Of Iron and Bronze – 45

45.

The next morning I had breakfast on the pension’s rooftop terrace. Aziz brought up a plate with cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, olives, yogurt, and bread. I sat and ate, looking out at the sea and the curved arc of the rocky coast and the city atop it. With the sea air and the view and the strange sensation of being so far from home it all tasted extraordinary. Even the watery cup of Nescafe was good. The city and the country, so terrifying in the darkness the night before, while I was driving around trying to find my way back, was now charged with potential and mystery. I wanted to plunge back in and see it all from the ground up. I had madcap ideas of bailing on everything—the competition, work, New Jersey—and simply driving off into the landscape with the little Peugeot.

I was pulled from this fanciful daydreaming when a woman came to clear my plates away. She was the only person I’d so far seen working in the pension aside from Aziz. Curiously, she was not an olive-skinned, dark-haired Turk, but a rail thin blond woman, tanned and lightly freckled and wearing a wrist brace on her left arm. She looked perhaps middle aged, although it was hard to tell. When she spoke, asking simply if I was done eating, it was in clear, unaccented English.

But otherwise she said nothing, and gave no sign of being interested in me, despite the fact that we likely shared a home country. She stacked my plates and silverware, picked them up, and then walked back into the building, leaving in her wake nothing more than a profound sense of mystery.

Had she, too, been overcome with the desire to flee her home and see what Turkey could offer? Perhaps the country was filled with people who’d abandoned past lives. Maybe this sort of thing was far more common than I ever knew, in all parts of the world, and my inexperience as a traveler made me assume that everyone was as rooted to their origins as the people I’d grown up with.

Back into the Peugeot, out of the old city, and down the highway to the Expo Center. It was still morning and already the day was hot. I drove with the windows down and the AC on full blast, enjoying the twin breezes. I knew it was foolish yet I did it anyway.

At the training hall I spotted Ricky sitting at a platform by himself. His lifting shoes sat on the floor next to him, and both knees were covered in bags of ice. When he saw me approach he perked up, forcing a smile, and shook his head.

“Already icing the knees?” I said, taking a seat next to him.

He shook his head. “First set at 50 kilos. The moment I pulled it from the floor I felt like both knees were gonna explode.”

“Is that bad?”

He laughed, small and humorless. “Ain’t good,” he said. “Doc said I’m out.”

“Out?”

He nodded. “When I told him how long I been havin’ some pain he said I shoulda had them looked at months ago. Told me that’s it.” He sighed and adjusted the ice. “Good thing they don’t need me to step in. Otherwise they’d need an alternate for the alternate.”

For a few moments we sat quietly. It was clear we’d come to the end of the road for Ricky’s misguided comeback, at least for now and probably forever.

“You gonna train?” Ricky asked eventually.

As I considered my response I saw Libby walk in with a few of the other American athletes. I looked to her, smiled, waved… and watched as she smiled back, waved, and walked by.

“You guys talk at all?” Ricky asked, perhaps to cover the awkwardness of the interaction.

“A few minutes yesterday,” I said.

“She ready?”

I nodded. “Of course.”

“Yeah, I figured.”

We fell silent again. I still hadn’t taken anything out of my training bag, and I wondered where the motivation to do so had gone. As I was considering this question Ricky turned to me.

“You wanna check some shit out? Head out for a few hours?”

“What, like, sightseeing?”

“Yeah,” he said, mustering some enthusiasm. “This area was the center of Greek civilization for years! Don’t tell the Greeks that, though. You got a car, right? We get a map, go check some shit out, be back in time to watch the lifting tonight. I hear there’s a place up a mountain, some ruins or something. Whaddaya say?”

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do it.”

#

We drove back toward Antalya and then past the city heading northwest. It was late morning and the sun was high overhead and it felt good to be on the road.

“You know where we’re going?” I asked Ricky, who was staring at a map he’d pulled from the glovebox.

“I hope so,” he said, turning the map ninety degrees, then ninety degrees again.

A short while later signs directed us off the main road and we began an ascent into more mountainous territory. Eventually we were stopped by an attendant in a little wooden gate house who told us to park, so we ditched the car and continued on foot. It was terrifically green, with occasional bursts of grey stone poking through the growth. A dirt footpath marked by random signposts was our only indication that we were headed in the right direction.

As we crested one summit we saw signs of man’s presence: huge cut stones, lying in heaps, as though discarded by giants. Then another turn, and the ruins of Termessos opened out before us, with the mountains beyond and the vast sky above.

“Holy shit,” said Ricky. “This is unbelievable.”

