Of Iron and Bronze – 4

(Suleymanoglu and Abadjiev; photo by Bruce Klemens)

(Suleymanoglu and Abadjiev; photo by Bruce Klemens)

4.

In the summer of ’96, not long before I turned 17, my high school friends and I planned what was to be The Greatest Shore Party Of All Time. Through a series of deals and moves that rivaled the planning of a major bank heist, ten or so of us aged 15 to 18 had managed to procure a week-long house rental in Ortley Beach (just north of Seaside Heights, our Mecca) and enough beer and liquor to guarantee much of that week would be forgotten, or at least very hazily remembered. The Greatest Shore Party Of All Time—which my friend Mikey began referring to as “The G-SPOT,” much to our adolescent delight—was to take place at the end of July, after we’d all had time to become flush with cash thanks to our summer jobs. I looked forward to this event—which was to be my first real experience with partying down at the Jersey Shore—with the anticipation of doomsday prophet eagerly awaiting The Rapture.

Then, a few short days prior to the inaugural night of the festivities, two kids from my high school ended up going the wrong way down the Garden State Parkway in a Camaro IROC-Z and getting into a terrible wreck—after their own revelries down the shore. One kid died, and one ended up in a coma that—at the time—no one was sure he’d wake up from. The news shook just about everyone in my little suburban community. In my parents’ case, it shook them so much that they flat out forbade me from taking part in the upcoming bacchanal (which they had assumed was not so much a bacchanal as a beach trip). Despite all my protests and lies—that we weren’t partying like those kids, that we were safe, that there would be adults present—they were firm.

My fate was sealed.

In my anger and frustration, as my friends piled into their cars and began to head down the shore, I sought refuge in the only place I thought I had left: the gym.

I’d been lifting weights—first in my home with a pair of 5-pound dumbbells, then at the Madison YMCA—since I was twelve years old. Ever since leafing through an uncle’s copies of FLEX and Muscle & Fitness I’d wanted to transform myself into the figures in those pages. I probably spent more time looking at nearly-naked photos of men like Lee Haney and Dorian Yates than I did looking at the women in Playboys stolen from friends’ dads. In the pages of those muscle magazines were all the instructions I thought I needed: Lee Priest’s Arm Routine! Six-Pack Abs! Increase your Bench in Four Weeks!

That last one was particularly relevant: I used to love to bench. The feeling of power, the controlled rhythm of descent and ascent, the iron jingle of the plates jostling against each other—every aspect of the bench press’s physical experience appealed to me. So too did the numbers: the way weights increased in neat 5- or 10-pound increments, the way I knew precise combinations of bigger plates (45s and 35s and 25s), the way I marked out personal milestones by the number of 45-pound plates I had per side of the barbell (one for 135, two for 225, three for 315, and four for the never-attained 405; how I dreamed of that…).

That summer, on one of those days when I should have been down the shore, was my last real bench workout, before I made the switch to Olympic weightlifting. I remember it better than my first sexual encounter. In truth it was probably more physically demanding and exhilarating than that experience had been, for all involved. In the YMCA’s weight room, trying to cope with missing out on the greatest party of all time, benching was my means of feeling like I still had power and agency in this world.

“Lift off on three, okay?”

Frankie, a powerlifter spotting me whose enormous form hung over me as I lay on the bench, nodded. His huge shoulders and neck tapered into a closely-cropped head in my field of vision, creating an inverted triangle of muscle. “How many you going for?”

“Four or five,” I said. “We’ll see.”

I set my hands on the bar and dug my shoulders and ass into the bench, arched my lower back, and planted my feet firmly against the floor. With my arms nearly extended I felt myself braced against the barbell, a sensation of everything—me, the bench, the weight—being firmly locked into place.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Okay. One… two… three.”

Frankie lifted as I pushed against the barbell. I felt its resistance give as I overcame the inertia, felt the static configuration of my body and the bench and the bar shift into movement like a set of gears slowly grinding to life. The bar left the rack and arced forward, plates jangling slightly, and then settled to a spot just over my eyes, where it remained. Frankie removed his hands and I felt the weight settle, all 275 pounds of it.

In that second or two before initiating a set, with the bar and all its iron plates loaded and suspended over you, there is a balance, a sort of symmetry between you and the weight that can feel almost poetic. Or at least it does in retrospect. I’m not sure I ever felt that way in the moment. What I probably felt was the great concentration of energy I was directing toward holding the weight steady, and the great store of potential energy I was about to release.

I lowered the bar, slowing its descent until it reached my chest and I felt the raw iron through my thin t-shirt. Directing all my power into a single task I then pressed, driving the bar away as though pushing against the world itself.

One. Two. Slow going down, faster going up. The steady rhythm of repetitions, proceeding like some meditative mantra. Three. Four. On the fourth rep I did the automatic calculations of how I felt and decided to go for one more. At the end of the fifth rep I held the bar over me for just a beat, a slice of a moment, as I again enjoyed the sensation of being locked in sync with the weight.

