Competition day. I weighed in at 77 kilos on the dot—something I’d assumed didn’t really happen. Anytime I’d seen an athlete with a bodyweight exactly equal to the category limit I’d figured that, in truth, they’d been overweight and had simply slipped the ref a fiver to put them down at the limit. But on that morning, naked and desiccated and feeling closer to mummification than competing, the digital readout stopped exactly at 77.00 kilos.
Ricky smiled at me when he saw the numbers. “Didn’t lose a gram more than you needed.”
After weighing in we went to the warmup area, where I could relax and stretch and rehydrate and move around with the empty barbell. Pete was there, as were Russ and Nikos. The other athletes were going through similar routines, or else lying around listening to iPods and discmen or doing whatever pre-competition ritual they felt necessary to their performance, a mix of activities that ranged from the scientific to the superstitious. Pete talked to me, helping to keep me calm and distracted from the steadily building nerves. He knew what I was going through and knew, better than anyone, how to keep me out of my own head.
Ten minutes prior to the start of the competition the lifters were called out for introductions. We formed a line and then walked out to the platform and each of us stepped forward when his name was called and waved to the small audience. Perhaps two dozen people sat in that crowd—a great turnout, in those days. As I stood out there, waiting for my own name, I looked at them all, hoping for a face that I suspected wasn’t there.
When the session started I began taking 50 kilos. My mind was a steady hum of background concerns—did that feel right? am I on schedule? is my thumb tape sticking?—that I had to constantly suppress. Pete loaded my bar and kept talking, knowing I needed it, while Ricky kept yelling at him to save his energy.
“You gotta lift later!” he said, but Pete brushed this aside.
“I load bars every day in trainin’” he said. “Ain’t no different here.”
Ricky shook his head but let him stay. He looked at me. “How you feel?”
“Not bad,” I said. “We’ll see when it gets heavier.”
He waved a thick finger in front of my face. “Remember: don’t matter how you feel! You lift big weights either way.”
I smiled. A classic Ricky aphorism, one that he’d been peppering our training and meets with for years. “You got it.”
The competition rolled along, the weight on my bar and that of the platform steadily increasing. I went through 50, 70, 90, 100. Then 110. Things felt good. I was cautiously optimistic. Had I experienced some mystical recovery in the last few days? Had the baking somehow been good for my body? Whatever it was, even Nikos and Ricky and Russ looked impressed.
“Best I seen you move in weeks,” said Ricky, and for once I didn’t think he was lying to give me confidence on the platform. Maybe—maybe—a 300 total was still in the realm of the possible…
When the competition barbell was loaded with my opener Nikos called to me. “Is time,” he said, with the solemnity of a man headed to an execution. I nodded, and he and my little entourage followed me out that stairs that led to the platform.
“Just another day at the office,” said Ricky as I chalked up. “You done all the work.”
The bar was set to 125 kilos. Two big reds per side. A weight I’d spent years trying to overcome, and now I was opening with it. I pushed that thought aside—this is no weight, I thought instead.
Feet planted, shoulders over the bar, head up, finding a spot on which to focus. Feeling the barbell in the hands, checking the grip, then again. This is no weight… body set, then GO.
“That was cake!” said Ricky as I came off the platform, and I couldn’t help but nod in agreement. It was the best snatch I’d done in weeks, and the next two—130, then 132.5—went up like clockwork, each identical to the last. Everything felt right: the bar, the platform, the way I was moving with the weight. Had I ever felt this?
When the snatches concluded I was in third place overall, and thus guaranteed at least one bronze medal. Nikos and Russ were keeping whatever excitement they felt under control, but Ricky was far less restrained, try as he might to stay level.
“Three good clean and jerks,” he said a few times, pacing my warmup platform as I sat and rested. “That’s all you need to do.”
Nothing was said of the 300 total, but I was sure he was thinking it. I knew I was…
Russ was handling attempts, and he had me open at 157.5 kilos. It seemed a long way from what I needed for a 300 total or a shot at an international team but I knew he was thinking long term. My warmups felt good, and I was confident walking out to the weight. On the platform, as I steadied myself before setting up over the bar, my gaze settled with terrible accuracy on a single, new face in the crowd: Libby, sitting on her own, looking at me without enthusiasm, but there all the same.
A quick shot of panic and elation tore through me and I did all I could to suppress it. There was still this bar to lift, after all…
I made my 157.5 opener without fanfare. It felt good, almost routine, as though I were still taking warmups. For my second attempt Russ and Nikos conferred amongst themselves and checked the placements and conferred some more, like a pair of strategists in a war room. They finally settled on 162.5 kilos, and this too I made with confidence.
“One more!” Ricky said, screaming despite clearly trying not to scream to contain his excitement.
