By mid-December the Power Gym and FDU were closed for winter break, so those of us committed to training were forced to cobble together whatever we could via a combination of commercial gyms, special outings to the few other dedicated weightlifting gyms in the state—the Barn and Moorestown—and Ricky’s garage. Often we’d wake up knowing only that we had to train somewhere, but uncertain of the location until the last minute. A text or call would come through from Ricky or Nikos or Russ saying something like “We’ll be at the Barn at 4” and Pete and I would then rush to get ready and be on our way. It wasn’t an ideal way to train, and plenty among our group simply decided to use the winter break as an extensive recovery period.
“See you next year,” said Joe at our last Saturday morning session at FDU before the break.
But those of us with true grit—or at least those of us who thought we had it—suffered these inconveniences.
“We need a place of our own!” we’d cry, lamenting the fact that FDU or Rutgers didn’t just give us a set of keys and free reign of their gyms.
But we also lamented the little crosses we bore—driving across the state, training in a cold garage or barn—like a parade of flagellants putting their suffering on public display and announcing it to the world. We took no small pride in the fact that those of us who trained through the winter were making the sorts of sacrifices considered important—nay, necessary—for true weightlifting greatness.
Even a commercial gym, where one might get some squats in, plus maybe some pulls if you were lucky, was a compromise. When we were forced into this corner, due to necessity or sheer laziness and unwillingness to make the trip elsewhere, there was often a not-so-subtle comment from one of our coaches.
“You train yesterday?” Russ asked Pete one day, a Saturday December morning in Ricky’s garage.
Pete gave a half-nod—he knew his answer wouldn’t be ideal—and said, “I went to the Gold’s Gym by my parents’.”
Russ nodded in response. “Did a little exercising?” he asked, smiling.
“I got some squats and pulls in,” said Pete.
“Okay,” said Russ, with great skepticism.
Exercising was what you did in a commercial gym, the way the Victorian-era gentry might take up drawing or music as a diversion rather than a serious calling. Exercising was frivolity, and in the way Russ or Nikos or Ricky uttered the word it brought to mind someone doing lightweight curls with brightly padded foam dumbbells, perhaps while listening to a Walkman.
Training was what you did in a real gym. For our coaches, training called to mind serious effort in pursuit of a goal, no matter how big or small: local competition, Worlds, Olympics, whatever. Training had purpose.
“Well,” said Russ, as though resigning himself to this information, “you’ll get some training in today.”
Though Ricky professed to be willing to go anywhere to coach and train over the breaks, he was understandably partial to his own garage, both for reasons of convenience and for the fact that he’d crafted the space to be exactly as he wanted it. To hear him tell it, when he’d inherited the house from an aunt he was more excited about the garage than the living space.
“Meant I could have a place to train anytime!” he said.
I have little doubt that—were he forced to choose—Ricky would’ve kept the garage over the house.
The garage had started life after it came to Ricky as little more than a dusty box filled with the detritus of its former owner’s life. In those days, before I knew him, all he did was clean out a little corner of the accumulated garbage to give him space to train. (“She was a real hoarder,” he’d said about the aunt.) Per Ricky, he had an old York barbell, back from the days when York still made some of the best Olympic bars in the world, and he’d bring it out to the garage and use it just to stretch and go through the motion of lifting. No plates, no platform; just a man and his barbell on the bare concrete floor, amid ancient dried leaves and the old stains of oil spills.
Then he heard from a friend that a gym was closing and he purchased some of their used metal plates, and then he got some bumper plates from a college that was discarding its few Olympic sets. Once he had plates he knew—after a day or two lifting on concrete—that he needed a platform. Thus came layers of plywood, then rubber mats, then more plates, another barbell, a squat rack… Like a planet gathering mass the garage slowly accumulated all that was needed to train properly. In such fashion a gym—a real gym—was born.
By the time we were training there that December, Ricky’s garage had even developed a level of comfort and adornment, minimalistic though it was. A space heater provided warmth during winter months. A few folding chairs—purloined from who knows where—meant you didn’t have to stand the entire time (much as Ricky said you should). And various posters and photographs, chief among them the famous “Dimas Number One” from Ironmind, kept watch over the space.
In Ricky’s view, it contained everything needed and nothing extraneous (except maybe the folding chairs, although at his age he wasn’t about to complain about having a place to sit).
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve I sent Ricky a text to see if I might stop by to train. I’d tried to rope Pete into joining me but he was adamant about needing to prep a holiday feast at his parents’ house.
“My mom’ll kill me if I don’ help her out with dinner,” he said.
“You never should’ve told her you wanted to be a chef.”
He shrugged and put his hands up. “Can’t go back on it now. I’ll come train tomorrow.”
But Ricky was more than happy to have me come by, and said he may even do a little training himself before he had to head to his sister’s for holiday dinner.
Heater will be on, he texted back. A nice means of reassuring me that I wouldn’t have to start training with an icy cold barbell.
When I arrived I could hear the heater running already, and even just standing by the door I could feel some of the warmth from inside. Despite the heater’s small size it produced heat with an intensity that bordered on nuclear; frequently we had to train with the side door open in the winter, just to keep the temperature manageable.
I could also hear—while still standing outside of the garage—the sound of plates being dropped against the platform. He started without me, I thought, slightly annoyed at this. I waited for the sound to cease, making sure there weren’t more reps to come, and then opened the door.
It took me a moment to recover from what I saw after stepping inside, which was no doubt noticeable.
“Hey,” I said, trying to sound casual.
“Hey,” said Libby, who had much greater success in this than I.