Of Iron and Bronze – 7

barbell

7.

A comfortable rhythm developed following those early days at the Bayonne gym, after first meeting Pete and Ricky and the others. Once or twice a week I’d drive out to train with them; the rest of the time I’d struggle along in the YMCA with bars that I now recognized as dead and rigid and all but unusable.

Early on Ricky took one look at the training regimen I’d found online and swiftly handed it back with a scoff and then offered to write a real program for me.

“Same thing I did with Pete,” he said. “Get you right where you wanna be and set you up for a competition in a few months.”

A few minutes later, before I’d even finished my warmup, Ricky came over and gave me a sheet of notebook paper covered in a script that was curiously delicate for such enormous hands.

“Do every rep,” he said. “But no more. You gotta follow what the machine says.”

And I did—at least when he was watching. On days when I trained alone at the Y there was almost always some impromptu editing. If a lift didn’t feel right I’d repeat it, chasing after the sensation of having done it correctly; if a lift felt too easy I’d often add weight—a mortal sin without Ricky’s coaching approval—in an effort to speed up my improvement. Always, always I wanted more: more weight, more lifts, more time with the barbell, more feedback. I was hungry for the sport to become a part of me in the way that it was for Ricky and even for Pete.

In this fashion the winter and then the spring rolled by. What was new became routine, and by the summer of 1997—a year after watching Naim Suleymanoglu win gold in Atlanta—I felt as much a part of the Bayonne gym as the bars and plates themselves. So much so that the rest of the world felt increasingly alien, as though excursions outside of training were a disruption in the natural order of things.

Thus passed more months and then years of training, as the sport made its way deeper and deeper into the very fabric of my being. Training was foregrounded amid the backdrop of life outside the gym: junior and senior years of high school, my first and last serious girlfriend, senior prom, summer jobs, my first go at Rutgers University—all were subordinate to what happened in the gym. I marked that history by training PRs and the first time I snatched bodyweight and my first competition in the basement of Lost Battalion Hall in Queens and then Junior Nationals and my first time snatching 100 kilos (“Now you’re a man!” Ricky had said). Pete and Ricky became a little family just as critical to my world as the one into which I’d been born. Others came and went in the Bayonne gym but they were constants, a pair of anchors to that place as dependable as gravity itself. Eventually we found a larger space at Fairleigh Dickinson’s campus in Florham Park—more convenient to my parents’ house—and there we bonded with other like-minded souls, including coaches Nikos and then Russ.

But if these years marked mine and Pete’s ascendancies in the sport they also charted Ricky’s inevitable decline—however slow and imperceptible it may have been in the moment. The weights that he lifted in training, which had once seemed all but unattainable, gradually came into view for me. Eventually it seemed not only possible but likely that I would be able to lift more than him—not more than he’d ever done, but more than he could do then. Our trajectories were lined up such that they would, I knew, ultimately meet: as much due to the march of years reducing what Ricky was capable of as due to my own improvement.

Still his myth—and his prodigious strength for a man his or any age—endured. Like all heroes he became more nuanced the more I knew him, though it was no easy thing to make such inroads. As much as he boasted of former triumphs and feats of strength he rarely responded directly or at length to specific questions. The first time I asked him about the Olympics he just brushed it off.

“I never went!” he said. “Thanks to that bastard Carter.” And he laughed and kept training and changed the subject.

Pete filled in some details, such as he knew, but it was a long time before Ricky answered me with anything more than an evasion.

He finally laid out his story for me—or the version he wanted me to hear—at the end of the summer of 2000, a full twenty years since the 1980 Olympics had taken place. The impending Games in Sydney—the first to feature women’s weightlifting—had us both contemplating future victors and reminiscing about previous champions. It was late in the day and we’d both just finished training in his garage, as the high school was closed on Sundays. We were sitting on metal folding chairs set up in his backyard at the boundary of the garage and driveway, tired and sweating from the summer heat and from our workout in the little gym. The sun had disappeared and the summer twilight was lingering, the world all pink and purple, and fireflies rose in the back of the yard like incandescent bubbles along the side of a glass.

“The 1980 Games?” he asked when I brought the subject up.

I nodded.

“What the hell you wanna know other than that I’m having a party when Jimmy Carter finally kicks the bucket?” He laughed and it was real—a good, genuine laugh, not out of malice or ill-intent—but at its core there was something bitter, too. A note just a shade out of key.

I laughed with him but didn’t say anything. I worried for a moment if the two decades that’d passed hadn’t been time enough. Only later would I come to realize there would never be time enough for him.

