Of Iron and Bronze – 5

 

bayonne-hs-ed-copy

5.

A couple of months into my struggles doing the Olympic lifts at the YMCA Frankie came up to me during a workout.

“You switchin’ sides?” he said, smiling and patting me good-naturedly on the back with one huge hand.

“What?”

“I’m just fuckin’ with you,” he laughed. “The other day I ran into a buddy a mine who does this. Was an Olympian and everything.”

I didn’t quite believe this last bit—did Olympians exist in the real world? the world that I inhabited? New Jersey?—but I went along with it. In my view there was no point in arguing with a man who was twice my size and could easily hurl me across the room.

“Said he trains and coaches out in Bayonne these days,” he continued.

“Bayonne?” I asked. He might as well have said the Moon, so far outside my suburban bubble did that seem. Even if Bayonne was less than 30 miles away…

He shrugged, causing his enormous shoulders and traps to swallow even more of his neck. “Pretty sure. You want I can ask him for details. Might be somethin’ to look into if you wanna get serious about this.”

“Okay,” I said, “let me know.”

A week later Frankie handed me a folded piece of paper torn from his training notebook.

“That’s what he told me,” he said.

I opened the paper. In Frankie’s strange cursive—it was hard to imagine the big man holding a pencil—was written the name “Ricky Pugilio,” along with a phone number and the address for Bayonne High School. Below that it just said “basement.”

“I can go anytime?” I asked.

“He said he’s there just about every night, from six to eight or so. But most guys train Monday, Wednesday, Friday during the week. Said come whenever you like.”

I nodded and folded up the paper. “Thanks.”

Another week went by before I worked up the courage to actually drive out to Bayonne. I’d only had my license for little more than a month, and most of my driving was limited to going from my house to the YMCA. I didn’t have my own car, so I had to convince my dad to let me take his Ford Explorer for the journey.

“Bayonne?” he’d said. “What the heck is in Bayonne?”

Eventually he agreed, and then spent a good forty minutes writing and drawing out detailed instructions and small maps for the journey. For my father, giving directions was an art form: part navigational advice, part cartography, and part oral history, as he retold anecdotes from places along the route. He could also never just give one route, although he certainly had one in mind—always there was a discussion of the various routes, the myriad options, the pros and cons of each, before finally settling on the chosen path.

“So you could take 280 to the Parkway, then 78 East, wrap around Newark—I ever tell you about Andros Diner in Newark? Great food… we oughta go sometime. I used to go when I was working out that way, back when me and your mom had just started dating. Excellent pancakes…”

“Dad…”

“Right, Bayonne—anyway, so 280 to Parkway to 78, which would bring you basically right into where you wanna be… but no, you don’t wanna deal with the Parkway at this hour. No, let’s think. Okay, forget that. Here’s what you wanna do…”

And on and on, before finally relinquishing the keys.

It was already twilight when I set out, and by the time I was mid-drive the sun had set, thanks to my father’s over-lengthy explanations and the fact that it was late October. In the darkness, heading down the highway in a herd of headlights going in and out of the city, I felt as though I was pushing at the boundaries of the known world. Cars with drivers far more surefooted than I sped past in the darkness. I spent most of the drive balanced on a razor’s edge between terror and excitement—here was my chance at a real Olympic weightlifting gym, assuming I could get there without getting lost…

When I finally arrived at Bayonne High School it was fully dark. The building looked strangely foreboding: pseudo Gothic spires and crenelations on the facade implied some strange amalgam of cathedral architecture that was totally at odds with the bland midcentury design of my own high school. From the outside there was no sign of life within—nearly all the windows were dark, and what lights were on only underscored the emptiness beyond the windows.

The paper from Frankie just said “basement,” and beyond that I had no clue where I was going now that I’d arrived. Basement? As if this were simply somebody’s house and all I had to do was say “hi” to their mom and head downstairs…

The main door was locked so I walked around the building until I found an open door on the side. Once inside and searching through empty hallways my sneakers’ squeaking against the linoleum floor seemed an affront to the pervasive stillness of the school. I took a stairwell down a flight—basement was still all the direction I had—and continued my wandering through eerily silent hallways. As the seconds passed I felt the first stirrings of panic—what if I never found it? What if I just wandered through here aimlessly for hours? What if somehow I was at the wrong high school in Bayonne? The terror of impending failure felt very real…

In one hallway I saw an old janitor leaning into a mop handle as he pushed a yellow bucket down the hall, looking like some comic parody of a medieval pilgrim. He regarded me without interest and nearly drifted past before I stopped him.

“Do you know where, um, weightlifting is? Olympic weightlifting?” I asked.

He looked at me but didn’t change his expression. I guessed his age to be somewhere north of a hundred and wondered if perhaps he was deaf or didn’t speak English.

“Weightlifting?” I asked again, miming the movement of a clean with my hands in an effort to overcome any potential linguistic barriers. I tried to remember anything I’d learned in Spanish that might be useful but all I came up with was “Donde esta la biblioteca?,” which didn’t seem at all relevant here…

“Weightlifting?” I repeated, not wanting to lose hope.

Slowly, he took one gnarled hand from the mop handle and raised it. With a bony finger he pointed down the corridor and then to the left.

“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”

He nodded once and then went on to pushing his bucket down the hallway, the shaky wheels echoing throughout the still air. Maybe this sort of thing happened all the time… Maybe lifters come from all over the world to train here, and he’s simply tired of directing them to the training center…

As I moved down the hallway I began to hear sounds punctuating the stillness: familiar sounds like metal plates and bars, and less familiar ones, dull rubbery thuds. I picked up my pace, excited now at the prospect of having arrived. I turned left and saw a pool of light spilling out across the otherwise dark hallway. The sounds grew louder. Yes, I thought. Finally…

I’m not sure what I expected when I walked into the gym in that basement. Having no concept of what an Olympic weightlifting gym looked like, I had no means of imagining one. I think perhaps I thought of some combination of what I’d seen over the weeks of watching weightlifting and gymnastics coverage of the Games on NBC: colorful plates, precisely arranged platform and chalk box, the careful order of a gymnastics setup made for TV.

