Of Iron and Bronze – 28

28.

“You ready for this?”

The question, directed at Libby, had come from Pete. We were squeezed into an elevator in the parking garage at the Ohio Expo Center in downtown Columbus, along with a handful of well-muscled and deeply tanned men and women. The elevator felt as though it was moaning in protest at the combined mass of us all.

Libby looked at Pete. It was her first time attending the Arnold, and she had no idea what to expect beyond the random stories she’d heard in the gym. “Am I?”

“Just ignore the circus for now,” said Ricky, who was wedged into one corner of the elevator. He was trying—and failing—to avoid staring at the fitness model occupying a sliver of space in front of him. “Save that for after you lift.”

“Ain’t no way to ignore this,” said Pete.

We’d arrived in Columbus very late the night before. Despite Ricky’s intention of leaving at dawn it was early afternoon before we were finally on the road: Pete and Ricky and Libby and myself, all crammed into my old Volvo and pointing due west for Columbus, Ohio.

Every year, going to the Arnold, it was hard not to feel like you were just one small part of an annual migration out to this mecca of all things fitness-related. Signs of this great pilgrimage were visible all along our route: how else to explain the sudden appearance of so many orange physiques in neon tank tops at gas stations in the middle of Pennsylvania? Or the enormous strongmen seated at a table overflowing with food in a random Denny’s just off the highway?

“Great, ain’t it?” Ricky’d said, smiling as he looked around the Denny’s at the assorted bodybuilders and powerlifters who were very clearly headed the same way we were.

“Tell you what ain’t great,” said Pete, looking at the plate of half-eaten chicken fingers in front of him. “This food.”

We’d driven through the afternoon and into the evening, heading straight into the setting sun as our shadow stretched out to the horizon behind us like some great tether to New Jersey. We’d driven into the night—cursing the fact that we’d left so late—with Ricky alternately snoring and then raving about how excited he was to finally go head to head against Myron again in competition. We’d driven through the interminable endlessness that is western Pennsylvania, a state whose dimensions seemed to expand with each passing mile.

As we drove we listened to the one mix CD that Pete had prepared for the trip more times than any of us could count. It was an eclectic combination featuring the likes of Kylie Minogue’s “Love at First Sight” and O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tei” and Eric Prydz’s “Call on Me.” But what had started out the drive as a tongue-in-cheek compilation of feel-good songs designed to lift our spirits soon became the aural equivalent of a screwdriver rooting around in your brain.

“I can’t do the numa numa song again,” Ricky’d said at one point, around hour five or six of the drive.

To which Pete responded by increasing the volume and singing as best he could via a combination of garbled Romanian and random English substitutions. In his view the only way to appropriately cope with eight or nine hours in the car was via eating or singing, and he’d long ago finished his box of Oatmeal Squares…

And now, Saturday morning, after a few hours of rest at our hotel, we were about to enter the madness.

“Get ready,” said Pete.

The elevator came to a creaking halt. I sensed that it heaved a great sigh of relief, as much as was possible for an elevator. The doors dinged once and opened, and like the shuffling of muscled and spandex-clad cattle we plunged into the Expo Center…

The long, carpeted walkway that linked the parking area with the main hall was a frantic conglomeration of strange figures that covered the entire spectrum of the human physical condition. Huge bodybuilders, their enormous arms straining the fabric of their shirts—and indeed straining the fabric of their skin, in some cases—side-by-side with whole herds of pint-sized cheerleaders, no more than toddlers it seemed, with heavily painted faces and glittering eyelashes. Martial arts competitors big and small in their belted uniforms. Fencers in their bleached white suits looking like sword-wielding bakers. Compactly muscled gymnasts deftly weaving through the crowd in their leotards. MMA fighters trying to outdo each other in making tough faces and sporting tougher looking tattoos. Planet-sized powerlifters and strongmen and strongwomen moving through the mix like vast transatlantic ships cutting through the seas. And among all of this, the crowds of locals and attendees from further afield, staring gape-mouthed and wide-eyed at the unfathomable weirdness on display all around.

The air buzzed with the sound of human activity and elevated hormonal levels. There was an energy that was unmissable. Everybody was just excited to be there, it seemed, including us.

On the way down an escalator, as we made our way toward the weightlifting venue, we saw an enormous man wearing a black t-shirt that said, in simple white letters:

IS IT HUGE IN HERE OR IS IT JUST ME?

I pointed this out to Libby, who was looking around in fascination. She saw this and smiled—a response that I was happy to be the cause of.

“Both,” she said, still grinning.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 27

27.