He put a hand out to start but then stopped himself, as though reconsidering his story. He rubbed at his beard for a moment and then began. “Basic story is the Soviets invade Afghanistan in seventy nine. President Carter flips out. In January he gives his State of the Union and says if Russia don’t pull out of Afghanistan they’re gonna boycott all sorts of shit; they won’t send anyone to the Games in Moscow that year, they’ll stop sending grain, a whole buncha terms. And the timeline is ridiculous; a month to withdraw. But technically he didn’t have the authority to do the Olympic boycott. That was up to the US Olympic Committee. But man, there was all sorts of pressure on athletes and everyone. We were all told we had to support the boycott, sponsors gave us pressure, all that shit. It was all political crap. But it had to come to vote for the USOC to be official. So in April they voted on it. On whether to approve the boycott.”

“Was it close?”

He put his hands up. “I don’t remember, to tell you the truth. I thought it was close. I still had hope it might go in our favor. I thought maybe the USOC would still send athletes, or at least let us go if we wanted. But then the night of the vote they put out the press release and that was it; the boycott was approved. I was in the gym and some guys heard about it.” He shook his head. “I was so pissed I threw a plate right across the gym! Broke the plate, knocked some shit loose from the cinderblock.

“But even then I thought maybe there was some hope. We all kept training. In June we had the Olympic trials in Philly. Even put the team together. Ten other guys and three alternates. Maybe the other guys knew it was a done deal, that nobody was going, but man, I still hoped.” He shook his head slightly.

“That was it,” he continued. “Nobody was going to the Olympics. At least not the athletes. Really, in the end, the only people who got screwed was us, the athletes I mean. There was never any grain embargo. All the officials and equipment and stuff, all that shit still went to the Games. But not us. They threatened to take our passports away if we tried. Instead they brought us down to Washington when the Games were going on. Had a big party. Like anyone wanted to party.” He let out a short laugh. “We didn’t train to party. We trained to compete! They gave us these Congressional medal things, said some shit. Gave us the chance to shake the president’s hand if we wanted.”

“Did you?” I’d never been so close to greatness as he’d been, and in hearing it laid out thus it seemed strangely mundane. Congressional medals. Meeting the president. Was all triumph so flattened in retrospect?

“Hell no! Most of us didn’t. I don’t know if other sports did. I was too pissed to even look him in the eye.”

He paused, looking perhaps at some vision of the past or at his restructuring and ordering of it, an order that defined his retelling and that was itself modified in that retelling. To remember is nothing more than to write a little history, even if only for yourself, and each rewriting moves us further from the actual past. I wondered then what was real and what was his story and whether there was ever any way of recovering those days in their actual form.

“The night I was supposed to compete I think I realized, finally, that I wasn’t going,” he said.

“How would you have done?” I asked.

“Eh, top five maybe, if I had a great day. Maybe.”

“What about the 84 Games?” I asked.

He lifted one hand and let it fall in a gesture that seemed to speak of defeat. “I wasn’t that young in eighty. I tried to prep for 84 but I was beat up by then. There were younger guys taking over at that point. So… that was it.”

I nodded and then he smiled, more to himself than at me. “Butch, the other 90-kilo lifter with me, used to joke and say he was a victim of the Cold War. When I first heard it I laughed, thinking of how ridiculous that sounded. But now… I dunno. Sometimes it don’t seem so funny.

“That’s pretty much it,” he said, putting his hands on his knees and leaning forward to stand. “Four years later the Soviets boycott us when the Games were in LA.”

“What about Afghanistan?”

“You mean did they pull out?”

“Yeah.”

He laughed, again with humor but not without that same trace of bitterness as well. “Yeah,” he said. “Ten years later.”

I laughed with him and shook my head and watched as he stood and went back into the garage. In little more than a year our own country would be invading Afghanistan, although neither of us could know it then.

All around us the backyard and the world beyond was slowly sinking into the bluer shades of evening. When Ricky flipped the garage light on it threw a pool of yellow across the driveway and part of the yard, drawing in itinerant moths that knew no better. I’d assumed he was gathering his things and closing up the garage, but a moment later I heard the familiar sound of plates sliding onto a barbell.

I turned to look. He’d loaded a pair of fifteens and was setting up for a snatch.

“You training again?” I asked, half-joking. We’d just spent nearly two hours lifting.

He shrugged slightly, gripping the barbell. “All that talk about the Games,” he said, throwing the weight overhead and then letting it fall back to the wooden platform. “Gotta do something to take my mind off it for a bit.”

He smiled at me and did another snatch. For a moment I considered him and the absurdity of his action: turning for comfort to the very source of what had laid him low in the first place. There was a terrible circularity to it. But I had no alternative to offer. Indeed, I knew of no better comfort. This was his world, and it was increasingly becoming mine as well.

I stood and entered the garage to join him.

 

[next chapter]

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