was several rounds into gin and tonics. He smiled at me jovially and said I’d lifted well, congratulated me, speculated on what might be good to plan for in the coming year.

“No Worlds, though,” I said.

He laughed, though without any malice. “No, not this year. You came close, though. You and Ricky both came close. Myron may get on, but it’s not clear.”

“And Libby?” I asked.

He took a sip from his drink and raised his eyebrows. “She did it. The numbers right now say she’s on the team.” He considered this with something that looked like reverence, took another sip, then repeated: “She did it.”

I scanned the bar for her, thinking I’d congratulate her. Joe, a beer in one hand and a shot glass in the other, was drunkenly cornering a coach by one end of the bar while the coach was trying to ease herself away. Pete was sitting on top of a lounge chair, probably shouting about maple syrup to those around him. Ricky had tied one of his medals around his head like a headband and looked to be trying to have a serious conversation with another older lifter despite this strange fashion choice. Nikos, his pushbroom mustache moving feverishly as he talked, was going over the finer points of jerk technique with an athlete who’d only made one lift in the clean and jerk.

But there was no sign of Libby.

I thanked Russ for his help that weekend and returned to the crowd, the little family of strange adherents to the sport clustered there in a hotel bar that Sunday night. In the morning there would be flights to make and then a return to reality. We would all have our routines waiting for us back home: more training, another year of competitions, plans for the American Open and next year’s Nationals. Jobs and school and home life and whatever else happened in the spaces between meets. But for a few hours it was good to be in the company of other lifters, the people who knew you and your struggles and who understood you in the way only another lifter could.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 40

40.

Competition day. I weighed in at 77 kilos on the dot—something I’d assumed didn’t really happen. Anytime I’d seen an athlete with a bodyweight exactly equal to the category limit I’d figured that, in truth, they’d been overweight and had simply slipped the ref a fiver to put them down at the limit. But on that morning, naked and desiccated and feeling closer to mummification than competing, the digital readout stopped exactly at 77.00 kilos.

Ricky smiled at me when he saw the numbers. “Didn’t lose a gram more than you needed.”

After weighing in we went to the warmup area, where I could relax and stretch and rehydrate and move around with the empty barbell. Pete was there, as were Russ and Nikos. The other athletes were going through similar routines, or else lying around listening to iPods and discmen or doing whatever pre-competition ritual they felt necessary to their performance, a mix of activities that ranged from the scientific to the superstitious. Pete talked to me, helping to keep me calm and distracted from the steadily building nerves. He knew what I was going through and knew, better than anyone, how to keep me out of my own head.

Ten minutes prior to the start of the competition the lifters were called out for introductions. We formed a line and then walked out to the platform and each of us stepped forward when his name was called and waved to the small audience. Perhaps two dozen people sat in that crowd—a great turnout, in those days. As I stood out there, waiting for my own name, I looked at them all, hoping for a face that I suspected wasn’t there.

When the session started I began taking 50 kilos. My mind was a steady hum of background concerns—did that feel right? am I on schedule? is my thumb tape sticking?—that I had to constantly suppress. Pete loaded my bar and kept talking, knowing I needed it, while Ricky kept yelling at him to save his energy.

“You gotta lift later!” he said, but Pete brushed this aside.

“I load bars every day in trainin’” he said. “Ain’t no different here.”

Ricky shook his head but let him stay. He looked at me. “How you feel?”

“Not bad,” I said. “We’ll see when it gets heavier.”

He waved a thick finger in front of my face. “Remember: don’t matter how you feel! You lift big weights either way.”

I smiled. A classic Ricky aphorism, one that he’d been peppering our training and meets with for years. “You got it.”

The competition rolled along, the weight on my bar and that of the platform steadily increasing. I went through 50, 70, 90, 100. Then 110. Things felt good. I was cautiously optimistic. Had I experienced some mystical recovery in the last few days? Had the baking somehow been good for my body? Whatever it was, even Nikos and Ricky and Russ looked impressed.

