Of Iron and Bronze – 6

« Les sucres » by Edmond-Joseph Massicotte, engraving from L’album universel


If the image I had of Ricky was first formed in that encounter in the Bayonne High School basement, with him dropping the barbell in a cloud of dust and looking like some shaggy phoenix rising from a powdery white fire, Pete solidified the mythos around him. Pete was the short stocky kid I met that first night and he fast became my regular training partner on days when I could make the trek out to Bayonne. He had started Olympic lifting a year or so before me, and it was he more than anyone who brought me into the sport. Not only did he regale me with stories of Ricky’s greatness, he taught me the practical, day-to-day details of being a weightlifter.

“We gotta get you some shoes, boy,” he said moments after I met him, as I laced up a pair of too-large lifting shoes that were sitting, unused, along the wall.

“Where do you buy shoes?” I asked, standing and testing out the strange footwear. It felt like I was walking around in an old bowling shoe.

Pete smiled and nodded. “Different, ain’t it?”

I did a few squats. The total lack of compression and the raised heel were entirely alien to me.

“You’ll get used to ’em,” he added. “Soon you won’t even know how you ever lifted in anything else.”

And—of course—he was right. Indeed before the evening was out I was already sold on the merits of lifting shoes, and luckily Pete was ready to tell me where I might procure a set for myself. I again convinced my parents to give me a credit card—pleading for the shoes as an early Christmas gift—and then ordered a top-of-the-line set of black and white Adidas shoes that featured a pair of straps that buckled over the lacing. I spent the next week checking the mail religiously, sometimes multiple times a day in case the postman misplaced them in his jeep during his route and doubled back to make another delivery. When they finally arrived I set them on my bed and marveled at them, like a supplicant at the altar of a pair of weightlifting gods: make me great, I wanted to say to them. They were a beautiful balance of craftsmanship and technology: fine white leather marked with three black stripes, a wood heel, plastic buckles that slid into place with a reassuringly weighty click. I had no means of getting to the gym that evening so I settled for wearing them around the house and doing the occasional bodyweight squat. Had I not been concerned about rolling onto them I probably would have taken them to bed with me that evening, so enamored was I with the shoes…

Once I was finally able to use them in their proper home the shoes became an extension of myself. And, as Pete had predicted, I would never again lift in anything else. These were so clearly crafted for their task—and crafted to do it well—that they made all other footwear seem frivolous by comparison.

But Pete told me about more than shoes. He gave me my first roll of tape and showed me how to cover my thumbs (and convinced me to stick with the hook grip, no matter how strange it felt initially). He let me borrow his lifting straps and eventually gave me some extra material with which to make my own. And he built up the legend of Ricky, turning him into something at once present and distant, a figure located in the gym—our gym!—yet who also occupied a storied past that was beyond our memory. Ricky was like a moment of the 70s and 80s who’d forgotten or simply refused to turn into history, and so here he was, still attacking the weights with the intensity of someone half his age by the time I met him, and still by far the strongest figure in that gym.

Pete reveled in this greatness.

“He was a helluva lifter,” Pete would say, as though he’d known the younger Ricky. “Guy could pull lifts out of his ass, lifts you’d never think he’d make, and there he’d go an’ make ’em.”

He spoke with such reverence not just for Ricky, but for any number of towering athletes past and present. He loved the sport in his very bones and knew it with a savant-like precision. He could rattle off dates and names and weights with such accuracy that even Ricky himself—who’d actually been present at some of these famous battles—couldn’t match. And all this despite Pete not having seen most of the lifts of which he spoke. This was an almost purely numerical memory, built up from studying editions of USA Weightlifting’s magazine and Denis Reno’s photocopied Weightlifting Newsletter. From these bits of data and a few black and white photos—when they were available—Pete could conjure up whole competitions, including the order of lifters and what was at stake with each attempt. And the rest of us would listen as though sitting by a radio decades ago to get the play-by-play of a ball game. Sometimes, if we were lucky, Pete’s descriptions would kindle in Ricky some memory of a particular competition, and he would fill in details that only someone who’d been there could know—a fight between a coach and athlete in the back room, or a bad call by a ref that cost someone a competition.

