I rolled into Nationals that year four kilos overweight, with something like 36 hours to lose it.
“The hell you been eatin’?” asked Pete, as he stared at the numbers on the check scale.
“What’ve I been eating?” I asked, incredulous. “Pancakes! With you motherfucker! This is your fault!”
He feigned innocence, raising his hands in a gesture that sought to absolve him of all blame. “I figured you were cuttin’ back elsewhere! You weren’t cuttin’ out breakfast or dinner or second dinner?”
“Heck yes! This ain’t my first rodeo, pal. Ain’t yours, either.”
Nikos and Ricky and Russ were similarly surprised. They were sitting with Joe and Libby waiting for us in the lobby of the meet hotel, which was a surprisingly chic place out in a nondescript suburb of Chicago. Far nicer than the usual fare, and several rungs above what most of us in that crowd were accustomed to. Or from another vantage point, we were several rungs below the hotel’s usual clientele, and the amount of spandex and track suits was likely beyond anything it’d ever seen before or would see again.
“Four kilos?” said Ricky.
“Even Joe doesn’t have that much to lose,” he said, and Joe nodded in response.
Ricky turned to Nikos. “Whaddaya say? Four kilos by Saturday morning?”
The compact Eastern European nodded sagely. “No food. Maybe some beef broth. Small sips of water.”
“Not sure we’re gonna find beef broth out here…” said Russ.
“Tomorrow night, bake,” added Nikos.
Ricky smiled. He loved the suggestion, and the implied intensity of roasting myself with the aim of losing a few kilos. “Get ready to sweat!” he said, slapping me on the shoulders with a huge paw. “Libby, what about you? You gonna make weight?”
Libby looked over to him. She’d been staring out into the lobby, which was steadily filling with more and more athletes and coaches. It was her first national meet, and even she—as collected a person I’d ever seen—was looking a little starstruck.
“Seventy-five point four this afternoon,” she said. “I’ll make weight.” And she turned back to scanning the crowd. Those two sentences were among the most I’d heard her speak since the implosion of our relationship, and I had little reason to expect more.
Those of us who could eat had a late dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants; afterward we returned to the lobby and sprawled out on a couple of couches, all of us tired but not wanting to go to bed just yet. The lobby was a great place to see and run into and even talk with some of those luminaries in our sport, people who—like Ricky, once upon a time—were at the highest levels of American weightlifting. National champions, American record holders, international competitors, Olympians—they were all on display, all available, right around us. Prior to getting into weightlifting I had never imagined I might one day rub elbows with Olympic-caliber athletes; and yet at any moment I might see people like Tara Nott and Cheryl Haworth and Oscar Chaplin and Shane Hamman. Athletes whose careers I’d followed for years and who seemed like something otherworldly and yet who were here, just as we were, the way Greek gods of old would occasionally mill about with mortals.
But it was more than just stargazing. Most people in that lobby were not at the top of the sport, and most would never get there. But they were familiar, for the most part. And there was a certain pleasure in seeing all those familiar faces, year after year. It reminded you of the bigger weightlifting family to which you belonged—a family in which you knew almost everyone, and which included more than its share of crazy aunts and uncles but which you looked forward to all the same. It was sometimes easy, back then, to get wrapped up in your own small weightlifting corner of the world while you were training; you saw the same people every day, going through a routine that didn’t vary significantly. But you knew that once or twice a year you could catch up with the broader community and see friends whom you spoke with perhaps five or six times over the course of a four-year Olympic cycle. Yet there was a continuity to those relationships, irrespective of the distance and time that kept us all apart. There were often big changes from year to year: athletes grew up and improved or declined, coaches took on new lifters or lost old ones, people moved on or died and new athletes entered the sport. Only the lifting was constant, the way laws and myths exist independent of the people who make them. The lifting bound us, and you knew that the time and distance didn’t matter. When you got your yearly updates at the Nationals, or the American Open, it was as though the intervening months had been a brief, insignificant flash. Those national meets strung together our relationships and friendships, bridging distances (geographic, ideological, temporal) that might otherwise have been insuperable.
So we sat and talked, catching up with friends, leafing through fresh copies of Denis Reno’s Weightlifter’s Newsletter, and generally feeling, if only for that weekend, that we were with our people.
The next evening, after a low-key day of light training and watching some of the lighter competitors and not eating (and trying not to think about eating), I began the serious work of cutting weight. In the room I shared with Pete and Joe I ran a terrifically hot bath. “As hot as you can stand,” Nikos had always told me, when explaining the process. Within seconds of entering the tub I began to sweat profusely, and the steam wafting off the water made breathing difficult. The bathroom had a TV embedded in the mirror, and to my great fortune The Fifth Element was playing on it, so through the fog of steam I watched Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich run around with strange-looking aliens while I sat in what felt like boiling water for as long as I could endure.
After fifteen or twenty minutes in the tub I felt sufficiently cooked. Enough! Out of the tub for me. I emerged dripping and bright red, like a lobster crawling forth from its pot. If only that were the end of the ordeal; instead, I went straight from the tub to a heavy sweatshirt and sweatpants and then wrapped myself up under the covers, where the sweating continued. It was awful, terrible sweating, combined with a sense of doom, like my body was wondering what in the name of hell’s sake it had done to deserve this cruel punishment.
“Feel good, buddy?” Pete asked.
“Fantastic,” I said. “I should do this more often…”
I baked. Sweat streamed off of me in my body’s futile effort to keep cool. Eventually, I slept. At some point in the night I awoke and threw off the covers—it was too much. The TV was still on, casting its blue light across the room. Joe was snoring loudly, but next to me Pete was still up. He looked at me.
“You still alive?”
“Barely. Maybe you could just, push me into the pool…”
“Ha! No way. You’d sink like a stone.”
“And anyway, you look like you still got a kilo or so to go.”
“Christ. Why in god’s sake am I doing this.”
“For the glory.”
“Yes, exactly. The glory. All that glory. And the huge paycheck.”
Glory indeed. I turned over and saw my cellphone’s light blinking in the darkness, a little flashing green beacon of hope. A text message. Fumbling through my fatigue and dehydration I reached for it and flipped it open, afraid to hope and yet hoping all the same.
Good luck tomorrow.
From Libby. Almost the only thing that had passed between us in weeks. Just seeing her name on my screen brought back a rush of emotions that I was unprepared for. What had once been commonplace—texts and calls on a daily basis—was now reduced to this one brief message.
There was so much I wanted to express in response, beyond just gratitude. But I knew I couldn’t trust myself to form anything coherent in my current starved and overheated state; nor did I think it would truly matter. In the end I tapped out nothing more than a thank you and rolled back over, with visions of her—naked, clothed, lifting, on top of me—dancing before my eyes. As I drifted off to that non-space somewhere between wakefulness and sleep I half-dreamt and half-wished that I was already competing and that she was watching me from the crowd. In my dream I was strong and precise and I never missed, and I drew strength from her presence and from the knowledge that somehow things were right between us. But in my final lift I jerked awake and realized none of it was real, and that whatever happened the following morning, in the competition, it would not be as I’d dreamt it.
“You okay buddy?” Pete asked. “Almost punched me in the chest.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Just hallucinating from the sweating. I’m sure it’s a good thing.”
I pulled the sheets up as much as I could stand, and went back to sleep. In the morning I would compete, and then I’d watch Joe and Pete in the afternoon, and then on Sunday Ricky and Myron (if he showed) and Libby. But for now all I had to do was sleep, and sweat, and hope my body knew how to keep itself alive through the awful baking…
[more to come…]