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?”
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?”
“Huh? No, Worlds. A World Team.”
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.”
“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.”
“Hey!” he called out, as I was nearing my car.
I turned back. “Yeah?”
“You still got that medal?”
“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.