Excitement for the Arnold ran high a week away from the competition. That Saturday we were all scheduled to max out in the snatch. The impending meet and the day’s heavy training meant there was a seriousness of purpose in the air. This was coupled with a certain level of diva-esque activity, which ranged from the acceptable to the absurd. Pete and I, for example, were rather specific about the morning’s rituals. We needed to control as many variables as possible in an effort to give ourselves the best chance at feeling 100% in the gym. Our needs were driven in part by what had worked in the past—what we’d eaten on a particular day, for example—and in part by mere superstition, such as the underwear we’d been wearing. But what sport or activity doesn’t have its rituals? Even the most logical among us isn’t immune to the occasional plea to the Universe via an arbitrary ordering of objects and actions…

Competition-day singlets? Check.

Two tabs of Dianabol? Check.

Box of Oatmeal Squares to snack on during the drive? Check.

Max-out mix CD? Check.

Taylor ham, egg, and cheese on an everything bagel from Easton Ave Bagels? Check.

Coffee with cream and sugar? Check.

Orange Gatorade?

What?!” I cried in horror, as I looked in the bagel shop’s beverage cooler. “There’s no Orange Gatorade!”

On any other day blue or purple would have sufficed, but not today.

Easy,” Pete said, with all the haste of a surgeon in the ER. “You wait here for the bagels. I’ll run next door.”

“Okay,” I said, greatly relieved.

Orange Gatorade? Check.

Such antics continued on our arrival in the gym, where people were jockeying for bars and platforms while pretending not to do so. It was a subtle ballet of lifters asking things like “Were you about to lift on this platform?” or “Did you want this bar?” and others responding with protests of not caring despite caring very greatly.

“I’ll lift anywhere!”

“The bar doesn’t matter!”

Almost all of us knew exactly which platform we wanted, and which bar we wanted. We also knew which platform we absolutely would not lift on.

“Platform doesn’t matter!” shouted Ricky, amid the gentle bickering going on.

“You wanna switch then?” asked Joe, who felt he’d gotten a raw deal by having to lift on the one platform we all agreed was slightly canted up at the front.

“I’ll lift there,” said Ricky, as though it truly didn’t matter. “That platform just slopes a little. Means you gotta lift uphill.”

“So let’s switch.”

“I already got 70 on the bar over here,” said Ricky, dodging the suggestion. “We’ll switch for cleans.”

Both of them knew this was unlikely.

Nikos, who’d long been accustomed to the Spartan standards of random Eastern European gyms before emigrating to the US, shook his head and laughed amid these antics. He nodded slightly and pointed his mustache accusingly at the gym. “In my country, we have one bar that spin, saved for World Champion. Everyone else use shit. Where I lift, all platforms,”—and here he made a gesture with his hands to indicate various angles and degrees of tilt—“no good. Still we train. Here, ‘I need this bar, this my platform.’” He smiled and pointed to his head. “Too much thinking. Is important just to train.”

“Damn right!” said Pete, although I noticed he’d gone out of his way to select his favorite barbell: an Eleiko competition bar, rather than one of the training bars.

We trained. The energy in the gym was a presence in and of itself, a thing as tangible and omnipresent as the chalk in the air. So too was our enthusiasm over what everyone was doing, no matter how big or small. Ricky and Myron going back and forth in the snatch with the regularity of a tennis volley: 125 Ricky, 125 Myron; 130 Ricky, 130 Myron; 135… Robbie fighting with pure grit to save a 67.5-kilo snatch. Joe taking attempt after attempt at 112.5 before finally nailing it. Libby not missing a single lift up to 90 kilos and then taking a fair—if ultimately unsuccessful—shot at 92.5. Pete with an easy 125 and a couple cracks at 130, neither of which was very convincing but which we rooted for all the same. I had my own go at 130 after making 127.5, although it only took one missed attempt for Nikos to shake his head.

“Not today,” was all he said.

When it was all over and we’d moved on to pulls and squats and supplementary work there were some new PRs, as well as some promises of impending PRs in a week’s time. Whatever the outcome, Ricky and Nikos and Russ could spin it in a positive light, reassuring us all of future success.

“You look ready for next week!” was often the refrain for one of us who’d lifted well.

“Today isn’t the competition. With a week of recovery it’ll all come together,” was instead offered to those who’d arrived a few kilos shy of where we’d hoped.

And most of us were more than happy to accept these divergent maxims, as we’d been on the receiving end of both at various points during our lifting. Amid all the frustrations—an inevitable part of the sport—there was still an incredible sense of certainty on that Saturday morning, as there was most Saturday mornings at FDU, that things would work out when it mattered most, on the platform. Days varied, but the overall arc of each of us was part of some greater momentum linked to each other and to the gym itself.