“Best I seen you move in weeks,” said Ricky, and for once I didn’t think he was lying to give me confidence on the platform. Maybe—maybe—a 300 total was still in the realm of the possible…

When the competition barbell was loaded with my opener Nikos called to me. “Is time,” he said, with the solemnity of a man headed to an execution. I nodded, and he and my little entourage followed me out that stairs that led to the platform.

“Just another day at the office,” said Ricky as I chalked up. “You done all the work.”

“Right.”

The bar was set to 125 kilos. Two big reds per side. A weight I’d spent years trying to overcome, and now I was opening with it. I pushed that thought aside—this is no weight, I thought instead.

Feet planted, shoulders over the bar, head up, finding a spot on which to focus. Feeling the barbell in the hands, checking the grip, then again. This is no weight… body set, then GO.

“That was cake!” said Ricky as I came off the platform, and I couldn’t help but nod in agreement. It was the best snatch I’d done in weeks, and the next two—130, then 132.5—went up like clockwork, each identical to the last. Everything felt right: the bar, the platform, the way I was moving with the weight. Had I ever felt this?

When the snatches concluded I was in third place overall, and thus guaranteed at least one bronze medal. Nikos and Russ were keeping whatever excitement they felt under control, but Ricky was far less restrained, try as he might to stay level.

“Three good clean and jerks,” he said a few times, pacing my warmup platform as I sat and rested. “That’s all you need to do.”

Nothing was said of the 300 total, but I was sure he was thinking it. I knew I was…

Russ was handling attempts, and he had me open at 157.5 kilos. It seemed a long way from what I needed for a 300 total or a shot at an international team but I knew he was thinking long term. My warmups felt good, and I was confident walking out to the weight. On the platform, as I steadied myself before setting up over the bar, my gaze settled with terrible accuracy on a single, new face in the crowd: Libby, sitting on her own, looking at me without enthusiasm, but there all the same.

A quick shot of panic and elation tore through me and I did all I could to suppress it. There was still this bar to lift, after all…

I made my 157.5 opener without fanfare. It felt good, almost routine, as though I were still taking warmups. For my second attempt Russ and Nikos conferred amongst themselves and checked the placements and conferred some more, like a pair of strategists in a war room. They finally settled on 162.5 kilos, and this too I made with confidence.

“One more!” Ricky said, screaming despite clearly trying not to scream to contain his excitement.

I sat in the staging area through a series of other lifts: some makes, some misses by the other athletes. Nikos and Russ conferred. I knew I had my own goals but I trusted their decision. After some time had passed—I lost track of it, sitting trying to stay focused, listening to idle chatter from Pete—Ricky came up to me.

“Let’s go. You’re gonna do 167.5, and you’re gonna make it.”

“This what you came here to do, buddy,” said Pete. “Let’s see it!”

I nodded. Right.

Ricky slapped me on the shoulders; the force of his great paws coming down on me nearly knocked me over. I steadied myself, took in a huge lungful of air, and stepped forward. From the crowd I heard shouts and cries of encouragement, and as I ascended the three steps to the platform I felt certain that I was here for one purpose: to make this final clean and jerk.

There was something different, then, from what I had long grown accustomed to when competing. Different even from the days on drugs. It was as though I’d stepped into some great current of energy, and each step closer to the barbell brought me more in sync with it. For a brief second I remembered something Ricky had once told me, about the great Yuri Vlasov and his description of tremendous and victorious effort. Its particulars were lost to me but I swore that somehow my body was recalling the sensation that had been described, one in which the world becomes clearer and you feel to be in possession of extraordinary power and ability. Was this it? Was this what Ricky had told me about? He’d once mentioned that for him the real high was not winning medals; the real high was the feeling. I felt certain that this was it. This was what I’d been chasing after, all these years.

Whatever spark I thought was gone in the prior weeks of training had been rekindled twice over for this one attempt, an all out effort to make good on what I’d set out to do.

