I had the meet of my life at the Arnold, at least up to that point. A six-for-six performance and my best total by far. As always, Ricky was in the warmup area for my session, along with Nikos and Russ, who were keeping an eye on me and Pete and Joe. When I was still loosening my joints and going through some easy stretches Ricky leaned in close to speak to me.
“How you feel?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Good, I think.”
He slapped me on the shoulder. “Doesn’t matter how you feel, right?” he said, laughing. “You want some Modafinil?”
“Wakes you up a bit.”
He grinned wickedly. As if I even had to ask.
“Sure,” I said, and tossed back the little white pill he handed me.
It’s hard to say how much that contributed to my performance, but by the time I started moving around with the barbell I felt at harmony with it, with myself, with the entire room and the whole circus that is the Arnold in a way I’d never known. As if I was drawing power from every athlete and spectator that walked by the weightlifting area—a side venue off the main hallway—leaving them a little weaker and me that much stronger. As if all my senses had been turned up to eleven. As if on that day success was something foretold by the Universe itself. Fifty, sixty, seventy, and even eighty kilos all felt like little more than the bar itself.
When it came time for my opening lift Ricky and Nikos walked me out to the platform. The competition had now stretched well into the afternoon and the crowd had grown considerably throughout the day. I saw the masses of people and then quickly pushed them out of my mind, focusing instead on the declared weight. Ricky had wanted me to open at 125 but I’d talked him down to a more sensible 120 kilos. Sensible to me, at least; the 125 still felt like something menacing. Certain numbers get in your head as an athlete, provoking a response that is beyond reason or logic. When I started out as a lifter it was a 90-kilo snatch, a number that caught many of us in my weight class; the idea of a blue and yellow per side, which was our preferred mode of loading the weight, exerted a power in our collective unconscious that was far greater than the weight itself. Some among us—me included—could snatch 87.5 all day, could even do a relatively easy double with the weight, and then shit the bed just by the addition of another 2.5 kilos.
So it was with 125 for me up to that Arnold. Part of me was convinced it was easy, as I’d snatched 127.5 and tried 130 in training just the week before, while another part of me felt it was sheer insanity to open so heavy. Something like 115 or 110 was so much easier, so much more comfortable. Why make it hard on yourself? a voice inside me seemed to cry out. Why indeed… Ultimately the 120 felt like a reasonable compromise between the kamikaze approach of Ricky and my usual conservatism.
“C’mon Jonathan,” said Ricky, rubbing my shoulders and traps. “You’ve done all the hard work. This is just another day at the office.”
When the clock started for me Nikos nodded. “Okay. Go.”
There was the familiar mix of fear and adrenaline on the platform, making the world and my body buzz with potential energy. There were the usual doubts—was my grip set? would the tape on my thumbs hold? what if the weight pulls me forward off the floor?—but there was something else, as well, which made those doubts that much easier to suppress: a sense of power and confidence. I smiled inwardly, thinking of the test coursing through my body, and this new drug, whatever the hell it was, working its chemical magic. And all those doubts were replaced by new thoughts: I was strong, I knew I was strong, and I had everything in me to put this barbell overhead.
Like Nikos had said: GO.
Back tight, shoulders over the bar, drive the legs.
“One twenty, good lift!”
Three easy snatches, done almost as casually as if they’d been warmups. 120, 125 and then 127.5 on the third. The last snatch was just a touch out of place when I put it overhead; on any other day it might have been a missed lift. But with my reserves of strength and the sense of some great will moving through me I pulled the bar into position, refusing to let it fall, refusing to lose this battle with gravity.
In the clean and jerk I had similar success. Just before going out for my third attempt Ricky gripped my head in his huge hands, as he’d done back at the Mets. His eyes had taken on that look of wild fervor, like some weightlifting shaman seeking to cast out any lingering weakness from my body. I briefly wondered what was an unhealthy amount of cranial pressure.
“You got this!” he cried, looking at me and through me. “See the lift! Clear your mind! The White Moment!”
He let me go just as the clock started and gave me a powerful slap on the shoulders. A few random spectators, unaccustomed to that sort of thing, gasped at this. From there I went forward and took the weight—157.5 kilos—in a fugue state of excitement. All I recall is that I felt tremendously powerful, unstoppable even. The weight was heavy from the floor but my body was ready, like it’d been made for this weight and this moment. Even the jerk—always my weakest link—felt strong. I don’t know if I had the “white moment” that Ricky’d been shouting about, but until then it was the closest I’d come to such total athletic focus. I dimly heard the applause of the crowd and the shouts of Ricky and Nikos behind me and I felt a rush that was almost intoxicating. This is what I want, I thought, holding the weight overhead. This feeling, over and over and over again.