“Helluva day, eh?” said Ricky, beaming as we walked out of the gym together. He’d missed 135 in the snatch something like nine or ten times but seemed totally unfazed by this. “Always fun to go heavy here.”

I nodded. A few days prior many of us had also maxed out in the clean and jerk down at the Rutgers Power Gym but it wasn’t quite the same. That was simply a place to train, and it served that purpose reasonably well.

This was our home.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 26

26.

On a Monday morning in early February I ran into Libby on College Ave on my way back from class. I’d just dozed through the better part of a lecture for my Intro to Art History course, which I was taking to cover some last-minute graduation requirements. I was looking forward to getting back to the apartment for a second breakfast and then a solid hour or two of getting some true horizontal rest when Libby—coming from one of her own classes—came across my path.

“Hey,” she said, falling in step next to me on the slushy sidewalk. A steady stream of students moved around us amid the changing of classes.

I felt the usual heart flutter that I’d grown accustomed to on seeing her outside the gym, and her sudden appearance caught me off guard. My brain, still stuck in the fog of sitting in a darkened lecture hall, was moving far too slowly to respond appropriately to her greeting, and in trying to decide between “Hey” and “Hi” the sound that ultimately came out was more akin to the cry of a small wounded animal than anything human, and I instantly regretted even trying to speak.

Luckily she seemed unfazed by this, or perhaps it was lost in the sound of a passing bus.

For a block or so we chatted idly about lifting. We’d just competed in the FDU Open a week prior, although the competition had been much reduced in attendance and scale due to a winter storm. The meet ended up taking place on a training platform rather than a true competition platform. Judging was done via thumbs up or down like some ancient gladiatorial spectacle—although with the judges’ seats stacked with members of our own gym there were considerably more thumbs up than down. At the competition Libby’d managed to redeem herself since bombing out at the Mets, thanks to conservative weights and jumps at the advice of Nikos.

“Is important to have good day,” Nikos had said. “Arnold is real competition. Today is training day. Make all lifts.”

And she, ever the good student, listened and went six-for-six, ending with 87.5 and 100. But as we walked she seemed unhappy with this, or at least unsatisfied with it.

“I should’ve done more,” she said.

“You went six-for-six,” I said. “What more could you want?”

“What more do I want?” She looked at me with a sidelong glance, as though I’d asked something beyond ridiculous. “I should be doing more by now,” was all she added.

Many of the rest of us, following the “pull hard and pray” philosophy often advocated by Ricky, or simply overconfident in our abilities, didn’t fare nearly so well. There were a lot of two- or one-for-six performances, along with a few zeros. Pete and I went big, aiming for competition PRs on our second attempts, and our final results—two for six for him, three for six for me—suggested a more conservative strategy was in order for the next meet.

But the real showstopper was Myron. A week before the competition he reemerged at FDU from whatever den he’d been hiding in claiming that he’d been training on his own. Few of us believed this story—including his own sister—but when he managed an easy 135 and 160 the claim seemed more credible.

“God I hate him,” Joe had said while watching him, a sentiment likely influenced in part by his own zero-for-six day.

When Libby and I had relived the competition and briefly touched on some plans for the next meet—The Arnold was only a month away—we turned to our more immediate surroundings.

“You have another class now?” she asked.

“No. I’m done for a few hours. You?”

She shook her head. “I’m heading to the library. You?”

“Same here,” I said, almost without realizing it.

I hadn’t been to the library—outside of finals week—in ages. In my defense, the one closest to my apartment, Alexander Library, was never the most inviting of places. Its midcentury brick and glass exterior, whose most prominent section is little more than a large cube, did almost nothing to inspire my curiosity or enthusiasm. The interior wasn’t much better, with institutional carpeting and linoleum flooring in the stacks and a confusing system of floors and half floors whose labyrinthine complexity seemed a material representation of the university’s own convoluted bureaucracy. I’d wasted hours trying to navigate that bureaucracy, and the library, over the years. How many times at Rutgers had I heard that I was in the wrong line, the wrong building, the wrong campus, or that I was holding the wrong documents, or that I’d received bad information and that, actually, the first building had been the right one? Trying to find a book in Alex felt much the same as that experience. A physical embodiment of being trapped in a system far beyond your reckoning or comprehension.

On this particular morning, as Libby and I arrived at the library, it seemed someone else had also found themselves out of place in the building. One of the windows was broken and covered in plastic. After Libby and I had settled into a second floor table in the back, overlooking George Street, she went to pick up an interlibrary loan book and returned with the details of what had happened.