And it was. An entire city, or its remains, atop this mountain. We walked through—the only living human figures in that landscape—amid the overgrown ruins. There were broken arches and fragments of walls and rows of ornately carved cornices and great columns sinking into the ground, as though the earth were taking them back into her fold. Scattered about were great piles of stones, square blocks and pieces of columns and other bits, all the same grey and many of them dotted with the brilliant fireworks of white and orange lichen.

We walked in near total silence, taking in the terrific scene. A large, semi-circular theater stood at one edge of the mountain, its ruined stage overlooking the panorama beyond and nestled in the semicircular stone seats.

“Here,” said Ricky, “we gotta try this thing I heard about. You go on that side, I’ll stay here.”

I went over to the seating directly across, at the far side of the stage, and looked back at Ricky.

“Can you hear me?” he said.

I laughed at the shock of it: he sounded as though he were right next to me, rather than across the entire span of the theater.

“Shit!” I said, louder than I needed to. Then, in normal volume: “How’s that work?”

“Acoustics,” said Ricky, as we carried on our strange conversation separated by the wide open space of the descending rows of seats down to the stage “These theaters were built for acoustics. Back then it was all your own voice; no mics or nothing. So you needed good acoustics. The Romans and Greeks knew how to do it. Pretty cool, right?” He smiled, the big Ricky grin I was so accustomed to. As audible as our voices had been, his smile was perhaps even stronger, more visible, across the distance.

#

After exploring for a while longer we sat in the theater and rested and enjoyed the slightly cooler air of the higher elevation. There was so much to take in that it was almost overwhelming: the abundance of green and the mountains and the ruins and the sky and clear day. The events of the competition seemed very far away, just then.

“Knees doing alright?”

“A little stiff,” said Ricky, “and sore, but not bad.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah. Plus this,” he said, indicating everything around us, “helps. Made me forget all about the pain. I mean, you ever see anything like this?”

“Not in New Jersey, no.”

“Yeah, not quite. You know, I been pretty lucky. Got a chance to see some pretty cool places for weightlifting. Little bit of Europe, the Americas. But this,” he said, once more indicating the landscape with a wave of his huge hand, “this, I gotta say, might take the cake. And we got the whole place to ourselves. Ain’t that great?”

I nodded. “It’s amazing, Puj.”

“No kidding.”

We both spent a few minutes looking in silence.

“You gonna train the next couple days?” he asked. It was familiar ground for us and an easy way to break the silence that had settled, though it seemed he’d wanted to say something else.

I shrugged. “Maybe.” A feeling of ambiguity crept in to an answer that used to be so assured. “I’ll at least go watch some training.”

He nodded but didn’t say anything, and we again fell into silence.

“What was your favorite place you traveled to?” I asked when I next spoke.

“My favorite?,” he said, looking up into the sky and squinting, either in thought or due to the brightness. “That’s tough. Lotta times we only saw the inside of a hotel or a competition hall, but sometimes I got lucky. Saw a lotta nice places… I guess I really liked Italy.”

“Italy?”

“Yeah. You ever been?”

“To Italy?”

“Yeah.”

“Puj, I’ve barely been out of the state, let alone out of the country.”

“Yeah? Well, you’re young. You got a lotta time. You oughta check out Italy sometime. It’s beautiful. And the food! My god. I never ate such good food in my life.”

“When were you there?”

“Back in the eighties. After I got married that’s where we took our honeymoon. Went to Florence, Rome, Venice. Saw the Colosseum. You ever seen—wait no, you just said you never been. You should check that out. To think they built that, all that stuff, all this here, without machines, hundreds of years ago. Or thousands of years ago. It’s just incredible.”

He rubbed at his beard with one hand and I could tell that he was seeing it again, or at least some version of it that he had stored up over the years, a memory palace built of words and snapshots and feelings. “We did a little day trip to Siena, one day, on a bus from Florence. Ever hear of Siena?”

“I think I’ve heard of it. I don’t know.”

“It’s beautiful. Place in Tuscany, up on a hill. The bus dropped us off right outside the city. Killed my knees heading up that hill. But it looks like somebody just froze this medieval city in time, in the middle of all this beautiful Tuscan countryside. I couldn’t believe it.”

“Better than this?”

He smiled and nodded from side to side. “I don’t know. Different. We had this guide with us, an Italian guy, who took us around and told us all about it. About the history and the art and stuff. How Siena used to be this big rival to Florence, way back when. And he takes us inside the cathedral, shows us around. And it’s beautiful. I mean, everything is covered, decorated. It’s got all this sculpture on the front of it, and then inside it’s all paintings and marble, and even the floor has these big designs and images in the ground, these, like, stone paintings on pavement. And it’s big, and we’re just blown away. To think it stood like that all those hundreds of years, all that space and all that work.