Yet for all my success at the competition the real star of the show had been Libby, in the session just before mine. As much as she’d been starstruck by the Arnold she managed to ignore all of it and firmly establish herself as someone with whom to reckon come Nationals. Her performance garnered the sort of acclaim and admiration that I had hoped for. So much so that I couldn’t help but feel, mixed in with genuine astonishment and joy, some insidious kernel of jealousy, like a pebble in an otherwise comfortable pair of shoes.
“Man that girl can lift,” said a random coach at one point. Libby had just done 90 kilos to cap off a three-for-three day in the snatch. She went on to make 105 in the jerk and then narrowly miss 110. All this despite it being her first time in front of a crowd as large as the one at the Arnold.
“I can’t imagine what Nationals must be like,” she’d said during warmups, after she’d glimpsed the nearly full venue. For a fleeting moment she’d appeared to lose the focus on her own lifting, perhaps in awe of the crowd: around 100 people.
“Nothin’ to worry about,” Ricky had responded. “This crowd is ten times as big as anything you’ll see at Nationals. You lift here, you can lift anywhere.”
In the intervening hours before Ricky’s session, when he was scheduled to lift against Myron, we all wandered around the Expo and then watched as two Chinese gold medalists from the 2004 Games—Shi Zhiyong and Zhang Guozheng—lifted in an exhibition event on the Expo’s main stage.
The Expo itself was like some carnival sideshow from days of yore, one huge space filled to the brim with vendors of all sorts, modern-day alchemists hoping to concoct gold from baser elements—supplements, gear, books, videos, anything. A cacophony of music and shouted pronouncements of efficacy and the steady hum of thousands and thousands of people eager to throw money at anything that might give them a chemical advantage over the next guy. Strange bedfellows in that place, too: drug-enhanced lifters promoting all-natural lifestyle products, MMA fighters selling Jesus books, military recruitment stations amidst carefully-curated booths promoting fitness or nutritional anarchy.
“How is this even possible?” said Libby, half to herself as we wandered through the Expo.
“Isn’t this great?” said Joe, downing a free sample of a chalky liquid that a bikini-clad fitness model had just handed him.
“What was that?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Who the hell knows? How could I say no to her?”
“I need to get outta here,” said Ricky, shaking his head after being accosted by a pair of female bodybuilder types selling something.
By that point we’d been in the Expo far longer than is good for sanity, so we all agreed to head for the exit. But before we could make it out the crowd stopped moving and then a pair of bodyguards began pushing against us and cutting a path through the space.
“What the hell is this?” said Ricky. He was starting to look dangerously unhinged—his session was coming up and I knew he would want to spend some time horizontal before lifting.
We were standing at the edge of a narrow clearing that ran through the convention center. All around us people were looking up and down the human tunnel.
“Wait,” said Libby, stepping on her toes for a better look. “I think it’s Arnold.”
And it was. Distantly at first, then closer, closer, I could see him—the Governator himself, preceded and followed by bodyguards, walking through the space and shaking hands with fans left and right. Camera flashes went off around him and people flipped open cell phones hoping to get a picture as he went by.
As he neared I saw my opportunity and put my hand out; I was right at the edge of the crowd of people near the exit and the encounter seemed inevitable, perhaps ordained even. But just as he neared and extended his own hand I watched as Ricky’s enormous mitt cut in front of mine, making contact with Arnold’s for a brief shake before the legend moved on. It was done so skillfully, so deftly, that Arnold was in fact looking at me despite shaking Ricky’s hand, probably wondering to himself “Vy does dis little man have such enormous hands?”
But Ricky just laughed, crying out “He touched me!” and raising his hand as though displaying a reliquary to the crowd. But everyone’s focus was elsewhere, gaping after the man they saw as the perfect physical embodiment of power and masculinity and success.
“I mean, is he something or is he something?” Ricky asked later, as we were sitting in the weightlifting area waiting for the penultimate session to end. He looked at his hand again, as though some trace of the star’s aura might linger on it yet. “Maybe the greatest bodybuilder ever.”
“No love for Ronnie Coleman? Dorian Yates?” said Pete.
Ricky waved this aside. “Yeah sure, these guys now are huge, but Arnold had size and symmetry and everything.” He sighed dreamily, the way one might do when pining for an absent lover. “What a guy.”
“You ever gonna wash that hand?” Pete asked.
He considered this. “Maybe I should wait until after I lift. Might be some luck rubbed off.”
“You know he was a millionaire before he ever was in movies?” said Joe.
Joe nodded. “He got his start doing construction or something with Franco Columbu. Then he started investing in real estate and bodybuilding stuff. Guy made a killing before he was really famous.”
“Definitely ain’t washing this hand now.”