There’s a heady mix of adrenaline and panic when all the waiting is over and your name is finally called to the competition platform. I heard mine and then listened to a few words of support from Nikos and Russ, and then Ricky placed his huge hands on my traps and shoulders to slap and coax them into full potency.
“You know what to do, Jonathan,” he said. “You already done all the work. Just another day at the office here.”
I nodded and waited for one final slap to the shoulders, hard enough that it nearly sent me hurtling toward the platform. Before stepping to the bar I bowed to the center ref as reverentially as is possible when one is wearing little more than a spandex jumper. He nodded very slightly back to me, and I had the sensation—which I felt almost any time I encountered those old refs—of being just one tiny part of some larger thing, a history of physical culture and strength that perhaps stretched back to clusters of ancestral hominids hoisting stones or branches or primitive versions of Eleiko barbells.
Despite my nerves I loved stepping onto the platform: the smoothness of the plywood, the utter clarity and focus that came while I set up over the barbell, the feeling that the whole room, even the whole world, was directing all its attention to that singular spot occupied by me and the weights. For those few seconds this was the most important spot in the universe, and it didn’t matter that the crowd could have comfortably fit in a couple telephone booths or that my weight class had only three people or that the side ref appeared to be dozing off. The beautiful chromed bar and its plates—a big red and blue per side, signaling real weight to me—had the power to give any environment a certain gravitas. Everything became a little sharper around the edges, and my senses were lightly tinted with the coursing of blood—and chemicals, no doubt—through my head.
I knelt and gripped the bar and stared at a point a couple feet in front of me, trying to simultaneously relax and prepare myself for all-out physical and mental effort. The clock’s 30-second buzzer chirped loudly. I had a tendency to run the clock down that drove my coaches to near madness. Just one more second, I thought, crouched down like this, feeling the barbell, testing the grip, going through a quick mental checklist, then trying to clear my head of that checklist, enjoying the silence, the stillness, the sensation of imminent energy, imminent change, imminent controlled explosion… I looked at the clock again—17 seconds—and looked away. Whenever possible I liked that last glance at the countdown to fall on a prime number; there was no logic to it and it was as foolish as having lucky socks or magic crystals but I did it all the same, as though the power of numbers might shine favorably upon my efforts…
Feet flat, back tight, chest up, eyes focused, seeing through and beyond all those heads in the crowd, and then PUSH, pushing with everything against the floor, pushing as though trying to push the world itself away from me through my feet. Pushing and then pulling, pulling the bar up and in doing so pulling myself under it, feeling the speed of descent, racing gravity, and then turning my wrists and making contact with the platform and locking my arms and securing the barbell overhead. I stood, received the down signal from the center ref, and let the barbell fall, following it down to the level of my waist.
“Jonathan Scarpa… good lift!” said the announcer.
“That was almost a power snatch!” cried Ricky as I walked off the platform and back to the warmup area. “I shoulda had you open 125!”
Nikos too nodded and smiled and stroked his mustache in appreciation and thought.
“Go sit,” said Ricky. “It’s just you and Pete for a couple attempts so be ready.”
Much as I should have focused on myself while waiting for my next attempt I couldn’t help but watch Pete. When his name was called for his opener he strode out to the platform with a swagger that suggested someone possessed of an otherworldly confidence. I once watched him go zero for six in a meet and not break that stride even for a moment, such that you would have thought he’d just set six World Records rather than ended with nothing. Indeed here, at the Mets, he missed his opener at 120 with such good cheer that one ref gave him an accidental white light. On his second attempt he made the weight easily, but it almost didn’t seem to matter: his enjoyment on the platform was tangible, and few people—Ricky being one of them—could sell a performance quite like he could.
“Ain’t nothin’ but a peanut,” said Pete in his best Ronnie Coleman voice as he strolled off the platform.
By the end of the snatch session I’d managed to go two for three, with a successful 120 on my second attempt and then an almost comical miss at 125. Ricky had sold me on the dream of snatching two big red plates per side when he saw how easy my opener was, but ultimately it was just that: a dream. And not a very convincing one, either.
In the clean and jerk I fared similarly: two for three, with 150 on my second attempt—thanks to the dozing ref tossing me a generous white light despite some soft elbows. For my third attempt Ricky was convinced—with the fervor of a man possessed—of my ability to do 155. “The way you pulled that 150,” he said, “you could do 160 today!” Before I went out for that final attempt he took my head in his huge hands and looked at me as though he might tear it off.
“Jonathan, you got this! Remember Yuri Vlasov? The white moment?”
I tried to nod but only managed a slight twitching of my head between his giant mitts. Indeed, Ricky’d spent a fair amount of time talking about the mythical “white moment” that the great Russian lifter Vlasov had written about—a burst of utter clarity and strength and confidence that comes in the midst of great and victorious effort.
“That’s it!” said Ricky, who looked so excited I thought perhaps he planned on running out and taking the weight. “Visualize this weight. Take in all the power of the world and do this!”
He let me go like some wild faith healer, raising his hands as though he’d just exorcised an evil spirit from my body. When I heard my name called for my final attempt a second later I felt invigorated, as if maybe he had imbued me with some new power, and I set up over the barbell in search of Vlasov’s mythical white moment. For an instant—just before I pulled the barbell from the floor—I thought I had it. The world around me—the crowd and the dingy basement and the shouts of my teammates—all faded away, and everything became very clear and bright. This was it, I thought, feeling powerful and strong and ready to take whatever energy was in the room and use it for my own purposes. This was the white moment! Feel the power!
But in the first inch of getting that weight—155 kilos—off the platform my body cried out in primordial horror What have you asked of me! and the white moment faded and muddied to a light tan at best and was soon a blur of static and chaos. In desperation I tried sticking with the weight but it was hopeless. The moment was lost, and in the end I barely did more than pull the bar and half-heartedly attempt to get under it.
Yet still Ricky looked at me when I walked off the platform as though the weight had just been a hair out of place.
“You almost had that!” he cried. “Just a little faster with the elbows. Did you go for the white moment?!”
“I almost had a brown moment when I pulled that weight from the floor, Puj.”
He laughed and slapped me on the back. “It was close,” he said. But Russ and Nikos were far more honest: the former just put his hands up and walked away smiling to himself. The latter looked at me, stroked his Soviet-era mustache, and said, “It was nice high pull.”