I sat in the staging area through a series of other lifts: some makes, some misses by the other athletes. Nikos and Russ conferred. I knew I had my own goals but I trusted their decision. After some time had passed—I lost track of it, sitting trying to stay focused, listening to idle chatter from Pete—Ricky came up to me.
“Let’s go. You’re gonna do 167.5, and you’re gonna make it.”
“This what you came here to do, buddy,” said Pete. “Let’s see it!”
I nodded. Right.
Ricky slapped me on the shoulders; the force of his great paws coming down on me nearly knocked me over. I steadied myself, took in a huge lungful of air, and stepped forward. From the crowd I heard shouts and cries of encouragement, and as I ascended the three steps to the platform I felt certain that I was here for one purpose: to make this final clean and jerk.
There was something different, then, from what I had long grown accustomed to when competing. Different even from the days on drugs. It was as though I’d stepped into some great current of energy, and each step closer to the barbell brought me more in sync with it. For a brief second I remembered something Ricky had once told me, about the great Yuri Vlasov and his description of tremendous and victorious effort. Its particulars were lost to me but I swore that somehow my body was recalling the sensation that had been described, one in which the world becomes clearer and you feel to be in possession of extraordinary power and ability. Was this it? Was this what Ricky had told me about? He’d once mentioned that for him the real high was not winning medals; the real high was the feeling. I felt certain that this was it. This was what I’d been chasing after, all these years.
Whatever spark I thought was gone in the prior weeks of training had been rekindled twice over for this one attempt, an all out effort to make good on what I’d set out to do.
Everything extraneous faded from my vision as I walked to the middle of the platform—the crowd, the judges, the lights, the room, the world beyond the room, everything… All I saw was the barbell: the thin stretch of brilliant steel that stood between me and my goal. Gripping it, holding its rough, knurled surface, I swore it seemed somehow small in comparison to my hands. I sensed its own power, its own stored energy, and then I felt that I was taking that energy from it, growing stronger and stronger with each passing second, each tick of the clock. I had no doubt, then, that the barbell would yield. It would yield because I, like a small god, was a master over gravity, and in my hands the bar would bend to my will.
I recognized the silence before the lift. It was my silence! It was a silence the universe had crafted for me and me alone, in admiration of my work. I felt the power within me, and I knew then that it was all the power of the world, a power so great that I struggled to contain it. I wait a moment, just a moment, so that I might direct that power. Like a valve releasing pressure I allow a yell to come out—There! See my power!—and then I get set and GO.
The weight is heavy but I am stronger. The weight wants to pull me to the ground but I pull harder. The clean is finished without my thinking, and soon I am rising, rising with the weight across my shoulders. There is some perception of joy around me, of people screaming and cheering, but none of that matters. All that matters is the bar across my shoulders, which I must now throw overhead. My blood is pounding in my head but I see very clearly what I must do, and I know that I can do it, that I will do it. There is no doubt. There is only the will…
I jerked the weight overhead and secured myself in the split. The tremendous sense of power was still there, even as the weight fought to come down. HOLD, I thought. HOLD. Just a moment longer. I steadied myself, conscious of the cries and shouts but focused entirely on holding that weight overhead, and when I finally brought my feet in line and received the down signal from the center referee I felt the closest thing to pure triumph that I’d ever experienced…
Which unfortunately lasted for only a fleeting moment, as the judges ruled against me two to one.
“Bullshit!” cried Ricky, screaming at the top of his lungs. He was so agitated I feared he might run out and attack someone. A few people in the crowd booed. Had it been a press out? True, my right elbow had felt a bit soft, but I thought I’d held it steady, at least…
I looked to the refs for some explanation but there was none. The jury? No movement. With no other options—short of screaming, which Ricky was still doing—I walked off the platform, my thoughts a heady mix of triumph and defeat.
“That was a good lift!” Ricky screamed in the warmup room, after he’d been more or less dragged away from yelling at the judges. “Russ? Nikos?”
They both shrugged.
“Hard to say,” said Russ. “Maybe a little soft in that jerk, but… I thought it was good. They’ve passed worse, certainly.”
“Is good lift for me,” said Nikos, smiling and putting a hand on my shoulder.
I pulled down my singlet and sat back.
“Three hundred total, buddy,” said Pete, giving me a fist pump. “Counts for me.”
At the end of my session I ended with bronze across the board. Despite missing an official 300 total, and despite the great unlikelihood of making an international team, I felt some satisfaction. I’d lifted as well as I could’ve hoped that day; better, even, given how my training had felt leading up to the competition. And if I’d come up short I told myself it was out of my hands: the judges had ruled one way, and there was nothing left to change it.
On the podium, when the medals had been given to us and we three were smiling for pictures and enjoying the few seconds of applause and appreciation, I scanned the crowd for the face that had been so unsettling—in ways good and bad—not long before. But either she was gone or I couldn’t find her. I contented myself with the medal, held it up for my friends and coaches, and then stepped down.