“Okay,” I said, signaling to Frankie.

He leaned forward and helped me re-rack the bar. It hit the bench’s supports with a dull metallic thud, iron against steel, and then settled. I thanked him, he left to go do something with an enormous pair of dumbbells, and as I leaned back against the bar I felt some semblance that things were right in the world—if just for a moment.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t spend all my time in the gym. When I was back at home I spent most hours watching NBC’s coverage of the 1996 Games in Atlanta. I’d developed a devastating crush on Dominique Moceanu—one of the “Magnificent Seven” that went on to win gold in gymnastics that year. Kerri Strug may have won the hearts of the American public with her gutsy made-for-TV performance on a broken ankle, but it was Dominique who vaulted into my heart. In an effort not to miss any coverage of her I was basically watching the Olympics around the clock when not in the gym. I’m not sure what my goals were, but I think I hoped that we’d have some sort of mental connection through the TV set—as though she’d pause mid routine and think, Jonathan? Is that you out there? But of course this didn’t happen…

On one of those nights I did see something different, although it had nothing to do with her: after flipping through the channels once I realized there was no gymnastics coverage I settled again on NBC. Onscreen, a small man in what looked like a wrestling singlet was walking out to a barbell loaded with colorful red and green plates. He stepped to the bar, took hold of it with a wide grip—although his arms were so short that it looked narrower than my bench grip—and after a quick pump of his arms he proceeded to lift the barbell overhead in one smooth motion.

What the hell was that? I wondered, fascinated and intrigued and more than a little confused. None of the on screen text or graphics meant anything—kilograms? Three white circles? Suleymanoglu? But it was a display of strength and athleticism and it involved a barbell and weights, and for me that was all that mattered.

I watched the heavily edited NBC coverage and was transfixed. The announcers clarified the weights being used by giving their equivalent in pounds, and it dawned on me that these tiny men—all of whom weighed less than me, I learned—were putting weights that I could barely squat overhead in one movement. And with such speed! Such power! And each successful lift ended with the athlete standing in triumph, demonstrating complete mastery of these huge weights. This was nothing like the lifting I knew, which seemed slow and rigid now by comparison. Far from the mechanical, clockwork rhythm of the bench or curls, this was an organic burst of energy. It was controlled chaos, a bravado demonstration of people literally throwing weights around. As the competitors moved on to a different lift—this one involving two stages, first to the chest and then overhead—my fascination only grew. By the time a Greek by the name of Leonidis failed his third and final lift, giving this Suleymanoglu character the gold, I was wholly caught up in the fervor of the moment and the draw of the sport.

I wish I could say the evening was transformative in some way that makes for a good athletic trajectory—that I suddenly dropped partying and devoted myself to training. That I started doing pushups then and there in my living room, dedicating myself to an Olympic dream. Instead, while my parents and younger brother slept, I snuck outside for a quick puff on a fragment of an old joint I’d found in my room earlier that day. There was no redemption, no clear path.

But there was a spark. When I finished the brittle husk of what I was pretending was chronic I went back inside and fired up my computer. After playing Duke Nukem 3D for an hour or so I logged into AOL and through a combination of luck and aimless internet wandering—back when every minute online cost money—I found just enough information to get started. I found out about the snatch and the clean and jerk. I spent several minutes downloading a picture of Naim Suleymanoglu, the “Pocket Hercules.” I found a beginner training program on a site for the Queensland Weightlifting Association (where the hell is Queensland? I wondered…). I found a book by some guy named Roman about the snatch and the clean and jerk, and the following morning I convinced my dad to let me use his credit card so I could order a copy. When it arrived I couldn’t believe the contrast to fitness books and magazines I was accustomed to: this was no glossy, ad-filled barrage of hyperboles. This was a stack of computer paper spiral-bound in an office supply store, filled with pages and pages of dense, almost scientific prose. Still, I did what I could to study the words and images and simple line drawings as though trying to divine the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

When I next went to the gym, I bypassed my usual routine of biceps or shoulders or whatever was planned that day. Instead, armed with little more than the memory of the footage on NBC and a few snippets of online wisdom—the book had not yet arrived—I grabbed a rusted barbell and began a clumsy parody of the Olympic lifts. The other patrons weren’t quite sure what to make of my awkward contortions, but I’d been going to the Y long enough that they were willing to tolerate, or at least ignore, my strange movements. I had no clue what I was doing, and when the book finally did arrive it only slightly helped as I tried to make my body do what was represented in those words and drawings and images. But in my struggles I felt a rekindling of my love for the barbell that I didn’t think possible. In near total ignorance, with no way of actually watching a real lift again once the Olympics were over, I plowed ahead and never looked back.

 

[next chapter]

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