This was none of those things. This was a room that made my gym at the YMCA look like a space station by comparison: cinderblock walls painted an institutional off white that was turning to yellow; an assortment of wooden platforms of varying heights and in varying stages of repair and disrepair; stacks of wood blocks, some covered in rubber sheets, some bare; metal and rubber plates and coated metal plates that—if they’d ever been colorful—were now faded or chipped almost beyond recognition; squat stands that looked to have been made in the high school’s welding shop (assuming it had one); and all of this bathed in the surreal glow of overhead florescent lights. Despite the dry chill outside the gym itself was warm with sweat and the air thick with dust.

If the space was strange the assortment of characters scattered about it seemed just as unlikely. I’d never met any weightlifters before. As far as I knew they all looked like Naim Suleymanoglu or Pyrros Dimas or the others I’d seen on TV. This was a far more diverse lot. There was a tall, skinny blond kid about my age who looked to be trying—and failing—to grow a mustache. He was sharing a platform with another guy about my age, shorter than me and stockier. There was an old man wearing an American flag bandana and a tank top the sickly yellow color of the walls, along with sweatpants that were many, many sizes too small. An olive-skinned guy who looked a little older than me was perhaps the closest to what I imagined as a weightlifter: average height, athletic but not flashily muscled, vaguely Middle Eastern or Eastern European.

In the far corner of the room the man I’d come to know as Ricky threw a barbell filled with plates overhead, stood with the weight, and then dropped it. The heavily loaded bar crashed to the platform and raised a cloud of dust and chalk to accompany the great clamor of metal and rubber. It was through this whirlwind of particles and amid the cacophony of the dropped barbell—the first I’d ever seen in person, forbidden as it was at my gym—that I got my initial impression of him: broad shouldered, big and powerful even if clearly past his prime, with a shaggy mane of hair and a beard that threatened to take over his face. He looked like something wild and feral that’d only found his way into the world by accident, and was now stuck here doing civilized things like wearing pants and eating with utensils.

“You lost or you come to lift some weights?” asked the short, stocky kid.

“Uh, to lift,” I said. “Frankie told me to come see Ricky Pugilio.”

Ricky raised one huge mitt of a hand in greeting. “That’s me. He said someone might be stoppin’ by. You Jonathan?”

I nodded in response.

Ricky smiled. “Frankie said you just been doin’ this over at the Y where you train. You got a coach or anything?”

I shook my head. “I just started a couple months ago.”

“Okay. That’s cool. Welcome then. You got shoes?”

I looked down at the Nike sneakers I was wearing.

He smiled again. “There’re a couple extra pairs of lifting shoes on the wall behind you,” said Ricky, pointing. “Try ’em on and see if any of ’em fit. Once you get yourself situated hop on a platform and let’s see what you can do.”

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Of Iron and Bronze – 4

(Suleymanoglu and Abadjiev; photo by Bruce Klemens)

(Suleymanoglu and Abadjiev; photo by Bruce Klemens)

4.

In the summer of ’96, not long before I turned 17, my high school friends and I planned what was to be The Greatest Shore Party Of All Time. Through a series of deals and moves that rivaled the planning of a major bank heist, ten or so of us aged 15 to 18 had managed to procure a week-long house rental in Ortley Beach (just north of Seaside Heights, our Mecca) and enough beer and liquor to guarantee much of that week would be forgotten, or at least very hazily remembered. The Greatest Shore Party Of All Time—which my friend Mikey began referring to as “The G-SPOT,” much to our adolescent delight—was to take place at the end of July, after we’d all had time to become flush with cash thanks to our summer jobs. I looked forward to this event—which was to be my first real experience with partying down at the Jersey Shore—with the anticipation of doomsday prophet eagerly awaiting The Rapture.

Then, a few short days prior to the inaugural night of the festivities, two kids from my high school ended up going the wrong way down the Garden State Parkway in a Camaro IROC-Z and getting into a terrible wreck—after their own revelries down the shore. One kid died, and one ended up in a coma that—at the time—no one was sure he’d wake up from. The news shook just about everyone in my little suburban community. In my parents’ case, it shook them so much that they flat out forbade me from taking part in the upcoming bacchanal (which they had assumed was not so much a bacchanal as a beach trip). Despite all my protests and lies—that we weren’t partying like those kids, that we were safe, that there would be adults present—they were firm.

My fate was sealed.

In my anger and frustration, as my friends piled into their cars and began to head down the shore, I sought refuge in the only place I thought I had left: the gym.

I’d been lifting weights—first in my home with a pair of 5-pound dumbbells, then at the Madison YMCA—since I was twelve years old. Ever since leafing through an uncle’s copies of FLEX and Muscle & Fitness I’d wanted to transform myself into the figures in those pages. I probably spent more time looking at nearly-naked photos of men like Lee Haney and Dorian Yates than I did looking at the women in Playboys stolen from friends’ dads. In the pages of those muscle magazines were all the instructions I thought I needed: Lee Priest’s Arm Routine! Six-Pack Abs! Increase your Bench in Four Weeks!

That last one was particularly relevant: I used to love to bench. The feeling of power, the controlled rhythm of descent and ascent, the iron jingle of the plates jostling against each other—every aspect of the bench press’s physical experience appealed to me. So too did the numbers: the way weights increased in neat 5- or 10-pound increments, the way I knew precise combinations of bigger plates (45s and 35s and 25s), the way I marked out personal milestones by the number of 45-pound plates I had per side of the barbell (one for 135, two for 225, three for 315, and four for the never-attained 405; how I dreamed of that…).

That summer, on one of those days when I should have been down the shore, was my last real bench workout, before I made the switch to Olympic weightlifting. I remember it better than my first sexual encounter. In truth it was probably more physically demanding and exhilarating than that experience had been, for all involved. In the YMCA’s weight room, trying to cope with missing out on the greatest party of all time, benching was my means of feeling like I still had power and agency in this world.

“Lift off on three, okay?”

Frankie, a powerlifter spotting me whose enormous form hung over me as I lay on the bench, nodded. His huge shoulders and neck tapered into a closely-cropped head in my field of vision, creating an inverted triangle of muscle. “How many you going for?”

“Four or five,” I said. “We’ll see.”

I set my hands on the bar and dug my shoulders and ass into the bench, arched my lower back, and planted my feet firmly against the floor. With my arms nearly extended I felt myself braced against the barbell, a sensation of everything—me, the bench, the weight—being firmly locked into place.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Okay. One… two… three.”