Everything extraneous faded from my vision as I walked to the middle of the platform—the crowd, the judges, the lights, the room, the world beyond the room, everything… All I saw was the barbell: the thin stretch of brilliant steel that stood between me and my goal. Gripping it, holding its rough, knurled surface, I swore it seemed somehow small in comparison to my hands. I sensed its own power, its own stored energy, and then I felt that I was taking that energy from it, growing stronger and stronger with each passing second, each tick of the clock. I had no doubt, then, that the barbell would yield. It would yield because I, like a small god, was a master over gravity, and in my hands the bar would bend to my will.

I recognized the silence before the lift. It was my silence! It was a silence the universe had crafted for me and me alone, in admiration of my work. I felt the power within me, and I knew then that it was all the power of the world, a power so great that I struggled to contain it. I wait a moment, just a moment, so that I might direct that power. Like a valve releasing pressure I allow a yell to come out—There! See my power!—and then I get set and GO.

The weight is heavy but I am stronger. The weight wants to pull me to the ground but I pull harder. The clean is finished without my thinking, and soon I am rising, rising with the weight across my shoulders. There is some perception of joy around me, of people screaming and cheering, but none of that matters. All that matters is the bar across my shoulders, which I must now throw overhead. My blood is pounding in my head but I see very clearly what I must do, and I know that I can do it, that I will do it. There is no doubt. There is only the will

I jerked the weight overhead and secured myself in the split. The tremendous sense of power was still there, even as the weight fought to come down. HOLD, I thought. HOLD. Just a moment longer. I steadied myself, conscious of the cries and shouts but focused entirely on holding that weight overhead, and when I finally brought my feet in line and received the down signal from the center referee I felt the closest thing to pure triumph that I’d ever experienced…

Which unfortunately lasted for only a fleeting moment, as the judges ruled against me two to one.

“Bullshit!” cried Ricky, screaming at the top of his lungs. He was so agitated I feared he might run out and attack someone. A few people in the crowd booed. Had it been a press out? True, my right elbow had felt a bit soft, but I thought I’d held it steady, at least…

I looked to the refs for some explanation but there was none. The jury? No movement. With no other options—short of screaming, which Ricky was still doing—I walked off the platform, my thoughts a heady mix of triumph and defeat.

“That was a good lift!” Ricky screamed in the warmup room, after he’d been more or less dragged away from yelling at the judges. “Russ? Nikos?”

They both shrugged.

“Hard to say,” said Russ. “Maybe a little soft in that jerk, but… I thought it was good. They’ve passed worse, certainly.”

“Is good lift for me,” said Nikos, smiling and putting a hand on my shoulder.

I pulled down my singlet and sat back.

“Three hundred total, buddy,” said Pete, giving me a fist pump. “Counts for me.”

***

At the end of my session I ended with bronze across the board. Despite missing an official 300 total, and despite the great unlikelihood of making an international team, I felt some satisfaction. I’d lifted as well as I could’ve hoped that day; better, even, given how my training had felt leading up to the competition. And if I’d come up short I told myself it was out of my hands: the judges had ruled one way, and there was nothing left to change it.

On the podium, when the medals had been given to us and we three were smiling for pictures and enjoying the few seconds of applause and appreciation, I scanned the crowd for the face that had been so unsettling—in ways good and bad—not long before. But either she was gone or I couldn’t find her. I contented myself with the medal, held it up for my friends and coaches, and then stepped down.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 39

39.

I rolled into Nationals that year four kilos overweight, with something like 36 hours to lose it.

“The hell you been eatin’?” asked Pete, as he stared at the numbers on the check scale.

“What’ve I been eating?” I asked, incredulous. “Pancakes! With you motherfucker! This is your fault!”

He feigned innocence, raising his hands in a gesture that sought to absolve him of all blame. “I figured you were cuttin’ back elsewhere! You weren’t cuttin’ out breakfast or dinner or second dinner?”

“Were you?

“Heck yes! This ain’t my first rodeo, pal. Ain’t yours, either.”

Nikos and Ricky and Russ were similarly surprised. They were sitting with Joe and Libby waiting for us in the lobby of the meet hotel, which was a surprisingly chic place out in a nondescript suburb of Chicago. Far nicer than the usual fare, and several rungs above what most of us in that crowd were accustomed to. Or from another vantage point, we were several rungs below the hotel’s usual clientele, and the amount of spandex and track suits was likely beyond anything it’d ever seen before or would see again.