“But so after we check it out and he takes us around the cathedral we’re walking around outside to go over to the main square—which, by the way, you know they do horse races in the square?”

“In the middle of the city?”

“Right in the dead center! Every year. And they been doing it since like medieval times. Fucking nuts, right? Only in Italy.” He laughed and shook his head. “Anyway, so we were gonna head over to that square, and as we’re walking along the side of the cathedral the guide tells us how Siena had planned to make their cathedral even bigger. They wanted something to compete with Florence, since they were rivals and Florence was building its own huge cathedral. So Siena starts building to expand theirs, and it’s gonna be just massive. But all of a sudden: the fucking plague hits. The Black Death.”

“No shit.”

“Yeah. Talk about timing. And it just wipes out the city. I guess everywhere was hit, but for whatever reason—shitty luck or god or whatever—Siena gets hit real bad. And when it’s done, while all the other cities like Florence are recovering, Siena never quite bounces back. So the cathedral thing that they had started, and then stopped because of the plague, and everybody dying, never gets back off the ground. But then as he’s telling this story the guide points out a couple things and says, ‘That’s what’s left of it.’”

He pointed, then, as though the ruins of which he spoke were actually in front of us. And in his own words and his own way he told me of the remnants of the great unbuilt cathedral. A row of huge round arches extending from the cathedral and resting on piers of white and green stone, the green so deep as to be almost black in color, and the arches terminating in a wall that supported and enclosed nothing. On the ground a few spots marked out where more piers would have been built, atop which more arches would have risen, until eventually the entire space—now little more than a parking lot and thruway—would have been covered with articulated stone vaulting. Had it been finished the cathedral would have dwarfed the current one, which would have formed one arm of the planned structure. But such things were not to be, and all that remains are the marble and brick fragments, standing like the dried bones of men whose reach far exceeded their grasp.

When he finished his story he paused for a moment, still seeing it and into the past and his memory of it. “It’s wild. Just these big structures, like huge stone ghosts, and if nobody pointed ’em out to you, you might not even notice them. You get just a sense of what mighta been, and you almost can’t even imagine it because the thing is already so impressive. But to think it mighta been even more. It’s just wild. All over Italy, everywhere, you see all these ruins. And you’re always thinking how impressive the places must’ve been, when they were still whole. And what great heights all these cities reached. But then you see this in Siena, and it’s a ruin of a greatness that never was. A greatness that never got off the ground. And it was even more beautiful than those other ruins, in some way.”

He shook his head and I saw the image dissolve before his eyes, like a sand castle washed away by waves. “All because of shitty luck. Because the plague hit one place harder than another. Is that nuts? Ha!” He laughed, not without some subtle note of bitterness, though with humor, too. “But man, what a thing that woulda been.”

I nodded, not knowing what to say.

Indeed, Ricky.

What a thing that would have been.

 

[more to come]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 44

 

44.

Hotel Moscow was a slice of Soviet paradise and kitsch located about 35 minutes from my pension in the city center. It was one of several bloated hotels that squatted like beached cruise ships on a stretch of coastline that ran along Lara Beach. All of them were colossal monuments to the growing tourist trade (mostly Germans and Russians, from what I saw). In each of these temples to excess—many of them fashioned after real palaces, like Topkapi, the Doge’s palace in Venice, the Kremlin—you could enjoy the pleasures of the Mediterranean and the feel of an exotic locale without ever having to leave the hotel premises. All along the road leading up to the hotels were huge advertisements for pharmacies offering cheap prescription drugs: VIAGRA! CIALIS! The signs practically shout at you while you drive.

The Moscow—complete with onion-shaped Russian domes, a miniature Red Square, and a MiG-29 water fountain in the lobby—was teeming with activity. Most of it was of the weightlifting variety: coaches, athletes, trainers, and support staff, all strolling about, smoking, chatting. The few non-weightlifting tourists who were making their way through the hotel looked strangely out of place. No doubt they were wondering what all these sweaty, hairy, muscly men and women were doing in what should have been the spot for a calm, relaxing vacation away from the rigors of daily life as a millionaire. It must have been like arriving at a zoo and discovering you’re somehow on the wrong side of the bars, rubbing elbows with a bunch of animals in warmup suits.

But for those of us in the know, the lobby of a weightlifting hotel before an international meet can be a very, very fine thing indeed.

“Holy shit,” I said, quite literally in awe of the scene before me.

Even Ricky looked a bit starstruck, although I knew he’d been to this sort of thing before. “Pretty cool, no?”