Frankie lifted as I pushed against the barbell. I felt its resistance give as I overcame the inertia, felt the static configuration of my body and the bench and the bar shift into movement like a set of gears slowly grinding to life. The bar left the rack and arced forward, plates jangling slightly, and then settled to a spot just over my eyes, where it remained. Frankie removed his hands and I felt the weight settle, all 275 pounds of it.

In that second or two before initiating a set, with the bar and all its iron plates loaded and suspended over you, there is a balance, a sort of symmetry between you and the weight that can feel almost poetic. Or at least it does in retrospect. I’m not sure I ever felt that way in the moment. What I probably felt was the great concentration of energy I was directing toward holding the weight steady, and the great store of potential energy I was about to release.

I lowered the bar, slowing its descent until it reached my chest and I felt the raw iron through my thin t-shirt. Directing all my power into a single task I then pressed, driving the bar away as though pushing against the world itself.

One. Two. Slow going down, faster going up. The steady rhythm of repetitions, proceeding like some meditative mantra. Three. Four. On the fourth rep I did the automatic calculations of how I felt and decided to go for one more. At the end of the fifth rep I held the bar over me for just a beat, a slice of a moment, as I again enjoyed the sensation of being locked in sync with the weight.

“Okay,” I said, signaling to Frankie.

He leaned forward and helped me re-rack the bar. It hit the bench’s supports with a dull metallic thud, iron against steel, and then settled. I thanked him, he left to go do something with an enormous pair of dumbbells, and as I leaned back against the bar I felt some semblance that things were right in the world—if just for a moment.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t spend all my time in the gym. When I was back at home I spent most hours watching NBC’s coverage of the 1996 Games in Atlanta. I’d developed a devastating crush on Dominique Moceanu—one of the “Magnificent Seven” that went on to win gold in gymnastics that year. Kerri Strug may have won the hearts of the American public with her gutsy made-for-TV performance on a broken ankle, but it was Dominique who vaulted into my heart. In an effort not to miss any coverage of her I was basically watching the Olympics around the clock when not in the gym. I’m not sure what my goals were, but I think I hoped that we’d have some sort of mental connection through the TV set—as though she’d pause mid routine and think, Jonathan? Is that you out there? But of course this didn’t happen…

On one of those nights I did see something different, although it had nothing to do with her: after flipping through the channels once I realized there was no gymnastics coverage I settled again on NBC. Onscreen, a small man in what looked like a wrestling singlet was walking out to a barbell loaded with colorful red and green plates. He stepped to the bar, took hold of it with a wide grip—although his arms were so short that it looked narrower than my bench grip—and after a quick pump of his arms he proceeded to lift the barbell overhead in one smooth motion.

What the hell was that? I wondered, fascinated and intrigued and more than a little confused. None of the on screen text or graphics meant anything—kilograms? Three white circles? Suleymanoglu? But it was a display of strength and athleticism and it involved a barbell and weights, and for me that was all that mattered.

I watched the heavily edited NBC coverage and was transfixed. The announcers clarified the weights being used by giving their equivalent in pounds, and it dawned on me that these tiny men—all of whom weighed less than me, I learned—were putting weights that I could barely squat overhead in one movement. And with such speed! Such power! And each successful lift ended with the athlete standing in triumph, demonstrating complete mastery of these huge weights. This was nothing like the lifting I knew, which seemed slow and rigid now by comparison. Far from the mechanical, clockwork rhythm of the bench or curls, this was an organic burst of energy. It was controlled chaos, a bravado demonstration of people literally throwing weights around. As the competitors moved on to a different lift—this one involving two stages, first to the chest and then overhead—my fascination only grew. By the time a Greek by the name of Leonidis failed his third and final lift, giving this Suleymanoglu character the gold, I was wholly caught up in the fervor of the moment and the draw of the sport.

I wish I could say the evening was transformative in some way that makes for a good athletic trajectory—that I suddenly dropped partying and devoted myself to training. That I started doing pushups then and there in my living room, dedicating myself to an Olympic dream. Instead, while my parents and younger brother slept, I snuck outside for a quick puff on a fragment of an old joint I’d found in my room earlier that day. There was no redemption, no clear path.

But there was a spark. When I finished the brittle husk of what I was pretending was chronic I went back inside and fired up my computer. After playing Duke Nukem 3D for an hour or so I logged into AOL and through a combination of luck and aimless internet wandering—back when every minute online cost money—I found just enough information to get started. I found out about the snatch and the clean and jerk. I spent several minutes downloading a picture of Naim Suleymanoglu, the “Pocket Hercules.” I found a beginner training program on a site for the Queensland Weightlifting Association (where the hell is Queensland? I wondered…). I found a book by some guy named Roman about the snatch and the clean and jerk, and the following morning I convinced my dad to let me use his credit card so I could order a copy. When it arrived I couldn’t believe the contrast to fitness books and magazines I was accustomed to: this was no glossy, ad-filled barrage of hyperboles. This was a stack of computer paper spiral-bound in an office supply store, filled with pages and pages of dense, almost scientific prose. Still, I did what I could to study the words and images and simple line drawings as though trying to divine the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

When I next went to the gym, I bypassed my usual routine of biceps or shoulders or whatever was planned that day. Instead, armed with little more than the memory of the footage on NBC and a few snippets of online wisdom—the book had not yet arrived—I grabbed a rusted barbell and began a clumsy parody of the Olympic lifts. The other patrons weren’t quite sure what to make of my awkward contortions, but I’d been going to the Y long enough that they were willing to tolerate, or at least ignore, my strange movements. I had no clue what I was doing, and when the book finally did arrive it only slightly helped as I tried to make my body do what was represented in those words and drawings and images. But in my struggles I felt a rekindling of my love for the barbell that I didn’t think possible. In near total ignorance, with no way of actually watching a real lift again once the Olympics were over, I plowed ahead and never looked back.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 3

3.

On the drive home I noted the cars passing on the opposite side of the highway. Cars going Northbound on a Saturday around midnight. Many no doubt were on their way to the city, to begin or continue long evenings of revelry. I felt strangely disconnected from them, even though I had once been in one of those cars. Yet now I was heading Southbound, going home from a night spent watching lifting videos in my coach’s basement.