“Four kilos?” said Ricky.

“Yep.”

“Even Joe doesn’t have that much to lose,” he said, and Joe nodded in response.

Ricky turned to Nikos. “Whaddaya say? Four kilos by Saturday morning?”

The compact Eastern European nodded sagely. “No food. Maybe some beef broth. Small sips of water.”

“Not sure we’re gonna find beef broth out here…” said Russ.

“Tomorrow night, bake,” added Nikos.

Ricky smiled. He loved the suggestion, and the implied intensity of roasting myself with the aim of losing a few kilos. “Get ready to sweat!” he said, slapping me on the shoulders with a huge paw. “Libby, what about you? You gonna make weight?”

Libby looked over to him. She’d been staring out into the lobby, which was steadily filling with more and more athletes and coaches. It was her first national meet, and even she—as collected a person I’d ever seen—was looking a little starstruck.

“Seventy-five point four this afternoon,” she said. “I’ll make weight.” And she turned back to scanning the crowd. Those two sentences were among the most I’d heard her speak since the implosion of our relationship, and I had little reason to expect more.

Those of us who could eat had a late dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants; afterward we returned to the lobby and sprawled out on a couple of couches, all of us tired but not wanting to go to bed just yet. The lobby was a great place to see and run into and even talk with some of those luminaries in our sport, people who—like Ricky, once upon a time—were at the highest levels of American weightlifting. National champions, American record holders, international competitors, Olympians—they were all on display, all available, right around us. Prior to getting into weightlifting I had never imagined I might one day rub elbows with Olympic-caliber athletes; and yet at any moment I might see people like Tara Nott and Cheryl Haworth and Oscar Chaplin and Shane Hamman. Athletes whose careers I’d followed for years and who seemed like something otherworldly and yet who were here, just as we were, the way Greek gods of old would occasionally mill about with mortals.

But it was more than just stargazing. Most people in that lobby were not at the top of the sport, and most would never get there. But they were familiar, for the most part. And there was a certain pleasure in seeing all those familiar faces, year after year. It reminded you of the bigger weightlifting family to which you belonged—a family in which you knew almost everyone, and which included more than its share of crazy aunts and uncles but which you looked forward to all the same. It was sometimes easy, back then, to get wrapped up in your own small weightlifting corner of the world while you were training; you saw the same people every day, going through a routine that didn’t vary significantly. But you knew that once or twice a year you could catch up with the broader community and see friends whom you spoke with perhaps five or six times over the course of a four-year Olympic cycle. Yet there was a continuity to those relationships, irrespective of the distance and time that kept us all apart. There were often big changes from year to year: athletes grew up and improved or declined, coaches took on new lifters or lost old ones, people moved on or died and new athletes entered the sport. Only the lifting was constant, the way laws and myths exist independent of the people who make them. The lifting bound us, and you knew that the time and distance didn’t matter. When you got your yearly updates at the Nationals, or the American Open, it was as though the intervening months had been a brief, insignificant flash. Those national meets strung together our relationships and friendships, bridging distances (geographic, ideological, temporal) that might otherwise have been insuperable.

So we sat and talked, catching up with friends, leafing through fresh copies of Denis Reno’s Weightlifter’s Newsletter, and generally feeling, if only for that weekend, that we were with our people.

***

The next evening, after a low-key day of light training and watching some of the lighter competitors and not eating (and trying not to think about eating), I began the serious work of cutting weight. In the room I shared with Pete and Joe I ran a terrifically hot bath. “As hot as you can stand,” Nikos had always told me, when explaining the process. Within seconds of entering the tub I began to sweat profusely, and the steam wafting off the water made breathing difficult. The bathroom had a TV embedded in the mirror, and to my great fortune The Fifth Element was playing on it, so through the fog of steam I watched Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich run around with strange-looking aliens while I sat in what felt like boiling water for as long as I could endure.

