My recollections of the rest of that Nationals weekend are mostly vague and indistinct, save for a few scattered flashbulb memories—peeing in a bathroom stall for drug testing while a USADA worker dutifully stared at my member, watching Joe bomb out in the jerk, seeing Pete get turned down on his last snatch for a pressout. These became a few more entries in my collective national competition memory, so much so that I sometimes question if the years haven’t bled into one another.
But there were three highlights from that weekend that still stand out. The first was seeing Myron and Ricky battle it out for a spot on the podium. When or how Myron arrived was never clear to us, as though he materialized in the warmup room on the day of the competition and then slipped away just as inconspicuously when it was over. Even in the warmup room he looked like he wasn’t quite a part of the environment, as though he were always operating on a plane just a half a degree out of alignment with our own.
“Strange bird,” said Ricky at one point, as Myron was wrapping his wrists in athletic tape with surgical meticulousness.
Strange as Myron was, he’d lost nothing in the weeks he’d been away from our gym; if anything he’d improved. When he opened at 145 in the snatch few people knew who he was, although the weight was enough to make many in the small crowd take notice. And if they hadn’t been paying attention earlier they certainly were after he raised the bar: the slow first pull, the violent punch-in-the-gut explosion of the second pull, and then the bar just hanging motionless as his body ricocheted under the weight and brought his feet into sharp contact with the platform.
Suddenly people were taking notice.
“Kid is fast,” I heard a few voices murmur in the crowd, in case there’d been any confusion over that point…
But as good as Myron and Ricky were—going back and forth in the snatch and clean and jerk—they were both fighting for the edge of the podium, along with a few other athletes. There was one outlier, a prodigiously talented athlete who partied as hard as he lifted, who was a lock for first place. Ricky, after his final clean and jerk, was almost certainly destined to be in fourth place, just off the podium. He’d taken a huge ten kilo jump on his final attempt—190—and he ran up to the weight with such confidence that I was all but certain he’d make it, which would have guaranteed him a medal. It’s just like Kakhiashvili at the Olympics in 1992! I thought, only with far less weight and lower stakes on the line and with an athlete at the end of his career rather than the beginning. So really nothing like that, but still inspiring all the same…
And he did get the weight overhead, but with elbows so bent that they were closer to right angles than straight. He held the weight steady for a few long seconds, nearly striking a double-biceps pose with the barbell, and then put it down, no doubt hoping for some sort of miracle from the judges. He even clapped and pumped his fists before looking at the scoreboard, selling the lift until the very end—a used car salesman kicking the bumper off a rusting jalopy and hoping you don’t notice. But there were red lights across the board, and that was it for Ricky.
“Looked like a good lift to me,” said Pete later as we congratulated and commiserated with our coach.
“You oughta get your eyes checked in that case,” said Ricky, smiling and shaking his head.
But the competition wasn’t finished—in addition to a few scattered attempts by athletes jockeying for placement there still remained the category’s top athlete and gold medal favorite.
Or so we thought. Three missed lifts later, as the star of the class was unable to secure a single jerk overhead, everybody moved up a spot from where they’d thought they’d end.
“Holy shit!” said Joe, watching alongside me and Pete. “That old bastard just got bronze!”
“And Myron pulled home a silver,” said Pete.
Sometimes the sport smiles on you. Ricky, who never liked winning due to another’s misfortune, took the podium all the same. We watched with great pride as a marshal—closer to Ricky’s age than any of the competitors were—placed the medals over the big man’s shaggy head. It was hard to say whether Ricky was happy up there. He was smiling, and he beamed when we shouted his name, but in watching I recognized that this was not the reward for him. The reward was the lift, and his moments of true happiness—those under the barbell—had already happened. The medal was just another part of the day, like weighing in or eating breakfast, incidental events that moved in orbit around the bar and the weights.
Then there was Libby. In my dreams of this competition I’d visualized myself back in the warmup room with her, loading the bar, watching the progression, making small talk to keep her mind occupied, and cheering her on the platform from the staging area. Given how extraordinarily bad things had played out between us, this was, unsurprisingly, not the case. I was tempted to ask her, at the last minute, if she wanted me in the warmup room but wisely thought better of it. Or rather, Pete wisely advised me against it.
“Don’t even think about it, buddy,” he said, as we walked past the warmup area and I stared in her general direction, like a lost puppy searching for its owner.
Instead I watched her from the crowd, along with Pete and Joe and a couple dozen other fans. If she had any nerves for her first national competition I could not tell. I realized that, even had we been on good terms, I would’ve been superfluous in the warmup room; her calm came from within. She walked out for her attempts with the same focused, subtle intensity that she brought to every one of her lifts in training. Like her brother she had the ability to appear as though she were lifting in a world all her own, devoid of fans or competitors or anything besides herself and the barbell. Unlike him she still seemed deeply invested in the outcome—she wanted each lift, and that one emotion came through above all others. Of all the athletes from our gym, including Ricky, only she was truly made of iron, stronger even than the barbell itself, while the rest of us, impassioned as we were about this sport, were bronze or baser metals.
She made three good snatches, each one better than the last, and three good clean and jerks. A flawless day. In the end she stood on the podium and took home silver medals across the board, and I think each of us watching knew that the next time she competed nationally they would be gold.
The last thing I recall with any clarity from that weekend—although it gets fuzzy toward the end—is the post competition celebrating in the hotel lobby. We stayed at the bar until well into the early morning. There were many congratulations, many rounds of drinks, many discussions of what might have been. There were speculations on why athletes missed lifts, extensive rounds of coaching in hindsight, as well as predictions for who was most likely to fail a drug test. We spoke and gesticulated wildly, with the fervor of those debating affairs of great importance and doing so in a language all our own. We celebrated our successes, laughed at the failures of others, laughed even harder at our own failures. Drinks were ordered, toasts cheered, more drinks ordered.
Late in the evening I ended up next to Russ, who was several rounds into gin and tonics. He smiled at me jovially and said I’d lifted well, congratulated me, speculated on what might be good to plan for in the coming year.
“No Worlds, though,” I said.
He laughed, though without any malice. “No, not this year. You came close, though. You and Ricky both came close. Myron may get on, but it’s not clear.”
“And Libby?” I asked.
He took a sip from his drink and raised his eyebrows. “She did it. The numbers right now say she’s on the team.” He considered this with something that looked like reverence, took another sip, then repeated: “She did it.”
I scanned the bar for her, thinking I’d congratulate her. Joe, a beer in one hand and a shot glass in the other, was drunkenly cornering a coach by one end of the bar while the coach was trying to ease herself away. Pete was sitting on top of a lounge chair, probably shouting about maple syrup to those around him. Ricky had tied one of his medals around his head like a headband and looked to be trying to have a serious conversation with another older lifter despite this strange fashion choice. Nikos, his pushbroom mustache moving feverishly as he talked, was going over the finer points of jerk technique with an athlete who’d only made one lift in the clean and jerk.
But there was no sign of Libby.
I thanked Russ for his help that weekend and returned to the crowd, the little family of strange adherents to the sport clustered there in a hotel bar that Sunday night. In the morning there would be flights to make and then a return to reality. We would all have our routines waiting for us back home: more training, another year of competitions, plans for the American Open and next year’s Nationals. Jobs and school and home life and whatever else happened in the spaces between meets. But for a few hours it was good to be in the company of other lifters, the people who knew you and your struggles and who understood you in the way only another lifter could.