“It was a deer,” she said, leaning across the table slightly and whispering.

“What?”

“A deer,” she repeated. “This morning.”

“A deer?” I said, not quite believing this. “Is it still here?” I asked, looking around as though it might appear from behind a shelf somewhere.

She looked at me. “Do you think they’d let us in with an animal running around?”

“I guess not…”

She told me the story she’d heard from the desk attendant. That morning a library worker had arrived to find one of the ground floor windows broken. A deer had leapt through it at some point, either out of fear or confusion or both. The doe ran through the rooms and among some of the stacks on the first floor. Her tracks could be seen among rows of reference books and dictionaries, tracks in which one hoof print was slightly bloodied and less distinct from the others. She’d injured her hind leg coming through the window. By the time the county’s animal control arrived she was cowering behind a plant, as though that one piece of the natural world—the world she knew—might offer her some respite or protection.

“So what happened?” I asked.

“They tranquilized it and took it away.”

I waited for a second, thinking she might continue. “And?”

She looked out the window, at George Street and the highway beyond and the rows of bare trees on either side of the Raritan River. “I don’t know,” she said. “That’s all I heard. I guess now they either see if they can release it back to the wild, or…”

She stopped and left the statement hanging. “Anyway. Time to work.”

We worked. More accurately, she worked and I did a mix of work and studying that week’s training program and watching lifting videos. I went across the street at one point to bring back a tuna wrap from Au Bon Pain, tried and failed to eat it silently given my quiet surroundings, and then watched more lifting videos. At a certain point Libby called my bluff, perhaps since I hadn’t hit a single key on my laptop in several minutes.

“How’s your work?” she asked, still focused on her own.

“Good,” I lied, touching my trackpad in an effort to look busy.

“You’re watching lifting videos, aren’t you?”

I looked at my screen, on which a highly compressed MPEG of the men’s 85 session from Athens was currently playing. “No.”

She looked at me for an instant and then stood to come around to my side of the table.

“No no no!” I said. “I’m doing sensitive work. You don’t want to see this.”

“Yeah? What is it, porn?”

“Yes.”

“I love porn. Let’s see.”

She stood behind me—close enough to make me slightly dizzy for a moment—and then leaned even closer to look at my screen.

“Dimas,” was all she said.

She sat next to me and we watched the session play out. It was NBC’s terrible TV coverage, which meant bad cuts and overzealous editing. The final competition of one of the greatest weightlifters of the sport’s history was reduced to little more than a few highlights. On his last lift the great Pyrros Dimas, following his failure to clean and jerk 207.5 kilos for the gold medal, removed his shoes and left them on the platform. It was the end of an era, and Georgia’s Giorgi Asanidze was instead crowned champion.

When it was finished she stared at the screen for a moment longer. I still had part of the tuna wrap in my hands, and I was suddenly very conscious of its presence and the fact that I desperately wanted to eat it but didn’t want to break the silence with all the tearing of paper and whatnot that was required.

At length she stood, but before walking back to her side of the table she reached across me—her arm inches from my face—and pointed at the medal ceremony frozen on my laptop screen.

That’s what I want,” she said, and returned to her work.

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 25

25.

Aside from Ricky’s injury, the winter break passed without much fanfare. Pete and I trained, often joined by Libby and a few others, and we otherwise whiled away our free hours in diners or watching movies or lifting videos. Occasionally one of us would get an invite to do something—an evening out with non-lifting friends, for example—but more often than not we passed these up. For one thing there was an extreme torpor that followed many of our heavier training sessions, and at this point more and more of them were heavy, thanks to the restoratives. We’d get back from lifting, shower, eat something, and then the gravity holding us to our living room couches would become planetary in its strength. As though our living room were the nexus of some great black hole into which all motivation, save that for lifting and eating, was drained away.

“You ready?” one would ask, usually from a supine position on the couch, and usually in nothing more than boxers. I.e., nowhere near ready for going out.

“I can be,” the other would say, and then settle even deeper into the couch.

“We could always bail.”

“We could…”

Soon we’d both be lounging around like a pair of Greek symposiasts, content to do nothing more than relax and shuffle from the living room to the refrigerator when the inevitable hunger returned. A text of apology would be sent to whoever’d invited us out, we’d feel a fleeting moment of guilt, and then we’d be back to enjoying our evening in.

Between training, eating, and working there was simply not much energy left for much else.