After fifteen or twenty minutes in the tub I felt sufficiently cooked. Enough! Out of the tub for me. I emerged dripping and bright red, like a lobster crawling forth from its pot. If only that were the end of the ordeal; instead, I went straight from the tub to a heavy sweatshirt and sweatpants and then wrapped myself up under the covers, where the sweating continued. It was awful, terrible sweating, combined with a sense of doom, like my body was wondering what in the name of hell’s sake it had done to deserve this cruel punishment.

“Feel good, buddy?” Pete asked.

“Fantastic,” I said. “I should do this more often…”

I baked. Sweat streamed off of me in my body’s futile effort to keep cool. Eventually, I slept. At some point in the night I awoke and threw off the covers—it was too much. The TV was still on, casting its blue light across the room. Joe was snoring loudly, but next to me Pete was still up. He looked at me.

“You still alive?”

“Barely. Maybe you could just, push me into the pool…”

“Ha! No way. You’d sink like a stone.”

“Ugh.”

“And anyway, you look like you still got a kilo or so to go.”

“Christ. Why in god’s sake am I doing this.”

“For the glory.”

“Yes, exactly. The glory. All that glory. And the huge paycheck.”

Glory indeed. I turned over and saw my cellphone’s light blinking in the darkness, a little flashing green beacon of hope. A text message. Fumbling through my fatigue and dehydration I reached for it and flipped it open, afraid to hope and yet hoping all the same.

Good luck tomorrow.

From Libby. Almost the only thing that had passed between us in weeks. Just seeing her name on my screen brought back a rush of emotions that I was unprepared for. What had once been commonplace—texts and calls on a daily basis—was now reduced to this one brief message.

There was so much I wanted to express in response, beyond just gratitude. But I knew I couldn’t trust myself to form anything coherent in my current starved and overheated state; nor did I think it would truly matter. In the end I tapped out nothing more than a thank you and rolled back over, with visions of her—naked, clothed, lifting, on top of me—dancing before my eyes. As I drifted off to that non-space somewhere between wakefulness and sleep I half-dreamt and half-wished that I was already competing and that she was watching me from the crowd. In my dream I was strong and precise and I never missed, and I drew strength from her presence and from the knowledge that somehow things were right between us. But in my final lift I jerked awake and realized none of it was real, and that whatever happened the following morning, in the competition, it would not be as I’d dreamt it.

“You okay buddy?” Pete asked. “Almost punched me in the chest.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Just hallucinating from the sweating. I’m sure it’s a good thing.”

I pulled the sheets up as much as I could stand, and went back to sleep. In the morning I would compete, and then I’d watch Joe and Pete in the afternoon, and then on Sunday Ricky and Myron (if he showed) and Libby. But for now all I had to do was sleep, and sweat, and hope my body knew how to keep itself alive through the awful baking…

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 38

38.

I’d assumed—foolishly, it turned out—that with only myself to focus on I would feel better in the days and weeks before Nationals. But in my last heavy workouts before the competition I was barely able to make 130 and 160. Ten days out I had a heavy clean and jerk session, with the goal of at least 165. Following my 162.5 lift at the Staten Island meet just a few weeks prior this seemed a natural, conservative even, progression. Secretly I hoped that 165 would be so easy that I would do 167.5, or perhaps 170… Taner Sagir had snatched that weight and more; surely I could clean and jerk it…

Gravity, however, had other plans.

“The weight feels like it’s glued to the floor,” I said, gasping for air after struggling through an ugly 160 in that last heavy clean and jerk day.

“Don’t matter how it feels,” said Ricky. “Put sixty-five on the bar and come back like you want it.”

“Okay,” I nodded, full of hope and optimism.

Every so often, adding more weight to the barbell is all that’s needed to shock an athlete back to life. Perhaps the body and mind are put into some hyper-vigilant, fight-or-flight state that activates all the muscle fibers and all their neural connections. This was not the case that day. At the moment of separating the weight from the platform I felt as though I was fighting the entire will of the cosmos, as if my lifting of the barbell were an affront to the Universe itself and it was subsequently putting all its effort into stopping me from doing so. Despite this calamitous start I stuck with the lift, pulling with an effort that belied my waning faith in my abilities and then diving under the weight. Through some miraculous turn of events I made it under the bar—beating its descent by what felt like atomic-level closeness—and then stood up with the weight.

