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…]
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.
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?”
“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.”
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…
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…