I didn’t even bother to respond. How could I? There were simply too many luminaries, too many great lifters and coaches from all eras to take in and point to and simply gawk at than could be mentioned in a single breath. And they were all there, as though it were the most natural thing in the world—which, given the fact that the Worlds were happening in Antalya, it was.

“Perepechenov,” I said, a bit dazed. “Li Hongli. Rigert…”

Here were the legends I had watched and studied and admired for years. The Chinese team, all in identical red and yellow track suits, walked by in a line. The Russians were standing by the bar. A few Armenians were casually strolling around, admiring the MiG fountain. The Iranian Rezazedeh, the greatest super heavyweight of recent memory, made a revolution around the lobby as though locked into some Copernican system made of men and women in gym attire.

“This is fucking nuts,” I said, when the power of speech finally returned to me.

The registration area, in a room just off the main lobby, was yet more chaos. It was filled with all manner of staff from the International Weightlifting Federation as well as arriving delegations of various nationalities, making the place seem like a miniature UN. To my New Jersey ears it sounded as though every known language was being shouted in the room, like hearing a chorus of believers chanting in tongues all at once. Workers were busy at laptops and impromptu computer stations trying to get ID cards and registrations ready, while the various delegates handled large wads of cash and tried to shout their way through the bureaucracy.

If there was any order to this chaos it escaped me entirely. How can it be anything other than madness when scores of countries show up and attempt to do anything according to one set of rules and standards? And some of these places, to my ignorant American sense of the world, narrowed to a fine point centered on northern New Jersey, seemed more the stuff of history or legend than reality.

“Mongolia’s a country?” I asked, watching one of their representatives argue with an official working a laptop. The Mongolian was waving a handful of bills around and the computer worker was trying desperately to convey the information that was on her screen.

Ricky shrugged. “At the very least they’re a weightlifting team.”

Eventually, through much pushing and inching forward, we found our way to a receptive woman at a computer. She assured us she could get Ricky registered, and then spent a suspiciously long amount of time shuffling papers, looking at her screen, and talking to her colleagues in Turkish. After a long wait Ricky was given his credentials. When I tried my luck at getting a credential as Ricky’s coach I think she was so desperate to get us off her hands she gave me a pass—no questions asked—just to ensure we’d leave.

After lunch at the hotel’s buffet we drove over to the competition venue, located at the Antalya Expo Center. It was a huge, severe looking building, almost fascist in style and execution: all right angles and red paint and heavy pillars. An enormous poster with a portrait of Ataturk—the Father of Modern Turkey—hung between two huge metal columns before the entranceway, along with a poster for the World Weightlifting Championships. After a cursory wave of a metal detector at the doors, we were in…

The training area was an even greater shock than the lobby of the Hotel Moscow. Beyond its enormous size—a vast interior space that seemed to recede into nothing—were its contents: dozens and dozens of platforms, each with barbells and plates and squat racks, everything brand new. It was stunning. A true weightlifter’s paradise. There were brightly colored kilo plates stacked about like poker chips, dotting the room in such numbers as to appear like they were multiplying of their own accord.

And barbells. So many beautiful, precision machined barbells. I had only to look at them to envision their heft, their springiness, their gloriously smooth spin in my hands. And there were scores of them.

“Quick,” said Ricky, as we began walking to the platforms, “put a couple plates in your bag. We could use these back home.”

Scattered about all this beautiful equipment was a site even more alluring: lifters. Lifters of all different sizes and nationalities and superior abilities. The Chinese women were training as a group over in one corner; the Korean men and women in another corner; the French along one side of the room; a few Romanians on two platforms nearby; Egyptians; a pair of Armenians; and on, and on.

To my naive eyes these athletes redefined speed and precision and consistency and power and strength. Even the way they used the empty barbell was new to me. There was a symbiosis between athlete and object that allowed almost any action, however trivial, to transcend its banality and become a thing of beauty. All their movements, from warmup to stretching, had the practiced ease of a consummate professional.

And they were all so fast! I stopped and watched a few reps by an Albanian 77-kilo lifter. Every snatch was a quick burst of energy and the barbell was overhead.

“Jesus! You ever seen anyone so fast?” Ricky asked.

“No,” I said, and I knew it was the absolute truth. Even Myron, the fastest lifter I’d ever watched in person, couldn’t compare to this sort of speed. I was certain that, in comparison, I probably looked like I was lifting in syrup.

We set up camp by a platform being used by a couple of Armenians. I watched them arrive, warm up, and then go through a quick succession of snatches and clean and jerks and pulls. That was it. It took less than an hour, which is almost as long as it took Ricky to put his shoes on and warm up.

“They don’t mess around, do they?” he said, as we watched them get ready to leave following their workout.