There was also the continual worry of how anything outside the norm would impact our lifting, be it a night out or a few hours of missed meals or an evening standing in a bar. How to explain to our non-lifting friends during the middle of an outing that we needed to eat every two or three hours, max? I’d already had firsthand experience with what those evenings could do to the next day’s training, or to an entire training cycle. Long hours standing in crowded bars, buying drink after drink, taking regular trips to the bathroom to do lines of cocaine—it all seemed like another era, or another life entire, although admittedly my relationship to such activities was ambivalent. There was always that background pull, a tiny voice not far below the surface calling me back to clubs and bathroom stalls and random house parties… But the fear of what this had already done to my training, and what it would do now, was a powerful slap of clarity. Going out with people outside the sport was simply too unpredictable; there were too many variables, and as Ricky and Nikos and Russ had long noted, lifting heavy weights always depended on controlling your variables.

It was for this very reason—controlling as much of life outside the gym as possible—that I told my boss at the carwash where I worked I had to reduce my hours to, at most, one day a week. Ricky was a great fan of this idea; indeed, he was the one who’d first suggested it. I spoke with the manager on the Sunday before the spring semester started. The accumulated snow and salt of the winter meant the carwash was busy almost every day, and this day was no different. A line stretched out the parking lot and onto Route 1. The manager and I stood by the entrance bay amid the sounds of machinery and the spray of power washers. Our bodies and bits of our surroundings were reflected in the thin film of soapy water puddling around our feet. I waved cars forward onto the track and shouted at their drivers to put their cars in neutral and not use their brakes, directions which very few people seemed able to follow with any accuracy. Many of them looked at me as though “neutral” and “no brakes” were strange commands spoken in an alien tongue and having nothing to do with their current situation.

In between cars I explained my situation to the manager, telling him that I was in the preparatory stages of a training cycle for our national competition, and that my coach and I were focusing on a medal and a spot on an international team, and that this was necessary to give myself the best chance.

He listened to me as I spoke over the din that filled the air. He was a lifelong New Jersey resident who’d grown up in Newark and then moved to Edison.

“You know I used to do a little liftin’ myself,” he said, puffing his chest up ever so slightly. “Just for fun,” he added. “And to look good for the girls.” He winked and smiled and I smiled back in a show of camaraderie. “How long you need to cut back?”

“Nationals are in July,” I said, waving another car forward and guiding it onto the track with small motions of my hand to indicate steering corrections to the left or right. “So until then.”

He whistled. “July? You’re talkin’ about six months.”

I nodded. In a worst case scenario I was prepared to just quit.

My boss waved and grinned at the customer about to pass through the tunnel. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll figure it out. Shouldn’t be too hard gettin’ one of the guys to cover. They all want the money. Can’t guarantee I’m gonna have hours for you, though. But I’ll put you on when I can.”

“That’s fine.”

Though initially skeptical the more we talked the more he was sympathetic to my cause, as nearly anything suggestive of athletic glory was a thing of value in our shared culture. Had I said I was training for a math league competition he probably would have fired me on the spot; the lifting of iron, on the other hand, had the right ring of masculinity to it.

“So what happens if you get a medal?” he asked. “You get to go to the Olympics?”

“Not quite,” I said. “That’s a whole different qualification system.”

“Hm,” he said, nodding in agreement, as though it made perfect sense to him. He then asked the inevitable question: “So how much you bench?”

For the briefest of moments I contemplated a long, drawn out explanation of why we rarely benched heavy in training, along with a discussion of why the squat was a far greater metric of strength, regardless of which iron sport you subscribed to. But in considering my audience I recognized that this was probably not the response he wanted to hear. I could just imagine his eyes glazing over as I went into the details of my sport, so instead I told him what I’d done in my last real bench workout, years ago, which no doubt satisfied and impressed him far more than any discussion of squats or snatches or cleans. Also any mention of “snatch” or “clean and jerk” was bound to elicit snickers and jokes which I’d heard countless times before, and my patience—thanks in large part to the combination of Sustanon and Dianabol—was thin for those sorts of jibes.

The following morning I went to the bank, looked at my accounts, and transferred a pile of money from my savings to my checking. I was committed to a course of action, and I felt that these sacrifices—as with my weekly injections and daily pills—were a necessary part of being great. I’d lost time in weightlifting when I was younger, and was convinced that only through a certain amount of suffering and hardship would there be any hope of redemption. Apparently the risk of financial ruin was part of this hardship. Between savings, extra hours worked over the winter break, anticipated gifts for my (theoretical) graduation that spring, and the generosity of my parents I hoped to be able to squeak by until Nationals. If I needed to last further—if, e.g., I qualified for a World Team—I would figure something else out…

More importantly, the following Saturday the gym at FDU reopened, and our workout that morning felt like a homecoming, even though we’d only been away for little more than a month. The regulars among us caught up on our holidays, shared training stories, and generally felt good to be back in our rightful Saturday morning place. I also had a chance to show off a Christmas gift from my parents: the 2004 Adidas Adistars. I pulled the shoes from my bag and presented them for Nikos and Russ’s examination like a proud parent showing off a child made of silver kangaroo leather and black carbon fiber.