So many of those earlier nights were better left unremembered, I thought. Or indeed cannot be remembered. Yet still their memories haunted me on that drive home. Pre-gaming at a friend’s house, then out to downtown New Brunswick or Morristown, to Knight Club or Shark Bar or the Grasshopper or the Dark Horse, and when the lights went on in whatever bar we were at we’d all pile in our cars and barrel up the Turnpike or down 78 to Hoboken for a few more minutes of partying, too stupid or indifferent to know that we shouldn’t be driving. And if that didn’t quite cut it, if the cocaine was still going strong and we weren’t yet ready to end the night, then back in the cars and into the maw of the Holland Tunnel, across the river into New York, where we could find bars and clubs that would give us refuge until four in the morning. If those wee hours came and we still couldn’t face the thought of bed, where we’d have to lie awake and stare at the ceiling while the evening’s cocktail of drugs wore off, then over to Sound Factory or some after-hours place. There, in the darkness of the club and the pulsating lights and the throbbing techno rhythm we found refuge with other drug fiends, savoring the shared feeling of chemical connectedness and partying until the sun rose over the city and well into its passage across the sky.

And in the back of my mind during it all was the foolish notion that I was somehow better than those around me because I had ambitions to be an international-caliber weightlifter. As though my dreams alone were enough to make it happen. As though my one national medal, set into a great balance for judgment, could outweigh anything else I did with my life.

As I neared my exit I watched a car pass. Then another and another. I morbidly wondered who among those cars might not make it home that night or the next morning. I wondered how and why I’d always managed to make it home during those years. Luck, I thought. Although part of me quietly hoped it was more than just that, and that some order in the Universe had ordained my survival just so I might prove myself yet. I’d been gifted time and life and a sport which I still called home, with which I might do something worthwhile.

I turned to the clarity of numbers and equations, seeking refuge in all that they promised. Weights and lifts and bodyweights and placements. The beautiful symmetry of a well-crafted total, like Taner’s 172.5 and 202.5 in Athens. The beauty of a 300 total…

My 120 snatch of that morning didn’t feel too bad, once I’d finally made it. Only five kilos off my best. No reason why I couldn’t add another five to that number for 130, a weight made tangible in my mind’s eye by the way it was loaded in competition: two big red plates and a 2.5 per side. A 130 snatch with my lifetime best in the clean and jerk would be a 285 total. Only 15 kilos shy 300. Maybe thirty-five and sixty-five…

In the first moment of seeing these numbers the distance seemed extraordinary, more akin to crossing an ocean than fording a river, which is how I thought of adding five or even ten kilos. But I remembered all the numbers in between, thousands of them: steps along the way, reps, programs, days stacked upon days stacked upon more days. There was not limitless time but there was still time enough. And, of course, the possibility of some chemical help…

When I got back to the apartment Pete was still up, sprawled on the couch and watching Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

“How was work?”

“Not bad,” he said, yawning. “Restaurant was busy. You go to Puj’s?”

I nodded.

“How was that?”

“Not bad. Watched the tape he has from Athens. Sagir is just nuts.”

“Damn right.”

“You know Libby’s thinking about a World Team?”

“No shit? She’s damn quick. Strong as hell, too. Just a little rough around the edges, you know?”

I nodded.

“Puj mention this?”

“Yeah.”

“What else he have to say?”

“The usual.” For a moment I considered the evening and our conversation. I paused then added: “He asked about me getting back on shit.”

This revelation perked him up a bit, as he was also no stranger to drugs. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

I shrugged. “I told him I’d think about it.”

Pete looked at me. “What’s there to think about?”

“We’ll see.”

But as I settled in to watch a few minutes of the movie before heading to bed I grabbed my phone and flipped it open. I scrolled through to Ricky’s number and sent him a text:

I’m in.

 

[next chapter]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 2

2.

That night, after putting in a quick afternoon shift at the carwash where I worked part time, I ended up going over to Ricky’s for a bit. From the apartment I shared with Pete in a two-family house in New Brunswick—as we finished out too-long college careers which, in my case, should’ve ended years ago—it was an easy drive: Turnpike to Parkway Northbound to Union. I was in no particular rush so I enjoyed the relatively clear highways and cruised easily while listening to the radio. To my left and right other cars sped by, on their way to New York City or perhaps down the shore for last gasps of summer for their Saturday nights.

“Hey!” Ricky said, greeting me at the door. He looked thrilled to have company for his usual weekend activity, which was watching VHS tapes of past Olympics. “Come on in. Just watch the cats don’t run out.”

Before I’d ever been to his house I expected some sort of hideous, animalistic den, comprised of only weightlifting memorabilia, supplements, and a mattress on a concrete floor. But for an divorced man with no children it was a surprisingly civilized abode, with an unexpected feminine touch. Much of this was due to his means of acquiring the house, which he inherited from his aunt. Some of the furniture was sold or distributed to other relatives but a fair amount remained in the house, as did the bric-a-brac. How else to explain the doilies on some of the end tables? Or the embroidered image of a cat in the living room? Had there been a velvet Elvis painting at one point? These and other objects sat alongside framed weightlifting medals and pictures of burly, hairy men who embodied what it meant to be big and strong in the 1970s and 80s.

Of all the rooms in his house, Ricky’s kitchen bore perhaps the most notable signs of a bachelor’s presence: the old linoleum floor, various stains on the stove that probably predated my birth, a pile of milk cartons by the recycling bins.

“You hungry?” he asked, opening the fridge. “I brought food home from the pizzeria.”

“I’m good. Thanks though.”

“You sure? I’m gonna eat.”

“Well, maybe a slice…”

He laughed. “Atta boy. Okay. Lemme grab some food and we’ll head down to the basement.”

The basement fairly reeked of the 1980s. Just entering it felt in some ways like stepping into a Polaroid picture. You became a bit grainier with each step. The carpet, the wood paneling on the walls, the VCR player with boxes of videocassettes, stacks of tapes—all spoke to some bygone era. On the walls were a few posters from big international meets (Olympics, World Championships) as well as an assortment of framed medals and plaques. Trophies capped with little golden men holding barbells overhead lined the floor along the wall.