“No,” I agreed. “They don’t.”

The flights had taken their tolls. Ricky made his way through a few lifts with the barbell and 50 kilos. Otherwise he just stretched and went through his usual calisthenics to loosen up joints that were stiff from so many hours spent sitting on the plane.

“That’s it for today. I’m too old for this,” he said. “I need my recovery. I’m gonna go see if I can find some ice.”

He hobbled off, shouting about ice to anyone who was dressed in vaguely medical-looking attire. I looked at Nikos, who only smiled and shook his head.

“You think he’s nuts, right?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s crazy. But,” he added, smiling and touching a finger to one temple, “everyone in this sport a little crazy.”

We agreed on this point, and then Nikos wandered off to say hi to a group of Romanians training a few platforms over.

I put my shoes on and began to warm up. I felt slightly ridiculous training in the midst of all those world class athletes. Yet there was an excitement about it, as well. However distant I may have been from the men and women on the international stage, breaking records and winning championships, we were still part of the same general family. I took the barbell, then 50 kilos, then seventy. I began to feel a little looser, a little better with each lift. The body was remembering the motions, warming up to the idea of snatching. How nice it must be, I thought, for these movements to be as natural and automatic as walking and breathing.

When I was ready for 90 I took off the greens and put a pair of beautiful, brand new blue plates on top of the yellows already on the bar. Across the training hall a 77-kilo Chinese lifter, an athlete who looked carved from granite, was about to take the same weight, loaded the same way on his bar. We are taking the same weight! I wanted to scream. You see? Perhaps we are not so different after all…

He then proceeded to muscle snatch it overhead with such fluidity that whatever link I had imagined between us was severed completely. There was a gulf between us that was defined by more than just weight. As much as I did not want to admit this—to myself, to anyone who believed in me—I was beginning to realize that I would never be counted among the ranks of great lifters. Not in my country, and certainly not internationally. Whether the door had shut in the years I’d wasted on partying and bad training or whether it had never been open at all made no difference then. The ultimate outcome was the same.

It’s a strange thing, to see a dream shrivel up like that. It’s strange to find yourself half a world away from home, abroad for the first time, without any mooring and without the goals that once defined you and gave your life shape and meaning. Who was I, if not a lifter aspiring to be a great athlete? And what exactly was I doing in this country? All at once I felt foreign in more ways than one. Perhaps the jetlag was getting to me, or the heat, but for a moment these thoughts and realizations seemed almost too much to bear. It’d been foolish to come to Turkey; it’d been foolish to ever think I might someday be welcomed into this crowd as one of them. The whole endeavor, everything from the moment I touched a barbell on, had been a mistake, and my disaster with Libby was only the most recent confirmation of that.

A voice pulled me back, out of my own head. It was familiar, a little slice of home, and was therefore unexpected.

“He’s not bad, eh?” said the voice, presumably referring to the Chinese 77.

I looked up. Libby stood in a Team USA warmup suit, her training bag slung over one shoulder, staring at the lifter.

Too surprised to speak, I simply gaped at her in silence. I’d crossed an ocean in part to see her and now that she was right in front of me, I felt I had nothing to say.

“Where’s Ricky?” she asked, looking back at me.

“He went to get some ice,” I said.

She nodded.

“How’re you doing?” I asked.

“Good,” she said. “You?”

“Tired,” I said. “Not bad though.”

“That’s good.”

I scrambled for things to say that might keep her there a little longer. Maybe we’d even share a platform…

“You excited to compete?” I said.

Again she nodded, although she took a deep breath and let it out slowly as she did so. “Excited and nervous. This feels very different from anything else.”

I laughed. “This is Worlds. This is different from everything else.”

“Yeah, but…” She paused. “Not really, right? It’s still just six lifts. Still just me and the bar.”

I considered her response and the level-headedness of it. This, I thought, is why she will be great.

“I guess you’re right,” I said.

“Well, I need to go train. I told the coaches I was on my way now. Get some light work in.”

“Right,” I said. “You lift tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah. Tomorrow night. You going to watch?”

“No, I figured I’d stay in. Hell yes! Of course I’m going to watch. I can’t wait.”

“Okay. Good,” she said, smiling.

“Maybe we can celebrate afterward. Grab food or something.”

She looked over at a group of platforms where some of the other Americans were arriving and warming up. “Maybe. Let’s get through the competition first.”

“Right,” I nodded.

“See you later.”

I waved and she was gone. After she’d left I looked at my barbell. It was still loaded with the 90 kilos, which I’d never taken. By then my joints felt cold and my will was gone. In the end I pulled off the plates and sat back down and began unlacing my shoes.

