I’d assumed—foolishly, it turned out—that with only myself to focus on I would feel better in the days and weeks before Nationals. But in my last heavy workouts before the competition I was barely able to make 130 and 160. Ten days out I had a heavy clean and jerk session, with the goal of at least 165. Following my 162.5 lift at the Staten Island meet just a few weeks prior this seemed a natural, conservative even, progression. Secretly I hoped that 165 would be so easy that I would do 167.5, or perhaps 170… Taner Sagir had snatched that weight and more; surely I could clean and jerk it…
Gravity, however, had other plans.
“The weight feels like it’s glued to the floor,” I said, gasping for air after struggling through an ugly 160 in that last heavy clean and jerk day.
“Don’t matter how it feels,” said Ricky. “Put sixty-five on the bar and come back like you want it.”
“Okay,” I nodded, full of hope and optimism.
Every so often, adding more weight to the barbell is all that’s needed to shock an athlete back to life. Perhaps the body and mind are put into some hyper-vigilant, fight-or-flight state that activates all the muscle fibers and all their neural connections. This was not the case that day. At the moment of separating the weight from the platform I felt as though I was fighting the entire will of the cosmos, as if my lifting of the barbell were an affront to the Universe itself and it was subsequently putting all its effort into stopping me from doing so. Despite this calamitous start I stuck with the lift, pulling with an effort that belied my waning faith in my abilities and then diving under the weight. Through some miraculous turn of events I made it under the bar—beating its descent by what felt like atomic-level closeness—and then stood up with the weight.
But there was no hope of my putting it overhead. I fizzled out in the dip for the jerk and did little more than throw the barbell forward on the platform.
Ricky, reading the struggle on my face, nodded. “Go on. PR clean, right?”
“Okay. The jerk’ll be there when it counts…”
A couple days later my last heavy snatch session was similarly uninspiring. I made 130, though more out of frustration than anything else. I took three attempts at that weight before I finally put it overhead, and even then it was an ugly lift. I jumped to 135, hoping—praying—that I might set a new PR with a weight that would put me in a good position to really reach for a medal, but it was beyond my abilities. I took two attempts, neither convincing, and then moved on.
“Today is not competition,” said Nikos after my second attempt at 135. “Competition is next week.”
Libby, as if in defiance of me, looked phenomenal by comparison. If our ruinous ending affected her in any way she was not exhibiting it in the gym. We exchanged almost no words during those last sessions, giving each other wide berths as we moved around the gym to grab plates, chalk up, stretch, etc. I felt like I’d returned to junior high, so intent was I on maintaining an appearance of normalcy in the midst of what was, in reality, extreme awkwardness. At each of her lifts I questioned my actions: Did I encourage her enough? Did I shout too loudly in encouragement? What would I normally say after a good lift? How would I stand? What do I do with my hands?
“It’s like an eighth-grade dance,” whispered Pete, smiling at me and my apparent discomfort.
At least for me it was. For Libby, nothing looked out of place. In her last heavy training session she moved with mechanical precision through her lifts. Every snatch was the same: smooth pull from the floor, a quick explosion and whip of ponytail, and a solid punch overhead. The progression was as steady and interminable as the passage of time itself: 35, 45, 55, 60, 65, 70, 80, 85, 90, 95…
And then 100.
I expected some fanfare. A change in aspect. A different setup. Something to mark the momentousness of the weight. But if there was anything I didn’t notice it. A beat longer may have passed before she took hold of the barbell but even that is uncertain. Before anyone could even appreciate the milestone about to occur she had secured the weight overhead and was standing up with it.
Even Ricky, who’d seen more than his share of amazing lifting, was stunned. So much so that he forget to joke about how that was the weight that made you a man (something he remembered much later, and regretted missing the opportunity).
So too was it with her clean and jerks: fast elbows around the bar and straight dips and the weight locked overhead as though it were the barbell’s natural habitat. From the empty bar to her last lift at 120 kilos—another PR—everything was sharp.
Ricky, who’d just missed a clean and jerk at 185 five times, shook his head in exhaustion and astonishment.
“You’re a machine!” he said.
Libby responded with little more than a trace of a smile, a thank you, and then a continuation of her training.
Only Myron, who’d been training with us semi-regularly in those weeks, looked similarly impressive. On the Saturday before Nationals, with as little fanfare as his sister had had, he did an easy 155 and 185.
“Jesus,” Ricky said. “How does he do it?”
“Maybe we oughta try trainin’ once a week,” said Pete.
When he did the 185 clean and jerk Myron looked good for more, so the bar was loaded to 190 kilos. But after pulling it just a few inches off the floor he let it drop and shook his head, smiling.
“Not today,” he said.
“What?!” Ricky shouted. I thought he was going to rush across the gym and explode in a ball of hair and muscles. “It was flying off the floor! The 185 looked like a toy!”
But Myron shrugged. “Just don’t have it. I don’t know.”
And Ricky stood, mouth open, unbelieving or else refusing to believe. He would have given a great many things to make a 190 clean and jerk, and here it was for Myron’s taking and he didn’t want it. At least not that day.
Ricky laughed and shook his head. He turned to Nikos, searching for an explanation, but the older man just put up his hands and ambled away. How could a person not want that lift? I saw Ricky wondering. He laughed again and sat down on a chair by his platform, pondering things he would never, ever understand.