I walked by the medals and plaques as though in a museum, stopping and glancing briefly at some to examine dates, venues, placement: 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980. There was a history written in those medals that seemed to stop at around the same moment that the basement itself had been sealed off from time and the external world.

“Like those pictures?” Ricky asked when he noticed me looking at them.

“They’re cool. I like the old school outfits and stuff.”

He smiled and nodded. “Those were good days. Lotta good memories on those walls. Lotta bad haircuts too. Ha!”

I probably could have spent more time—the entire evening—looking at those photos. Each image was one part of a story, each person one link in a much larger chain of people and places and events. In that web of connections, himself a part of something beyond his or my knowing, was Ricky and his story. And here, in the pictures and trophies and medals, were the physical remains of brushes with greatness, culminating in a plaque honoring him as an Olympian on the ill-fated 1980 team—the year the US boycott the Games. My own material history in the sport seemed so insignificant in comparison. But more looking and more dreaming would have to wait. Ricky was eager to put in the VHS from the Athens Games.

“You ready?” he asked, smiling and sitting down with a paper plate and a sub from the pizzeria where he worked still wrapped in wax paper. I took a seat next to him with a slice of greasy pizza and sank into the worn cushions of his orange and brown couch.

“Ready when you are.”

“Okay. I figured we’d watch your class, the 77s. See more of that Turkish kid.”

He started the tape. The screen flickered and then came alive with the auditorium, the platform, the Olympic rings logo. We watched as Taner Sagir, a nineteen-year-old Turkish lifter, tore his way through three extraordinary snatches to put himself in the lead, ahead of Kazakhstan’s Sergey Filimonov, by virtue of lighter bodyweight.

“Jesus!” Ricky cried as we watched Taner’s third snatch, a phenomenal 172.5 kilograms that set a new Olympic record. “You see that? I never seen anybody move that fast! Hold on. I gotta rewind that…”

“These guys,” he said, as we watched the lift for a second time, “they operate on a different level. Unbelievable.”

In the clean and jerk Sagir only needed two of his three lifts to secure Olympic gold. Several other lifters tried for more weight but nobody was able to top Sagir’s 202.5 lift, or his 375 total.

“Nineteen years old,” said Ricky, as the competition drew to a close. “You believe that?”

I shook my head. “That’s almost as young as I was when I started Olympic lifting.”

“You figure he’s nineteen, he’s got at least a few more Olympics in him. Youngest kid to win Olympic gold in this sport. He might be the first to win four Olympic golds.”

I did some quick math. “Uh, he’d be thirty something by the end. In 2016.”

He shrugged. “Ain’t that old. Lookit me! I’m still lifting. He could do it. He’s got a ton of talent. Probably been lifting since he was a baby. Probably got at least ten years behind him already.”

Ten years of training—or more—at nineteen. Perhaps Ricky sensed some regret or envy on my part, for he continued. “You still got good years to develop,” he said. “Hell, you got almost ten years in the sport now. Wait till you get a full ten years in. Or more. Things change. It’s a different world after ten years.”

“A couple of those years weren’t exactly good years of training.”

He waved this aside and slapped me on the shoulder. “Ah, so you fucked around a little. Who doesn’t? You still got time. Don’t worry.” He stopped and looked at the screen, which was paused in the medal ceremony. “You know Suleymanoglu shoulda had four Olympic golds?”

“Yeah?”

He nodded. “Because of the Soviet boycott of the LA Games in ’84 he didn’t go. None of those guys from the Eastern Bloc went. They all went to the Friendship Games instead. Naim totaled almost 300 there; woulda easily won gold at the Games in LA. But…” He put his hands up. “Wasn’t meant to be. Then of course he bombed in Sydney in 2000. But he shoulda had it. Shoulda had that fourth gold.”

At this last statement he shook his head, as though he felt the missed opportunity as keenly as Naim did. Assuming Naim felt or thought about it at all.

“Here,” he said, switching gears and slapping me on the shoulder again. “I got something I wanna show you. Found this gem the other day when I was down here.” He stood and pulled the tape we had been watching from the VCR and grabbed a different one from off the top of the TV, taking it out of its cardboard sleeve and putting it in the VCR. “Wait’ll you see this.”

The screen’s snowy static vanished, replaced by a flat black marked only by a camcorder’s date and time stamp in the upper right corner. I caught sight of the year just before the image came fully to life: 1998. A second later and the TV arranged itself into a recognizable scene: platform, barbell, judges, lifters, volunteers. The basement filled with the noise of plates and bars in the distance.

“Oh Jesus,” I said, smiling.

“Know what this is?” he asked, certain that I did.

I nodded. “Junior Nationals,” I said. “Ninety-eight. My last year as a junior.”

He smiled. “Got a medal, too! Bronze in the total. Not bad for a few years in the sport.”

I shrugged. Also my only national medal…

“Look how skinny you are,” he said, as I walked onscreen for my opening attempt. I was in the 69-kilo class at the time the video was taken, and though I had grown less than ten kilos heavier since then, the difference seemed enormous. “And fast,” he added, as we watched my onscreen self complete a snatch. “You always had that speed.”

“Look how young you are,” I said, chiding Ricky as he appeared in the frame, walking me out for another attempt and then shouting words of coaching and encouragement. Before we teamed up with Nikos and Russ full time it’d usually been just the two of us.

We watched most of the tape in silence, talking only occasionally to reminisce about some other lifter or coach, some of whom were still in the sport, others who had disappeared long ago. As I saw myself come out for my final clean and jerk—a made lift—I could very clearly remember the feeling: being there in front of the crowd, being strong and confident and just a little bit scared of that weight, 127.5 kilos, a weight which I’d never done before.

Something on that tape—an image or a sound—triggered something in me, and for a fleeting moment I was no longer just watching; I was living it. Beyond the sounds of the small crowd and the smell of sweat and the whiff of ammonia tablets and the whole-body anxiety and excitement of my first big meet there was a deep, limbic memory that was almost overwhelming. And underneath it all was more than just my inner record of the day: underneath it was the memory of potential. The memory of being a teenager and feeling like there was a horizon of limitless time to do or be anything. A steadfast belief that nearly ten years hence I would’ve staked my claim in the sport, if not in the world at large.