 

That night was the A session for the men’s 69-kilo class. Ricky and Nikos and I sat in the packed auditorium and watched the awesome spectacle on display. The competition area featured a massive raised stage and was festooned in posters, balloon rays, and lights. A giant camera rig swooped in and out to provide coverage for European TV networks. A Turk was lifting in the session, and every time he came to the platform the crowd erupted in cheers of support. The top three athletes at the end of the snatch portion—a Romanian, Chinese, and a Turkish lifter—had all done over 150 kilos. The Chinese lifter and the Turk each took a crack at the World Record, an astonishing 166 kilos. Each was unsuccessful, but not by much.

Ricky was astonished. “You believe that? A 166 snatch attempt by a guy who weighs 152 pounds. That’s fucking incredible! Although I don’t know how I feel about this one kilo rule shit,” he said. “What was wrong with going up two and a half per attempt? I mean, what the hell is one kilo? I sneeze on the bar and it could be a kilo!”

In the clean and jerk portion there was no competition. The Chinese lifter waited for everyone else to finish, and then opened with an easy 183 kilos, securing the gold medal. With that out of the way, he then jumped to an extraordinary 198 kilos for a new world record.

“Dollar bet,” I whispered to Ricky. “Make or miss.”

“What?” he whispered back. “That’s fucked up,” he said, stifling a laugh. “I say make. The guy’s unstoppable.”

And he was right. The weight went up and overhead beautifully.

“That’s four hundred and thirty-five pounds,” said Ricky. “And he just did it like it was nothing.”

Nikos nodded. “Very strong.”

Very strong indeed. We all knew of these weights in some theoretical sense, as we watched them on borrowed VHS tapes and DVDs or the few clips people had uploaded to their personal websites. But it was a very different thing to see them in person, to feel the shock and shudder of the platform and stage as each fantastically heavy attempt was brought crashing down, whether in success or failure.

“C’mon,” Ricky said when it’d ended. “I’m beat. I gotta get some sleep. I feel like I been awake for days.”

I dropped him and Nikos off at the Moscow and then went back to my own hotel, the little pension overlooking the Mediterranean. At least, that’s what I had hoped to do. Instead I got terrifically lost, since the traffic flow into the city center wouldn’t permit me to return via the exact route I came from earlier in the day. The little square of paper with a few scribbles that had served as my map was no help at all, and when I showed it to a few nearby drivers in the hopes of recognition they only stared blankly. There were more than a few moments of real terror, driving as I was in a strange city in a foreign country where I knew nothing of the language. I had visions of being perpetually lost, just driving until the car ran out of gas and then disappearing into the surrounding country, or being swallowed up by the Antalya underworld. Was there an Antalya underworld? I didn’t know, and I was in no great hurry to find out. The darkness didn’t help, as every terror is magnified in the night. It’d been years since I’d been so lost, accustomed as I was to driving no further than a few exits down the parkway, and I’d nearly forgotten just how unsettling it could be. I drove hunched close to the steering wheel, rowing through the Peugeot’s gears, alternately going too fast or too slow, hoping at each intersection for some spark of recognition—a building or a street or a sign or anything that might signal I was nearing my destination.

Eventually, through some combination of dumb luck and repeated shouts of “Özmen Pension!” to anyone who would listen, I made it back. Aziz was lying on a couch in the lobby, watching the news. I waved goodnight to him and went up to my room, where I lay in bed, exhausted.

Perhaps the drive had inspired these thoughts, but the full reality of my situation was only just beginning to settle in. I had never been so far from home before; shit, I had barely left Jersey prior to those days. Lying there in bed, with the Mediterranean just beyond my room, it seemed surreal. The stress of my drive back was subsiding, as fatigue and wonder took its place.

But I was too tired for any reflection. I slept, deep and dreamlessly.

 

[next chapter]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 43

43.

My first moments on foreign soil were a curious admixture of terror and fascination, as I viewed the strange new world that was speeding by the cab’s window and tried not to focus on the terrifying ordeal of the drive itself. Our driver was an amiable young Turk who, only moments into the ride from the airport to downtown Antalya, had told us his passion for weekend racing.

“No worry, my friends! I’m very good driver,” he screamed over the whine of the engine and the wind. “I do rally on weekends!”

And to emphasize his point he jerked the wheel around a bit and made a few manic lane changes, narrowly avoiding a variety of obstacles: other cars, mopeds, a tractor, certain death.

