Of Iron and Bronze – 30

30.

The fabled showdown between Ricky and Myron, in which the latter was heavily favored for victory even if his training had been varied and inconsistent at best, was not to be. There had been no sign of Myron since we’d arrived at the Arnold, and when he finally responded to the texts Libby’d been sending all day his response was as simple as it was cryptic:

Shit sorry got stuck somewhere

“What does that even mean?” cried Joe, who was alternately staring at this message and around the room, as though the answer to the riddle were to be found somewhere among the lifting crowd.

“It probably means he was out with his deadbeat friends and totally forgot,” said Libby.

Ricky was disappointed, but Myron was just one player in the session’s highly anticipated festivities. The venue was filled to capacity with all manner of spectators: die-hard weightlifting fans, current athletes, ex-athletes, old coaches, strangers unsure of what they were waiting for, bodybuilders and powerlifters wanting to see a little action from a sister sport. Adding to the excitement was the knowledge that a handful of foreign athletes—a few Russians, possibly an Eastern European—would be lifting in this session, which featured the heaviest weights to be lifted during the whole competition, regardless of weight class. There were nine competitors total, ranging from a 77 up to a couple of superheavies, all doing relatively big weights. Declared openers in the snatch ranged from 135 for Ricky up to a huge 170 kilos for a Russian ringer, a young 94 competing slightly heavy as a 105, by the name of Dmitry Klokov.

“Didn’t he miss this weight three times in training last week?” I asked, as Ricky’s name was announced for his first attempt.

“Yeah but he just shook Arnold’s hand,” Pete reminded him.

Joe nodded. “Dollar bet you guys: make or miss?”

“Miss.”

“Miss.”

“Miss.”

Joe won three dollars on that bet but lost more on subsequent lifts. In the midst of the outrageous final session, with the motley crowd going wild for every incremental increase of the barbell’s weight, Ricky managed two lifts: 135 and 165. But none of that seemed to matter: with the music playing before each attempt and the cheers of fans and newcomers and the carnival-type atmosphere Ricky thrived. He knew what the crowd wanted. Yes, they came to see big lifts, and in that they were not disappointed; 180 and 220 by Klokov, to name just two. But what they really wanted was a performance, and in that respect Ricky was Hamlet and this the Globe Theatre. Just the look of him—beastly, hairy, something you weren’t sure you wanted to invite into the house—was almost spectacle enough. Within that hyper-tanned and carefully curated fitness world he was something rare and unfamiliar, which made him that much more captivating. And though he missed four of his six lifts he fought for each one like a man in mortal combat against an opponent. Nobody in that room could say he’d given up early. On the contrary, some likely felt that giving up was probably a better option…

“Never,” said Ricky afterwards, when another coach passed by and told him to take it easy for a couple days. No doubt he believed that and had no plans on stopping. Ever.

*

We returned to the hotel after eating and recounting the day’s events, all of which were already being modified and exaggerated and spun into our own histories. Those of us ready for round two of the Arnold, all the post-competition celebrating and carousing, headed down to the hotel bar after some brief pre-gaming in mine and Pete and Libby’s room, during which time Joe managed to spill an entire can of Steel Reserve on one of our beds.

“My beer!” he cried, nearly in tears.

“Fuck your beer,” said Libby. “That was my bed!”

But Joe seemed unconcerned with this, and soon we were all down at the hotel bar, along with a few other lifters from our area who’d also made the trip to the Arnold. Pete and I grabbed a couple gin and tonics and found a nice low wall to lean against, from which we could survey the crowd and its attendant madness. The hour was late—midnight, perhaps later—but the bar was still filled and the crowds showed no signs of letting up. By sheer coincidence (or was it?) there was a Big Beautiful Woman event going on at the bar, so the patrons were a curious mix of the fit and the Rubenesque. Yet everyone mingled well within the context of the Arnold’s celebration of all things body-related, and thanks to the drinks and the music it was not long before a cheerful chaos was general.

“This is great!” said Joe, who’d been drinking steadily since the spilled Steel Reserve. “Libby, Pete, Jon—shots!”

“I think I’m good…” Libby started to say, but Joe wasn’t hearing this. He turned to the bar and slapped down a twenty, unsettling his current drink in the process. “Barkeep! Four Jagers!”

I handed my shot to a passing teammate and then watched as Libby pretended to throw back hers, instead placing it directly in front of Joe while he was drinking his own.

“What’s this?” he said, trying to focus on the full glass before him.

“Another shot,” said Libby. “I just got it for you.”

He looked at her as though she’d just deposited a small puppy in his lap. Tears of unfettered joy threatened to flood the bar. But he composed himself, tossed back the drink, and headed for the dance floor, pulling her and anyone else within reach along with him.

That bastard, I thought, with something that felt less like jealousy and more like regret. He’d probably planned the spilled Steel Reserve on her bed the whole time. Come stay in my room, he’d offer later, if he was sober enough, your bed’s all wet

“’Nother g’n’t?” Pete asked, rattling the ice in his empty glass.