When it was over the tape went black and then the VCR clicked off. The screen came alive once more with snow.

“That was a good meet, huh?” said Ricky, as much to the space around us as to me.

I nodded slowly. “Yeah.”

“Gotta get you back on that podium,” he added. And then, more focused on me and not just the space around us: “You ever think you wanna get serious again?”

“I am serious.”

“I mean really serious.”

I smiled, both intrigued by the suggestion—which I’d thought about all the time—and annoyed that he felt the need to dance around it. “You mean get back on shit?”

He put his hands up, as if to say What else?

“Of course,” I said.

When I was in my first year at college, back before those Junior Nationals, I’d dipped my toe into the performance enhancing pool—although by some people’s standards I’d dived right in. Through a combination of Ricky’s suggestions and the encouragement of some college friends, most of whom were taking anything and everything to look good for spring break in Cancun, I decided to do a relatively quick cycle of Dianabol, the trade name for methandrostenolone, an oral anabolic steroid developed way back in the 1960s by Ciba Specialty Chemicals. Despite its age it was still among the most effective oral steroids available, provided you didn’t mind the associated water weight. Over the course of a couple months I went through a few hundred pink pentagon-shaped tablets—tablets so small it didn’t seem possible that they could be doing anything—and in that time I saw my lifts surge. Weights that had felt heavy became easy. Weights that had been impossible became the norm, increasing with every training session. True, I had swelled as well—I remember I looked like a balloon with all that water weight—but it came with the territory. And I felt great the entire time, like I was enjoying the highs of a months-long good day. Fifteen days on pills, ten days off, repeat. And train and eat.

“And?” he asked, pulling me out of my memories.

I wanted to say yes but held back. “Yeah, I think about it. I don’t know.”

He nodded. “Think about it, Jonathan. You got a lotta talent, still. Ain’t no reason you shouldn’t be back up on that podium. Get on a World Team. You do a 300 total you maybe got a shot. Your best was 280?”

“Yeah. Not recently though.”

“Who cares,” he said, brushing this aside. “You still got it. Twenty more kilos is nothing. Long as you’re doing the right things.” Then, apropos of nothing, he added: “You know Libby wants to take a shot at it?”

“Drugs?”

“Huh? No, Worlds. A World Team.”

“No shit?”

He nodded. “She ain’t that far. I know she’s still new, but she’s done almost 200 in the gym. If she can total 210 or 220 she could be on the team.”

“Goddamn…”

“You gonna let the new girl show you up like that?”

“Easy, Puj… She’s a phenom. She and her brother. Those two were made to lift weights.”

“Yeah, well, he don’t train enough and she’s still a baby in the sport. You got that on them. And you got the talent.” And then, smiling: “And the drugs.”

“All right, enough. I dunno. Let me think.”

It had grown late and sitting in the dim basement had made me tired. Ricky offered to watch another session from the ’04 Games—perhaps to help lift my spirits, or to inspire me more—but I told him I should get back.

“I gotta work tomorrow morning,” I said. “I need some sleep.”

“Yeah? How’s the carwash these days?”

“Good. Busy. Sundays are always busy. Once fall and winter come it’ll be real busy.”

“One of these days I gotta bring my car in. I ain’t washed it in years.”

He stood, easing himself off the couch in that curious way of men whose bodies no longer worked the way they once did, and walked me to the front door.

“Take care,” he said. “Thanks for stopping by. Anytime you wanna watch these let me know. I’m always up for it.”

“Thanks, Puj. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight. See you next week.”

“See you.”

“Hey!” he called out, as I was nearing my car.

I turned back. “Yeah?”

“You still got that medal?”

“What?”

“That medal… the one from Junior Nationals. You still got it?”

I had to consider this for a moment. “Yeah, I think so. Somewhere.”

“Okay. Just checking.”

“You want it?”

“What? No, that’s yours. Just wanted to know, is all. Ain’t no small thing. Gotta keep them around. Start your own collection.”

He smiled and I shook my head, unable to help smiling myself. Then he waved and I waved back, and we each turned to go once more.

 

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And now for something completely different…

A weightlifting novel…

[Note to the Reader: have you ever found yourself desperate for some weightlifting fiction? Of course you have. There are only so many times you can read Twilight the A Song of Ice and Fire books, after all. To fill that void, I present something different on this site: a weightlifting novel, tentatively titled Of Iron and Bronze. This is something I’ve been kicking around for a while now, mostly in an effort to put down some thoughts from an era of the sport that I think gets forgotten or ignored. Fiction is just another way of looking at the past, and here it allowed me to compress a very long and detailed history—and a lot of memories—into a manageable narrative. Now that I’ve moved on to other things, I thought I’d share it here a chapter or so at a time. If you enjoy it, let me know in comments or email and I’ll keep it up. If not, I’ll still keep it up and you can ignore it (there are plenty of other things out there for you to read about, like Mike Graber’s escapades, Lu Xiaojun’s intercostals, or to watch, like the Dimas series). I’ve put up chapters one (below), two, and three all at once. Afterward, I plan on posting a new chapter once or twice a week. To make sure you’re kept in the loop, I encourage you to subscribe for updates.]

[Second note to the Reader: in case you missed it, this is a work of fiction. It is based on over a dozen years in weightlifting (and over 20 in any iron sport), and it draws from experiences and conversations and people, but there is no corresponding narrative in real life, nor are there one-to-one links between characters and real people (e.g., I am not the narrator—he is a character). I use some names and places from the real world (e.g., Taner Sagir) but that’s only as scenery. My goal here was to set down some thoughts and memories on the sport from an era that many of us feel a certain nostalgia for (even people who didn’t live through it): the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, right before the sport’s explosion in popularity. I’m tremendously happy that CrossFit brought weightlifting to an entirely new, and huge, audience; we are better off as a bigger, more inclusive community. But that doesn’t invalidate the days when our family was much, much smaller. Some people will recognize this world; I hope it rekindles their own memories of the sport. For some people this is entirely new, and I hope they find in it something they can bring to their experiences or community today. Whatever the case, enjoy and read on (if you want) and share it if you do enjoy it. And don’t forget: this is fiction, but—as any regular readers of this site know—that’s always a rather amorphous concept…]

fdu

(FDU; photo by Lou Mangiaracina)

1.