Perhaps the only thing Pete loved as much or more than weightlifting was food. Not just in the way of most weightlifters—most of us have rarely encountered a meal we didn’t like—but in the sense of a true gourmand, which was no common thing for a sixteen-year-old kid in New Jersey. He loved food and every aspect of it—from farming or wilderness to cooking and consumption—in a way that made any meal, no matter how quotidian, seem poetic. I’d never thought of food much beyond its capacity to eradicate my hunger, and here was someone who could hold court about the regional cuisines of Central Italy or the properties of different types of breads. I remember listening to him give an impromptu lecture on the merits of real maple syrup in the gym one evening.

“What the hell’s wrong with Aunt Jemima?” asked Ricky.

Pete, who was just about to set up for a clean and jerk, stopped and raised his hands. He staggered backward a step or two, as though the force of Ricky’s words had knocked him over in their offensiveness.

“Aunt Jemima? Puj, are you shittin’ me?”

Ricky shrugged. “I use that all the time. Sometimes Log Cabin if that’s on sale.”

Pete shook his head. “Puj…”

“Wait, is this gonna be long?”

Pete looked at him, as if to indicate that how could a discourse on the virtues of maple syrup be anything but lengthy.

“Take your lift first,” said Ricky. “Then talk.”

“Okay,” nodded Pete.

He crouched to the barbell, which was loaded with a respectable 105 kilos—fair weight for a junior 76-kilo lifter in those days. Even then, with barely over a year under his belt, Pete moved like a real weightlifter. He’d developed a precise dynamic start early on—one quick rise of the hips—that persisted through his entire career. With this rapid stretch done he lowered his hips back into position and smoothly pulled the bar from the floor, bringing it to his chest in a manner that would make many more experienced lifters envious. The jerk was just as smooth, and when he returned the bar to the creaking wooden platform he seemed hardly aware of the effort.

“Where was I?” he asked.

“Aunt Jemima,” I said.

“Right. You know what’s in that shit?” he said, addressing Ricky and the room in general—a group of five or six of us that winter evening in the high school basement.

Ricky shrugged, as did a few others. “What’s in it?”

Pete looked about. “Well I sure as hell don’t know! And I don’t wanna know! It’s all chemicals and stuff. Who the hell wants that?”

Ricky motioned for quiet and watched as Al, the olive-skinned guy who looked like he was built to move weights, executed a snatch. It was 120 kilos, which at the time seemed like an extraordinary amount of weight to me. I couldn’t imagine putting that overhead in either lift, as my best snatch was just over half that.

“So whadda you use?” asked Al, when he’d put the barbell down. Great clouds of dust accompanied his dropping of the barbell, as well as the clamor of rubber and metal plates jostling against each other.

“Hundred percent pure maple syrup. Ain’t a artificial thing in it. Just pure sap taken from trees up in Vermont and places like—“

“Trees?” said Al with disdain. “That’s fucking disgusting. I don’t wanna eat no shit from trees. I’ll take my fake-ass Aunt Jemima any day.”

“You wanna be a weightlifter you gotta eat anything,” croaked Bill, the bandana-wearing old man. “It don’t matter where it comes from or what it tastes like. You just gotta eat! My day we ate whatever, raw eggs and hamburger meat three times a day. None o’ this fancy stuff.”

“Blasphemy!” said Pete, shaking his head. And he went on to extoll the merits of maple syrup, taking great pains to elaborate on the labors of boiling the raw sap down and the flavor profiles of different types of syrup. All this in between more lifts.

Such was his love for food and every aspect of it. When others brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or store-bought subs for training, Pete would pull from his duffel bag a Tupperware container of deviled eggs and Spanish rice, all prepared from scratch by him—and with nice seasoning and presentation to boot. He was a curious kid, and for this and many reasons, some I can’t even explain, I took to him right away. We were friends almost immediately, so much so that it was as though we’d been friends even before our meeting and just hadn’t known it yet.


[next chapter]

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