“I’m good,” I said. The first drink had just taken the edge off of things, giving the world that slightly fuzzy pleasantness that makes you think another drink, and then another, is a great idea. And it was tempting to take that path; just get totally wrecked, giving myself over to the night and its whims. It’d worked in the past, in a fashion, so why not? But some nagging bit inside me, in the voice of Ricky or Nikos, reminded me of training on Monday, and Nationals in just a few months. My liver probably had a say, as well, given the work it was already doing handling the restoratives…

“I’m gonna head in,” I said, when Pete returned with a fresh gin and tonic.

“Not me,” he said, eyeing the crowd. “Some of these women may just be interested in knowing I’m a chef…”

“If you need the bed just kick me out. Shoot me a warning text and I’ll be gone.”

“I may need both beds if I get lucky.”

I wandered back to the room, thinking of how even just that one drink—perhaps mixed with the fading Modafinil and the bass of the dance music—was enough to rekindle old memories of going out and partying in years past. It seemed a strange era to me, and I struggled to find continuity between that earlier one and the one I was then living. As though someone else had occupied my person for those days and months and years, breaking the continuity of selfhood we normally take for granted.

Drugs are perhaps a common thread. There was always a love of ritual, and the current ampules and syringes and injections certainly satisfied that. But the drugs of old were a means of escaping the present moment, or at least of rendering it bearable or transitory. In some ways I could see the critical link—pouring out a little pile of white powder, cutting and recutting and dividing the lines of powder up, tightly rolling a twenty-dollar bill, or a five or ten or single, if the twenties had all gone to the drug’s purchase—but reconciling the two seemed futile. To me there was a rather firm line between PEDs and recreational drugs. I was certain I was not the same person I had been all those years ago…

Such terrible memories. Then as now I could still feel the metallic drip of coke at the back of my throat, the numbness in the gums; or else the electric surge that came when good ecstasy hit, a moment that seems to send a current throughout the entire body. Sometimes all it takes is a driving club beat for the sensation to return, and I’ll wonder if there isn’t some trace of the drug still coursing through my veins. Other times I’ll be at a urinal and I’ll think back to the hours spent in bar and club bathrooms, doing lines in stalls, talking to anyone foolish enough to come within earshot, sometimes sharing my drugs and then later cursing myself for doing so when they eventually ran out.

Awful. I was glad to be past those days, even if they were closer behind me than I wanted to admit. Glad, even if I could still feel a slight pull from those drugs, like an insistent tugging at one leg, telling me Just another taste; a tiny taste

I returned to the room. The odor of Joe’s spilt beer was still strong, and I sighed a mix of regret and jealousy and resignation. Better this way, I thought. Leave the partying and late night trysts to the others. I was an athlete. For me, a little sleep was all I wanted. The competition had gone well, but Monday it was back to work. And there was still a long, long drive home in the morning.

I undressed, performed the usual pre-bed ablutions, and slipped under the covers. We had set the thermostat low and the room was nicely chilled, perfect for sleeping. I enjoyed the moments of wakeful repose, looking forward to the sleep that was soon to come. Just as I was nodding off the door opened, cutting the room in half with a beam of light from the hallway, and I worried that maybe Pete was with someone. I rolled over slightly for a better look.

“Hey,” I said.

“Sorry,” said Libby, almost a whisper. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

 

[next chapter]

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Of Iron and Bronze – 29

29.

I had the meet of my life at the Arnold, at least up to that point. A six-for-six performance and my best total by far. As always, Ricky was in the warmup area for my session, along with Nikos and Russ, who were keeping an eye on me and Pete and Joe. When I was still loosening my joints and going through some easy stretches Ricky leaned in close to speak to me.

“How you feel?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Good, I think.”

He slapped me on the shoulder. “Doesn’t matter how you feel, right?” he said, laughing. “You want some Modafinil?”

“What’s that?”

“Wakes you up a bit.”

“Banned?”

He grinned wickedly. As if I even had to ask.

“Sure,” I said, and tossed back the little white pill he handed me.

It’s hard to say how much that contributed to my performance, but by the time I started moving around with the barbell I felt at harmony with it, with myself, with the entire room and the whole circus that is the Arnold in a way I’d never known. As if I was drawing power from every athlete and spectator that walked by the weightlifting area—a side venue off the main hallway—leaving them a little weaker and me that much stronger. As if all my senses had been turned up to eleven. As if on that day success was something foretold by the Universe itself. Fifty, sixty, seventy, and even eighty kilos all felt like little more than the bar itself.

When it came time for my opening lift Ricky and Nikos walked me out to the platform. The competition had now stretched well into the afternoon and the crowd had grown considerably throughout the day. I saw the masses of people and then quickly pushed them out of my mind, focusing instead on the declared weight. Ricky had wanted me to open at 125 but I’d talked him down to a more sensible 120 kilos. Sensible to me, at least; the 125 still felt like something menacing. Certain numbers get in your head as an athlete, provoking a response that is beyond reason or logic. When I started out as a lifter it was a 90-kilo snatch, a number that caught many of us in my weight class; the idea of a blue and yellow per side, which was our preferred mode of loading the weight, exerted a power in our collective unconscious that was far greater than the weight itself. Some among us—me included—could snatch 87.5 all day, could even do a relatively easy double with the weight, and then shit the bed just by the addition of another 2.5 kilos.