Saturday morning training. The September sun warming the back of FDU’s gym and the ’04 Games in Athens a month prior still fresh on everyone’s minds. Those among us considered to be serious lifters—fewer than a dozen—were in various stages of the day’s training. A few who’d arrived early were already into squats and pulls or even supplemental work; those who’d wandered in late were still stretching and warming up and moving around with empty barbells or PVC pipes. Most of us were somewhere in the middle, just getting to our heavier lifts for the day, whether snatches or clean and jerks or both. Already the room was thick with chalk and sweat and alive with the aroma of menthol and camphor ointment and the sounds of bars and plates.

There were few things I enjoyed more than training on a Saturday morning. Amid the platforms and the barbells and the chalk bins and the sound of dropping weights and the steady rhythm of shoes against wood I felt a tremendous solidarity with those around me, my fellow lifters. While the rest of the world was doing whatever people who don’t lift do on a Saturday morning—it was hard for me to imagine what that could be, so enmeshed were the two in my head—we were devoting a few hours of physical sacrifice. Beyond just an opportunity to lift weights, beyond the time to come together as a team, it was a chance at purification: all that had happened during the week, or the night before, might be ritually washed away through a trial by iron.

Libby, a 75-kilo lifter, stepped up to her bar for a PR snatch attempt at 80 kilos. Though still relatively new to the sport it was clear she was already one of the most talented among us. Coach Nikos raised his hand and called out for quiet and we all stopped what we were doing on our own platforms and watched in silence. The room felt alive with focused energy—hers, our own, the sport’s. She pulled the bar from the floor. It moved slowly—almost alarmingly so—until she opened up when it was past her knees. From there she was preternaturally, devastatingly quick. There was a quick pop as the high grade steel of the barbell made contact with her body, the whip of a brunette ponytail, and then the sharp slap of wood-heeled shoes against the wood of the platform. A crack of sound that could turn heads from across the gym and the weight was overhead. The successful lift was followed by some applause, a few high fives, and then it was back to work for the rest of us.

“Hot damn she’s quick,” said Pete, who I was sharing a platform with.

I nodded. “She’s like a lady Taner Sagir…”

Joe, an 85-kilo lifter in theory if rarely in reality, was lifting on the platform across from me. A few of us watched as he took a snatch attempt at 110 kilos and made it. It was a classic Joe lift: brutish but effective, strong but wild. Like using a sledgehammer to drive a nail.

After helping Pete load our barbell to 120 kilos I stepped off the platform to let him take his lift. One twenty was heavy for him, so again the room paused to watch the attempt. He was an inch or so shorter than me but a class heavier, an 85 like Joe, but with a vastly different physique. Dark and almost swarthy looking, our own version of a muscular young Franco Columbu.

“C’mon Pete!”

The yell of encouragement was from Ricky Pugilio—part coach, part training partner, a long-time veteran of the sport who had weightlifting in his very bones. At over fifty years of age he simply refused to listen to his body’s demands to slow down or go easy. “Big pull!” he added. Nothing like a little extra motivation, especially in a voice that could carry across oceans. Ricky could seemingly will you to make a lift through his interjections, even if he wasn’t the most technically precise when it came to coaching.

Pete nodded, more to himself than in response, and stepped to the barbell and crouched down to take hold of it. He set up, took in a deep breath, and then drove his legs against the floor as he initiated the lift. There was the familiar slap slap of contact—the bar against his body, his feet against the platform—and the weight was overhead. If Pete and Joe embodied the vastly dissimilar ways you might assemble a roughly 85-kilo human, their techniques were equally different. I was always impressed with how Joe was able to grind out certain weights and get them overhead, but it was Pete whose technique I most aspired to. It was efficient, precise, and explosive, with minimal wasted effort. A veritable thing of beauty, watching Pete lift when he was in top form.

We tightened up the plates for my own lift. I’d made 115 a little earlier in the morning but was now struggling with this weight. I pushed the previous attempts out of my mind as best I could and tried to focus. The background sounds of plates and bars and conversations came to a halt, and the silence felt like a living, breathing presence in the room, as though the space were watching.

“C’mon Jonathan!” Again, Ricky yelling.

Focus. I squatted and wrapped my chalked hands around the barbell, testing and retesting my grip in an effort to find the perfect arrangement of thumb and fingers and bar. I set my back, engaging the muscles that I hoped would keep it in position. As the seconds ticked by I became aware of my fastidiousness. The room was expectant, waiting. I thought of the others watching: Pete and Joe and Ricky and everyone else and then—for reasons I’d only understand much later—I thought of Libby. It wasn’t just her speed and her lift that came to mind but her, too—her watching and waiting while the moments rolled past…

Ignore that, I thought. Focus on the lift. I found a focal point on the wall across from me, took in a deep breath, lifted my hips to get them in position, and then PUSHED…

“Aggghhh!” I said, after the weight came crashing down. I smacked the bar with the base of my palm a couple times in quick succession and then stood up. “Shit,” I said, shaking my head in frustration. The weight didn’t feel heavy and it seemed there was no good reason for me to miss. Yet I’d missed it several times already.

“Patience,” said Coach Nikos, putting his hands out.

But I didn’t want patience. I wanted this weight, and then I wanted more. I wanted to finally get my rhythm back in snatching. I wanted Pete’s technique and his strength and Libby’s speed and the satisfaction that came from a gym full of people congratulating you on a PR, which I hadn’t experienced in nearly a year.

“Go down, come back up,” Nikos added. Coach Russ, across the room, nodded once in agreement.

One more shot, I thought, although I knew Nikos was probably right. He had been a lifter of some repute in his home country, a place like Moldova or Romania or Albania whose name I always forgot, and had fled either persecution or an unhappy marriage or possibly both. He was small and compact, with the tightly controlled movements I associated with both communism and athleticism, and was widely regarded as the source of secret Soviet knowledge. Adding to his Eastern European, vaguely Bela Karolyi-esque comportment was a fantastic mustache, of the kind rarely seen in the years since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

“Okay,” I said, slightly defeated. I bent to start stripping plates from the barbell.

Which is when Ricky, whose coaching style differed so vastly from either Nikos or Russ’s that it had occasionally led to shouting matches in the gym, called me out.