“Jesus!” said Ricky, seated next to me in the back. “We’re never gonna make it…” He was already sweating in the early morning Turkish heat, and I saw him shut his eyes, likely praying to whatever weightlifting gods he believed in: Dear Hercules, deliver us now from this cab ride, so that we may live to lift again…

“In Germany I drive on autobahn,” the cab driver continued, telling us about his upbringing in Berlin. He was grinning madly, staring at us in the back seat for far longer intervals than I was comfortable with. “I drive very fast. Cops point me: Stop! My taxi license was take away three months!” The grin continued and broadened into a laugh. “Very fun.”

Oh boy. Perhaps I ought to do my own praying. Again I looked out the window, trying hard to take in what I was seeing and impart some sense to it. Beyond the highway that was bringing us into the traffic of the downtown was an expanse of dry land and clear sky. The businesses and signs along the road were fascinating in their unfamiliar banality; until those moments I had assumed that a traffic sign or a gas station or even a delivery truck existed in only the formats I had grown accustomed to in America, as though such things were set in stone by natural laws. Yet here they were in new permutations: ordinary objects existing in ways that, to me, were extraordinary. So that’s what a Turkish semi truck looks like, I marveled. Who knew?

Even the journey had been surreal. I stepped into a big metal tube on one side of the Atlantic, in a place I’d called home for my entire life, and a little over a dozen hours later I stepped out of another metal tube and into an entirely different world. Perhaps our minds aren’t built for that kind of speed. In time it was something I’d grow accustomed to, but in that era switching whole cultures with such apparent ease was entirely novel.

Ricky, sensing my wonder, tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out his own window. “Pretty cool, huh?” he said, smiling.

I nodded, dazed and jet-lagged and overwhelmed. “I still can’t believe I’m here.”

I’m not sure Ricky believed it either. Since the phone call telling him of his spot on the World Team he had jumped back into training, against all reason and against the protests of his own body and against the advice of several around him. All this despite his status as an alternate, and thus unlikely to lift, and despite having to pay most of his way.

“What the hell’s he going to prove?” Russ had asked when he and I were discussing the matter. “He won a medal at Nationals at a hundred years old. He should be happy with that. Now he’s going to spend all that money and beat himself up in case someone much younger gets hurt? In the off chance he gets on the platform?” he asked. “I just don’t see the logic.”

I’m not sure any of us saw it, and I wonder now if even Ricky discerned some logic or order to his actions. Sometimes we continue to do things not because they’re reasonable or right, but just because it’s what we’ve always done, and will continue to do. The force of habit is as strong as any other motivation, even if it’s a far less romantic one.

My own motivations for going were divided. In part I genuinely wanted to support Ricky and watch world-class weightlifting.

“Sure ya do,” Pete had said in response to this, when I told him I was thinking of going to Turkey for the competition. He smiled at me and winked.

“I’m serious!”

Pete’s gaze stayed with me.

“Also, you know, Libby’s on the team,” I admitted to him.

“That’s the spirit!”

Was I following her to Worlds hoping to rekindle something dead and buried? Quite possibly, yes. I knew it was foolish but I did it anyway, with the insane reasoning of someone who thinks the remedy for a bad decision is another bad decision.

The only issue was getting to Turkey. I had already dipped into my meagre savings to cover rent and living expenses in the final months leading up to Nationals, when I’d cut back on working. A trip across the Atlantic would require nearly all the money I had left. Yet I was committed to going without considering any of these logistical concerns; making some sort of sacrifice seemed ordained, in a way. Without thinking, I went to the bank not long after Ricky and Libby learned of their spots on the team and transferred most of my remaining savings into my checking account, leaving just enough to prevent the former from being closed. I felt I’d already given almost everything to the sport, and there seemed so little of value outside it that I was only too happy to give the rest.

Unaccustomed as I was to international travel, I also waited until the last minute to get my passport—thus spending even more money to expedite the document. With that in hand, and my flight purchased, I felt as though I was taking on a task whose enormity I but dimly comprehended. As the trip neared I began to appreciate what I’d agreed to.

Naturally, I was terrified. I tried convincing others from the gym to come, but my efforts in this were unsuccessful. Only Nikos was going, both in his capacity as a personal coach and as a jumping off point to visit family in Eastern Europe.

“Good luck, buddy,” had been Pete’s sendoff when he drove me to the airport. “Keep an eye on Puj and tell me all about it.”

A day later and I was in Turkey.

Ricky nearly leapt from the taxi when we pulled up to my little hotel, which was located down a series of narrow stone roads built for foot or animal traffic but certainly not automobiles. I was booked at Özmen Pension, a place right in the heart of Antalya’s old city, itself nestled within the much larger modern city. I planned to check in, get a rental car, and then drive over to the competition hotel, where the athletes, coaches, and organizers were staying.