Russ and Nikos smiled appreciatively. “Very nice,” said Russ. “How do you like them?”

“I love them. Super light. Very flexible in the front. Only took a week or so to adjust to them. They’re an amazing shoe.”

Nikos took one shoe and considered it, turning it over in his hands and raising it up for a better look. “Is beautiful shoe.” He held it in one hand and weighed it. “Wow.”

“They’ve come a long way since our day, isn’t that right?” said Russ.

Nikos nodded. “I have this shoe, maybe I snatch 200 kilos,” he joked.

Ricky walked in at this point and shouted his greeting and then pointed to the shoes. “If those were my size I’d put them on and snatch 200 right now,” he said, smiling.

“You training?” asked Joe with some skepticism.

“Hell yes,” said Ricky.

“Thought you blew a disc or something,” Joe said.

Ricky motioned with his hands in a manner suggestive of the passing of time or the occurrence of events long over. I knew that in the three weeks since Christmas he’d been on a steady regimen of anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, and restoratives. But I wasn’t sure if he’d actually healed up enough to move a barbell. “Just a little back thing,” he said.

“Gonna ease into it today?”

“Ease in?” Ricky laughed. “Hell no! Who wants to max out with me?”

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 24

 

24.

When Pete and I went to Ricky’s the next day—Christmas—to get some training in we found him in rough shape.

“I look like Frankenstein!” he cried, as he shuffled into the garage with a notably wooden and stiff gait. He sat down gingerly and lamented the injury with some humor.

“You believe this?” he said. “Gonna be at least a week or so before I can train.”

“You been goin’ balls out for months, Puj,” said Pete. “Hell yes I can believe this.”

Ricky threw up a hand to dismiss this. “All the shit I’m on? I should be healthy as a horse. Oh well. It’s all part of the game.”

We both agreed, and for the rest of the workout we traded stories of times past when we’d been stricken with injury. Pete and I had been fortunate enough to avoid surgeries but we’d had our fill of overuse and overtraining injuries. Shoulder problems, wrist problems, knee pain of varies types and severity, pulled groins, inflammation, IT band tightness, elbow soreness, and on and on—a list that covered nearly the entire body. We traded these stories perhaps in an effort to reaffirm our abilities to overcome such setbacks, and perhaps in part to take Ricky’s mind off his own.

After training we sat in his little kitchen and presented him with a Christmas gift: a Dunkin Donuts gift card. He took it and laughed and thanked us profusely, to a degree far exceeding the gift card’s value.

As evening deepened we talked about training and about who had done what weights recently. Ricky told Pete the story of Libby’s 90-kilo snatch in such detail you would have thought he’d seen in firsthand. His cat wandered in as he spoke, gingerly stepping across the cracking linoleum floor and looking up at us with that feline mixture of curiosity and contempt. Ricky stroked her along her neck and back and rubbed the top of her head, never missing a beat in his story of Libby’s PR. The movements were surprisingly gentle for the big man’s hands.

When he finished talking of the 90-kilo snatch he stood, easing himself up with great care, and put some food in the cat’s bowl and then turned to the refrigerator. “You guys hungry? You want something? I got some leftovers in here from my sister’s.”

We both declined, as we planned on heading to a diner for some holiday pancakes that evening.

“You sure? Got some goat milk too. Makes you strong.”

“What’s it taste like?” asked Pete.

“What’s it taste like?” Ricky shrugged, as though the question were beyond comprehension. “Tastes like milk! Just, you know, from a goat.”

Pete—whose culinary vocabulary was as deep and diverse as Ricky’s lifting knowledge—stared at him.

“I dunno,” said Ricky, realizing his answer was unsatisfactory. “Here. Try it.”

Pete took the glass bottle and drank. “Ain’t bad,” he said, passing it to me. “Ain’t too bad at all.”

The goat milk was good—cold, slightly sour, rich. “You too cool for regular milk?” I asked, handing the bottle back.

“I drink regular milk. Just switch it up every so often. Met a Swedish thrower at a meet in Hungary back in the day, strong as an ox, who told me he drank a gallon of the stuff a day. Or a few liters. Whatever they use. I figured can’t hurt to try, right?” Ricky said, grabbing the bottle. He took a handful of pills from a tray on the counter and washed them down with a swig of goat milk. Little rivers of it ran down one side of his beard.