“Jonathan, are you gonna lift that weight or do I have to come over there and show you how it’s done?” he yelled.

We all laughed—including me—and looked to Ricky as he smiled his big, bearded grin. The thick, dark curls that covered his head were shiny with sweat where they framed his face. A face almost Roman in profile, with a strong nose and brow and deep set eyes. But the nose had been broken at some point, interrupting a little of that dignified bearing, and the ears still bore the scars of infection from his stint as a high school wrestler. He had on the same faded and threadbare sweatsuit that he wore nearly every Saturday, which he’d purchased when he was a good twenty years younger and twenty pounds lighter. With his fists planted on his hips, standing like some shabbily-dressed Superman, he cut a figure that was by any measure completely ridiculous.

“You must be kidding me,” I said.

“You wanna see?”

“Isn’t it dangerous for old people to lift heavy things, Puj?” Pete asked. To many of us, Ricky was often just “Puj” in the gym—easier to shout than “Pugilio,” shorter by one syllable than “Ricky.”

“Ha! I’m still young enough to out-snatch the both of yous. You scared to watch an old man show you how to lift?”

“I’m scared you’re going to blow a disc,” said Pete.

“Okay,” said Ricky, putting his hands up. “Go back to lifting your little baby weights. I was just offering to help show Jonathan over here how it’s done…”

Coach Russ—who looked more like a bespectacled accountant than a former lifter—chuckled a few times, and even Nikos cracked a vaguely Soviet smile. I stepped off my platform and motioned toward the barbell. “It’s all yours.”

Ricky laughed, walking over. “That’s kid weight. Peter, you just made the 120, right?”

Pete nodded.

“Let’s make it 122.5, then. Make myself queen for the day,” he said, grinning.

“You want to do twenty-two?” Pete asked, as though he had told him he planned on taking a world record. Ricky still trained as religiously as any of us—more so, even—but it’d been months since he’d done anything over 110 kilos.

But, supremely confident, Ricky just smiled and nodded. “Why not? What do I get if I snatch it?”

“I’ll buy you a box of Depends,” said Pete.

The older man roared with laughter. “Jonathan, what do I get?”

I put my hands up. “I learned not to make bets with you over lifting,” I said, smiling. “Don’t look at me.”

“Joe, what about you? You confident enough to take a little gamble?”

“Breakfast,” said Joe. “I’ll buy you breakfast afterward.”

“Breakfast? It’s almost eleven already! I ate breakfast before. C’mon.”

“Dude, you lift this and I will personally come to your house and make you breakfast for the next week.”

Ricky nodded appreciatively. “Not bad.” He extended one huge, chalk-covered hand.

“Wait,” said Joe. “What do I get if I win?”

“Ain’t no way I’m missing,” Ricky said, smiling.

“Fine. But just in case. It’s a bet, after all.”

“Joe, if I miss this, you can come to the pizzeria every day for the next month and eat for free.”

“Seriously?”

Ricky, still smiling hugely, nodded. “Seriously.” Joe took his hand and they both shook.

Everyone turned to watch Ricky. He paced the platform once, twice, and then stood before the bar. With his eyes shut he paused to ready himself, no doubt seeing the lift in his mind’s eye—the trajectory of the barbell, the motion of his body, the sensation of pulling and then catching all that weight overhead.

“Do you want me to have 911 on the line, just in case?” Pete whispered.

“Very funny,” said Ricky, smiling and bending down and setting up over the barbell.

“I’m just going to type ‘9’ and ‘1’ into my phone,” said Pete, flipping open his cellphone. “This way I’m only one number short.”

“You keep messing around with your phone you’re gonna miss this lift,” said Ricky, adjusting his grip on the barbell. “You ready?”

“Waitin’ on you.”

The gym fell preternaturally silent. In that brief moment before the lift was initiated only the chalk dust moved, whirling endlessly in the rays of early autumnal sunlight. We waited, watching the big man gather himself and all his energy and strength as he prepared. A moment, another moment, and then…

“YAAGGHH!”

With his characteristic yell, he pulled on the bar, investing all his strength and power. The weight moved from the floor with surprising speed, going up past his knees, into his hips, and then shooting over his shaggy head as he dove under the still rising barbell. The weight was flying, and I imagined Joe spending the next week driving to the older man’s house every morning to make him pancakes and waffles and eggs and bacon…

Which is how things might have played out. But in his enthusiasm Ricky gave the barbell enough velocity to very nearly send it into orbit. The weight, after reaching its apex, crashed to the platform behind him and rolled into the wall, and he let out a second yell, this time out of frustration and pain rather than triumph. He’d strained something in his shoulder.

“But man,” he said in retrospect a few minutes later. “That was close, no?”

It wasn’t. Although it was powerful.

“Heh! I really thought I had it.” He shrugged and shook his head and sighed deeply. “Used to be 122.5 kilos was a warmup for me. Ah, oh well,” he said, shifting the enormous bag of ice he’d placed on his shoulder and looking directly at me. “Know what this means?”

I looked back at him, waiting for a response.

“Means you gotta show me how it’s done before I gotta leave for work. C’mon Jonathan!”

There was a moment’s hesitation on my part, as I considered whether he was serious. But of course he was; Ricky had long been encouraging such endeavors. Sometimes that was all it took for one of us in the gym: a few words from him, clearing away the cloud cover of our self-doubt.

And on that morning it was enough. On my next attempt at 120, taken after I’d wisely followed Nikos’s advice to redo a few lighter sets, I put the weight overhead easily. It felt light, almost effortless, and while it was incredibly satisfying it also brought frustration, knowing that I’d wasted all those earlier attempts.

“That’s it!” cried Pete in support as I was standing with the weight. Similar shouts came from Joe and Libby and a few of the others.

When I brought the barbell back down to the platform I looked at Ricky. He was grinning hugely at me and holding out one hand palm up, as if to say, That’s all you have to do. Yet we both knew it was rarely that simple, and that was part of the reward. He once told me that in all his years of training, over the course of thousands and tens of thousands and very likely hundreds of thousands of lifts, he’d done maybe a dozen or so that felt truly great, and he savored the memory of those experiences. In Ricky’s look just then, as the barbell settled and once again fell silent, I felt the shared understanding pass between us:

You will remember this lift

 

[next chapter]

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