When Pete and I were done lifting there was a short break before the one and only women’s session, during which time Ricky and a few of us ran across the street for food. Only Pete had been smart enough to pack food, bringing out a set of tupperware containers filled with Spanish rice and blackened chicken, complete with individually foil-wrapped wedges of lime. He laid out this repast—which I was fortunate enough to partake in—with the same practiced ease he displayed in his lifting. All he lacked was a chef’s hat. Ricky looked at this assemblage as though he’d not seen such nourishment in years, and he prodded us to share.
“You shoulda brought yer own food,” said Pete, in between huge mouthfuls of rice and chicken. “Or you coulda asked me!”
“How come he gets food?” Ricky asked, pointing at me like a jealous sibling.
“He lives with me. That’s a perk of puttin’ up with me.”
“I’ll live with yous. You let me sleep on the couch I’ll move in with yous tonight.”
Pete waved him off. “You don’t hurry up you ain’t gonna have time to finish yer Whopper or whatever before Libby starts…”
There were something like five or six women in Libby’s session—a fair turnout in those days. At the start was a girl so small that she could nearly hide behind the plates when she set up for her snatch. Despite her diminutive size she pulled with a ferociousness and technical proficiency that belied her age—and that put most other competitors to shame. Then followed an older woman chasing National Masters Records and a couple girls in the great middle: 58 and 63 and 69 kilo lifters. Afterward was a 75+, and then at the end—despite how new she was to the sport—was Libby.
Russ was handling counting duties and Nikos was keeping an eye on warmups. I was in the back helping to load the barbell and—I thought—keep her calm and ready for what was only her second or third competition. But after a few warmups, all done with a precision and crispness that suggested a far more experienced athlete, I began to think that she didn’t need me at all. She had a focus that was almost chilling, it was so finely honed, the way predatory animals look when stalking their prey. At times while idly chatting or loading the bar I felt like some clumsy interloper—a sensation that was confirmed in the moments before her opening attempt.
“Are you going to keep talking the whole time?” she asked.
“Quiet,” she said, shushing me without even looking up. “I need to focus.”
I opened my mouth to indicate assent and then realized the inherent contradiction in this and so I simply stepped aside and waited.
Her snatches—all three of them successful—were wondrous to behold. Even the crowd, normally a bit tuned out for the women’s session, was drawn in by her attempts. Each one—80, 82.5, 85—was nearly identical to the one previous: controlled from the floor, aggressive through the second pull, and dynamic getting under the bar. Each had the beautiful auditory rhythm of a quick drumbeat of contact: first her body with the barbell and then her shoes with the platform. Pop pop and the bar was overhead. Perhaps most impressive was that there was room for improvement yet, and no doubt many of us in that room were calculating just how much more she could do with a slight tweak here, a minor adjustment there…
Even on her final lift she looked good for more, though she stepped off the platform grinning and happy with her performance.
“Sorry,” she said to me afterward, as I was stripping the barbell to get ready for her clean and jerk warmups. “I just needed to focus.”
I put a hand up. “No big deal. You do what you need to do.”
After that snatch performance there was every expectation of a similar show in the clean and jerk. And indeed her warmups looked much the same—efficient and strong and confident. But when her opener at 95 was turned down due to an elbow press out on the jerk I saw the first cracks in her demeanor. Unfortunately she was the only lifter at this weight, and there was nothing to do but try to recover during her two-minute clock as best as possible.
“Sit,” said Nikos. “Relax. Is light weight for you.”
She nodded and sat. I had a near irresistible urge to share some anecdote or bit of wisdom about pushing through this sort of thing—perhaps tell her about the white moment?—but I managed to refrain, remembering how she’d shut me down earlier.
When she missed her second attempt due to rushing the jerk she walked off the platform and seemed to scan the faces among us—me, Nikos, Russ, anyone—for some sign of help. Or mercy. I had the sense that by now, with the three good snatches nothing more than a memory—and a distant one at that—she was simply ready for this ordeal to be over. On her third attempt—despite the cheers and support of that small basement crowd—she approached the platform like a woman condemned, as though being led to her execution rather than to the barbell. I felt I knew her struggle—the desire to find the mental and physical strength to overcome the insidious doubts that threaten to rot you from the inside—and I tried to send whatever will I had across the room. But in the end it was not enough, and despite a heroic effort in the clean she did little more than throw the jerk forward.
“No lift,” was the announcer’s call, and he too sounded defeated—no doubt he was prepared to watch this new phenom revivify the old space, give it new life.
Libby walked off the platform, her face a mask of disappointment, and Nikos guided her to a seat with a gentle, almost fatherly hand.
“What happened?” asked Ricky when he strolled into the warmup area a short while later, in preparation for his own session.
I shrugged. “I think that first one threw her off.”
He shook his head. “That was a shit call.”
“Was it a press out? I couldn’t see from where I was standing.”
“Oh yeah, totally. But so what? She did the bow to the judges, they oughta appreciate that. Shoulda thrown her a favor in return.”
He stood and began going through his ludicrous and elaborate stretching routine, a vaudeville act of old-timey athletics. “Where’d she go?”
“Outside I think. She’ll be back to watch you.”
“Eh, she’ll get over it.” He then leaned in a bit and lowered his voice. “You know, now that she’s a little down, might not be a bad time to…”
I waited, not quite following.
“…talk to her about gettin’ on some shit.”
“Maybe not right this second. But you know, soon. Soonish.”
The announcer mentioned the impending start of the session and Ricky put on his lifting shoes.
“Whaddaya think, Nikos?” he said, easing himself into a bottom and jumping up and down a bit to get the blood flowing. I could tell he was getting excited. “Go for some records today?”
Nikos raised an eyebrow. “Maybe just go for total first.”
“Ha! Ain’t no fun in that. Think anyone here wants to go head to head, make a real competition of it?”
Nikos just smiled, but from behind us someone spoke.
“I’m your huckleberry.”
Ricky and I turned, wondering who could be so bold as to accept this challenge. I heard a sharp intake of breath from Ricky—one of shock and genuine excitement.