“Those all d-bols?” Pete asked.

He smiled and wiped at his mouth with the back of one huge hand. “I wish. Only about two of those were d-bol. Gotta stay strong while I recover. The rest is all different stuff. At my age you need all the pills you can get. C’mon,” he said, putting the goat milk back in the fridge. “You guys wanna see some footage from the ’92 Olympics? I got the tapes down in the basement. This is rare footage. Tons of shit that didn’t make it to TV. I’m not even supposed to be showing this to anybody.”

So down we went, into that basement time capsule, each step a few more years back into the history of one life, itself connected to other lives and other times. As on previous visits I stopped to look at the medals and pictures, images from a bygone era of bygone men.

In one frame there was a picture of Ricky as a teenager, skinny and beardless. It was strange to think of him as anything other than the huge beast of a man that I knew. He held a trophy, smiling for the camera, at what must have been a local meet somewhere in the area. His hands and joints were big, the only physical link I could see between this boy and the figure behind me, rummaging through a box of VHS tapes.

“Skinny, huh?” he said when he noticed me looking at the picture. “That was 1967. My first competition. I think I did 180, 180, and 245. Pounds, obviously.”

“Thanks for that clarification,” said Pete.

“What class?” I asked.

“Middleweight, 165 pounds. I don’t know if I even weighed that much soaking wet with shoes on. I was a string bean. Could press my snatch since both were so weak. It’s too bad they got rid of the press. I loved it. Made you a different lifter. You never saw guys so big as when you had the press. Just monsters. Those guys all said it changed the sport for the worse when they took it out. Coupla them said it’s what led to the sport dying out here in this country.”

He paused and looked over some of the other pictures and medals. “Lotta good times. Good guys.” He pointed to one of the pictures, in which his younger self was standing with another, smaller lifter. “Joe Minetti, old buddy of mine,” he said, indicating this other person. “Guy I used to train with all the time. Four, five times a week for years. Pretty good lifter, too. Not quite world level but almost, and always good on the national scene.”

“Still train?” asked Pete.

Ricky shook his head and looked away. “At some point he moved away to take a job somewhere in upstate New York. Worked as a prison guard. We kept in touch after he moved, talked every so often. I’m not a phone guy but he had family in Jersey, so he’d come down here, or a couple times I went up to visit him. And you know, we’d shoot the shit, catch up. How’s training, work, that kinda shit.”

He paused and rubbed at his beard. “So we kept in touch. And this one time, after he’d been outta the area for a coupla two, three years, I called him up. Just to catch up, see how he was doing.

“So we talk for a bit, usual bullshit, and then I ask how his training’s going.” He stopped and his eyes widened, as though he were hearing the response just then for the first time. “And, I couldn’t believe it, he says something about how he hasn’t really been training, and how his job’s been keeping him busy, and this that and the other thing, and that was it.

“I was in shock. I mean, this was a guy who trained through it all with me. And for years, as long as I could remember, we had talked about training. That was the one constant, the one thing you could always count on. No matter what else, you trained.

“I almost didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. Never imagined it. And you can’t blame the guy; he’s got a wife, a house. I think he had just had a kid. Ain’t like training’s gonna cover that. We certainly weren’t making any money off the sport, that’s for sure. Shit it cost us money.” He paused, as if trying to convince himself of the logic of those statements. “But still.”

Something passed before his eyes but was gone a moment later. “Anyway. Getting sidetracked here. Old pictures. C’mon. Wait’ll you see Kakhiashvili pull out this monster clean and jerk.”

Of course we’d seen this—many times—but there was no harm in another viewing…

We sat on the basement couch, watching highlights from the lifting at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Naim Suleymanoglu handily winning the 60-kilo class with 142.5 and 177.5, giving him his second Olympic gold of an eventual three and a 15-kilo lead over silver medalist Nikolay Peshalov. Greece’s legendary Pyrros Dimas winning his first gold medal, also of an eventual three, with lifts of 167.5 and 202.5 in the 82.5 class. Kakhi Kakhiashvili—ethnically Georgian and Greek but lifting for the Unified Team of the former Soviet Union—going against the orders of coach Vasily Alexeev, who allegedly wanted the Russian Serguei Syrtsov to win gold, and taking a massive ten kilo jump in the clean and jerk for the win in the 90-kilo class.

“Jesus!” Ricky shouted when we got to Kakhiashvili’s gold-medal lift. “You see that? We gotta watch that again.”