But there was no hope of my putting it overhead. I fizzled out in the dip for the jerk and did little more than throw the barbell forward on the platform.

Ricky, reading the struggle on my face, nodded. “Go on. PR clean, right?”

I nodded.

“Okay. The jerk’ll be there when it counts…”

A couple days later my last heavy snatch session was similarly uninspiring. I made 130, though more out of frustration than anything else. I took three attempts at that weight before I finally put it overhead, and even then it was an ugly lift. I jumped to 135, hoping—praying—that I might set a new PR with a weight that would put me in a good position to really reach for a medal, but it was beyond my abilities. I took two attempts, neither convincing, and then moved on.

“Today is not competition,” said Nikos after my second attempt at 135. “Competition is next week.”

Libby, as if in defiance of me, looked phenomenal by comparison. If our ruinous ending affected her in any way she was not exhibiting it in the gym. We exchanged almost no words during those last sessions, giving each other wide berths as we moved around the gym to grab plates, chalk up, stretch, etc. I felt like I’d returned to junior high, so intent was I on maintaining an appearance of normalcy in the midst of what was, in reality, extreme awkwardness. At each of her lifts I questioned my actions: Did I encourage her enough? Did I shout too loudly in encouragement? What would I normally say after a good lift? How would I stand? What do I do with my hands?

“It’s like an eighth-grade dance,” whispered Pete, smiling at me and my apparent discomfort.

At least for me it was. For Libby, nothing looked out of place. In her last heavy training session she moved with mechanical precision through her lifts. Every snatch was the same: smooth pull from the floor, a quick explosion and whip of ponytail, and a solid punch overhead. The progression was as steady and interminable as the passage of time itself: 35, 45, 55, 60, 65, 70, 80, 85, 90, 95…

And then 100.

I expected some fanfare. A change in aspect. A different setup. Something to mark the momentousness of the weight. But if there was anything I didn’t notice it. A beat longer may have passed before she took hold of the barbell but even that is uncertain. Before anyone could even appreciate the milestone about to occur she had secured the weight overhead and was standing up with it.

Even Ricky, who’d seen more than his share of amazing lifting, was stunned. So much so that he forget to joke about how that was the weight that made you a man (something he remembered much later, and regretted missing the opportunity).

So too was it with her clean and jerks: fast elbows around the bar and straight dips and the weight locked overhead as though it were the barbell’s natural habitat. From the empty bar to her last lift at 120 kilos—another PR—everything was sharp.

Ricky, who’d just missed a clean and jerk at 185 five times, shook his head in exhaustion and astonishment.

“You’re a machine!” he said.

Libby responded with little more than a trace of a smile, a thank you, and then a continuation of her training.

Only Myron, who’d been training with us semi-regularly in those weeks, looked similarly impressive. On the Saturday before Nationals, with as little fanfare as his sister had had, he did an easy 155 and 185.

“Jesus,” Ricky said. “How does he do it?”

“Maybe we oughta try trainin’ once a week,” said Pete.

When he did the 185 clean and jerk Myron looked good for more, so the bar was loaded to 190 kilos. But after pulling it just a few inches off the floor he let it drop and shook his head, smiling.

“Not today,” he said.

“What?!” Ricky shouted. I thought he was going to rush across the gym and explode in a ball of hair and muscles. “It was flying off the floor! The 185 looked like a toy!

But Myron shrugged. “Just don’t have it. I don’t know.”

And Ricky stood, mouth open, unbelieving or else refusing to believe. He would have given a great many things to make a 190 clean and jerk, and here it was for Myron’s taking and he didn’t want it. At least not that day.

Ricky laughed and shook his head. He turned to Nikos, searching for an explanation, but the older man just put up his hands and ambled away. How could a person not want that lift? I saw Ricky wondering. He laughed again and sat down on a chair by his platform, pondering things he would never, ever understand.

 

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