Just beyond the pension, a quick walk, was the Mediterranean, vast and ethereally blue, cradled by the rocky coastline of Antalya. Even Ricky couldn’t help but be impressed, as he stumbled out of the cab and into the warm September sun.

“Christ,” he said. “Lookit that.” He laughed, apparently already forgetting the near-death ride. “Ain’t exactly the Jersey Shore, is it?”

I paid the driver and looked. No, not quite the Jersey Shore. Far too clear, that water, for one thing. And those colors. I’d never seen blues like that before, neither of the sky nor the water. I’d never known such colors to exist in the real world. Was this what the sky looked like without an ever-present haze of pollution?

The manager of the pension, a friendly young guy named Aziz, was able to book the car rental right from his office. “Is no problem,” he said. “I get you very good car. American car?”

“American?” I said. “Aren’t there any Turkish cars? Something a little more local?”

He hesitated. “You no want Turkish car.”

“Okay. Whatever you can get. Thank you.”

While we waited for the car we sat and enjoyed a cup of tea and Aziz chatted with us to pass the time.

“You are American? Where you are from?”

“New Jersey,” beamed Ricky, as though the name carried a weight equal to that of a major city.

Aziz looked as us, a little confused.

“It’s by New York,” I said.

“Ah, okay! New York, yes. Very nice.”

“You been to New York?” Ricky asked.

“No, never. I like to go.”

“Ever been to America?”

Aziz shook his head. “No. Maybe someday. Maybe California. See Arnold Schwarzenegger!” He thought for a moment, then said, “Governor, no?”

Ricky laughed. “That’s right! He’s the governator.”

“You like him?”

“Of course. He’s the best. Who don’t like Arnold?”

“And Bush? George Bush?” asked Aziz, slightly hesitant.

Ricky waved a dismissive hand. “He stinks. I didn’t vote for him.”

This seemed to please Aziz, for he smiled at us. “Yes. He’s maybe not so good. What you are here for? Holiday?”

“Weightlifting,” said Ricky. “The World Championships.”

“Weightlifting?”

Ricky set the small glass tea cup and saucer on his knees and mimed the actions of a snatch and clean and jerk as best he could. “You know, like Naim Suleymanoglu? You know him? Halil Mutlu?”

“Yes, of course. Everybody know them. You are here for weightlifting?”

“That’s right.”

“Very good,” said Aziz. He turned to me: “You are sportsman? He is coach?” And he motioned to Ricky.

I laughed, even as I felt the sting of wishing it were me lifting at the Worlds, rather than Ricky. “No, I’m not competing. I’m just here to watch. He’s competing.”

“Him?” Aziz said. “Wow. He is old man, still compete…”

“Hey!” said Ricky. “What’s the supposed to mean? Too old?”

“No, no,” said Aziz, waving his hands and trying to avoid offense. He thought for a moment. “Maybe little old. But very big. Very much muscle. Good luck!”

Ricky grinned and gave a thumbs up in thanks and took a sip of tea.

When the car arrived I wondered if a vehicle of Turkish provenance would have been preferable. It was a tiny Peugeot, the size and engine of which made me question whether it could handle someone built to Ricky’s scale.

“What the hell is this?” he asked. “It’s tiny.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “It’ll get us where we need to go. That’s all that matters. Very good. Thank you, Aziz!”

“Yes, you are very welcome!”

“Now, can you tell us how to get to the Hotel Moscow? Outside the old city?”

“Yes, yes, of course.” He thought for a moment. “I draw a map. Here, I show you.”

He drew a map on a small square of white paper. When he finished it looked to us like nothing more than a few squiggles, seemingly set down at random. Ricky and I studied it in the car as though trying to decipher some ancient script.

“Did you understand any of that?” Ricky asked, turning the little square of paper in case some other viewing angle would reveal the map’s secrets. All I recognized for certain were arrows, indicating points where—in Aziz’s own words—“always you are going straight.”

I waved at Aziz from the car and smiled and gave him a thumbs up. He was so friendly, so willing to help, that I couldn’t dare to convey anything other than pure gratitude. “We’ll figure it out,” I said, putting the car into gear and easing off the clutch and praying that the engine wouldn’t stall out under Ricky’s weight.

But to my amazement the directions worked. It was a little confusing, and at one point we asked the driver of a nearby car if we were going the right way, but it all turned out to be more or less exactly as Aziz had said. And afterward, in looking at the map with its unknowable scribbles, I swore I saw the pattern, and that it was, in fact, the route we had taken. Somehow.

“I never woulda believed it,” said Ricky, as we pulled up to Hotel Moscow, one of the competition’s official hotels. “That Aziz guy’s okay, even if he did say I was old.”

 

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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…

 

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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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