He stood and rewound the tape. We watched once more as the great Kakhi lifted an incredible 235 kilos from the platform and then shot himself under the barbell, like a loaded spring releasing all its potential energy in one fantastic, fluid burst.

“Christ! How’s a guy move that fast?”

“Maybe it’s goat milk,” Pete suggested.

“What? Heh! Goat milk,” said Ricky, laughing. “If that’s the case I must be drinking the wrong kind. Or maybe over there they’re feeding something different to the goats.”

It was late when we finally emerged from the basement. Outside we stood in the cold and made small talk as we put off leaving. Against the blue of the snow and the darker blue of the sky the street was dotted by the lights of Christmas decorations and the inner glow of homes’ holiday festivities. When we ultimately turned to the car Ricky thanked us again for the gift card and wished us a good evening.

“You kids have a good night. Merry Christmas.”

“Thanks, Puj. You too. Merry Christmas.”

“Let me know when you wanna come train again,” he added. “I’ll be here.”

He waved us out as we pulled away and we waved back and drove off.

***

Some part of me could picture him, after we’d left. As if we were operating on some common wavelength, seeing what the other saw and even feeling what the other felt. Or maybe it’s just the distance of years, and knowing what I know now.

I could see him as he watches us driving away and waves once more even though he can no longer see us in my old Volvo. In the dark stillness of the December night the car’s engine is very clear, and he can hear it for what seems like a long, long time, long after the car itself has disappeared. When the sound is gone he realizes he is listening to the silence, and he closes the front door, shuts off the hall light, and walks back down to the basement, taking the steps with great care and feeling each one in his back.

He pulls the tape we had been watching from the VCR and puts it back in its sleeve and returns it to the box. In the box and on the shelves are other tapes, dozens of them, nearly all hand-labeled. By the light cast from the TV set’s silent snowy static he reads these labels: Moscow 1980. Montreal 1976. Empire State Games. 95 Nationals. Training. School of Champions. World Championships.

He takes a tape out and pulls it from its cardboard sleeve and puts it in the VCR. The snow on the screen falters and then is replaced by a solid black. In the upper-right corner a camcorder’s date and time stamp ticks the seconds by. When the screen comes to life there is a platform and a barbell. A line of distortion moves up and down the image and he taps the VCR gently and the line disappears. He turns the volume up and hears the sounds of plates and bars in the background. The barbell is loaded onscreen and the competition opens. He watches, remembering the lifters and the judges and even some of the loaders.

An announcer calls out a weight and a second later he is there, in the frame, walking to the platform in an old-style singlet. He remembers being there, and recalls the days and hours leading up to the competition and the hours afterward, as well. There is an entire world beyond the frame of the screen that he has stored within him. Watching brings some of it to light, parts that he thinks of often and parts that he thought long gone. He remembers training days and lifts and warmups and where they ate after the competition. He remembers men of iron forged in ancient gyms where the dropping of weights rung out like blows from some smithy’s hammer.

In watching his opening snatch he thinks he can feel the weight, and without realizing it his arms are moving, slightly. He pictures the snatch in his head, seeing its shape and trajectory and sensing its velocity and weight. It is overlaid with other snatches, snatches he has watched of other lifters and snatches he has done recently and the snatches he wishes he could do now, were it not for the distance between what he is watching and what he’s become.

Where did the space between the moments recorded on the tape and the watching of that tape go, he wonders. Where went the days, the months, the hours? So many hours in one day, so many minutes. To count them all out, to make some ledger or reckoning of them, would take more than a lifetime, it seems to him. So how is it they passed in such fashion, without his noticing all along? Will he, at sixty or eighty, find himself suddenly awake and aware again, as he does on this Christmas night in December, wondering the same things? Where will the hours have gone then?

Some part of him wants to scream out to his onscreen doppelgänger, although to say what and to what effect he doesn’t know. But there is some urgency to it, to his desire to shout to this person, this earlier self. There is some sense that he must warn him of something, or convey a message that will alter a later trajectory. Listen! He wants to say, like some ghost of Christmas future calling back to his former self. Yet…

The tape plays out and he watches the whole thing. When it is over the screen goes black and then the VCR clicks off and the screen comes alive once more with snow. It is very late and he is very tired. He stands, feeling stiff and not at all like the figure he just saw on the screen. He shuts the TV off, leaving the tape in the VCR to deal with later, and ascends the stairs to go to bed. When he dreams it is of lifting, and he is snatching and cleaning and moving the way he once did and he can hardly believe it, and he dreams this and silences that inner part of him that knows it is a dream and nothing more.

 

[next chapter]

Posted in Of Iron and Bronze, olympic weightlifting | 3 Comments