So it was with 125 for me up to that Arnold. Part of me was convinced it was easy, as I’d snatched 127.5 and tried 130 in training just the week before, while another part of me felt it was sheer insanity to open so heavy. Something like 115 or 110 was so much easier, so much more comfortable. Why make it hard on yourself? a voice inside me seemed to cry out. Why indeed… Ultimately the 120 felt like a reasonable compromise between the kamikaze approach of Ricky and my usual conservatism.

“C’mon Jonathan,” said Ricky, rubbing my shoulders and traps. “You’ve done all the hard work. This is just another day at the office.”

When the clock started for me Nikos nodded. “Okay. Go.”

There was the familiar mix of fear and adrenaline on the platform, making the world and my body buzz with potential energy. There were the usual doubts—was my grip set? would the tape on my thumbs hold? what if the weight pulls me forward off the floor?—but there was something else, as well, which made those doubts that much easier to suppress: a sense of power and confidence. I smiled inwardly, thinking of the test coursing through my body, and this new drug, whatever the hell it was, working its chemical magic. And all those doubts were replaced by new thoughts: I was strong, I knew I was strong, and I had everything in me to put this barbell overhead.

Like Nikos had said: GO.

Back tight, shoulders over the bar, drive the legs.

“One twenty, good lift!”

Three easy snatches, done almost as casually as if they’d been warmups. 120, 125 and then 127.5 on the third. The last snatch was just a touch out of place when I put it overhead; on any other day it might have been a missed lift. But with my reserves of strength and the sense of some great will moving through me I pulled the bar into position, refusing to let it fall, refusing to lose this battle with gravity.

In the clean and jerk I had similar success. Just before going out for my third attempt Ricky gripped my head in his huge hands, as he’d done back at the Mets. His eyes had taken on that look of wild fervor, like some weightlifting shaman seeking to cast out any lingering weakness from my body. I briefly wondered what was an unhealthy amount of cranial pressure.

“You got this!” he cried, looking at me and through me. “See the lift! Clear your mind! The White Moment!

He let me go just as the clock started and gave me a powerful slap on the shoulders. A few random spectators, unaccustomed to that sort of thing, gasped at this. From there I went forward and took the weight—157.5 kilos—in a fugue state of excitement. All I recall is that I felt tremendously powerful, unstoppable even. The weight was heavy from the floor but my body was ready, like it’d been made for this weight and this moment. Even the jerk—always my weakest link—felt strong. I don’t know if I had the “white moment” that Ricky’d been shouting about, but until then it was the closest I’d come to such total athletic focus. I dimly heard the applause of the crowd and the shouts of Ricky and Nikos behind me and I felt a rush that was almost intoxicating. This is what I want, I thought, holding the weight overhead. This feeling, over and over and over again.

Yet for all my success at the competition the real star of the show had been Libby, in the session just before mine. As much as she’d been starstruck by the Arnold she managed to ignore all of it and firmly establish herself as someone with whom to reckon come Nationals. Her performance garnered the sort of acclaim and admiration that I had hoped for. So much so that I couldn’t help but feel, mixed in with genuine astonishment and joy, some insidious kernel of jealousy, like a pebble in an otherwise comfortable pair of shoes.

Man that girl can lift,” said a random coach at one point. Libby had just done 90 kilos to cap off a three-for-three day in the snatch. She went on to make 105 in the jerk and then narrowly miss 110. All this despite it being her first time in front of a crowd as large as the one at the Arnold.

“I can’t imagine what Nationals must be like,” she’d said during warmups, after she’d glimpsed the nearly full venue. For a fleeting moment she’d appeared to lose the focus on her own lifting, perhaps in awe of the crowd: around 100 people.

“Nothin’ to worry about,” Ricky had responded. “This crowd is ten times as big as anything you’ll see at Nationals. You lift here, you can lift anywhere.”

*

In the intervening hours before Ricky’s session, when he was scheduled to lift against Myron, we all wandered around the Expo and then watched as two Chinese gold medalists from the 2004 Games—Shi Zhiyong and Zhang Guozheng—lifted in an exhibition event on the Expo’s main stage.

The Expo itself was like some carnival sideshow from days of yore, one huge space filled to the brim with vendors of all sorts, modern-day alchemists hoping to concoct gold from baser elements—supplements, gear, books, videos, anything. A cacophony of music and shouted pronouncements of efficacy and the steady hum of thousands and thousands of people eager to throw money at anything that might give them a chemical advantage over the next guy. Strange bedfellows in that place, too: drug-enhanced lifters promoting all-natural lifestyle products, MMA fighters selling Jesus books, military recruitment stations amidst carefully-curated booths promoting fitness or nutritional anarchy.

“How is this even possible?” said Libby, half to herself as we wandered through the Expo.

“Isn’t this great?” said Joe, downing a free sample of a chalky liquid that a bikini-clad fitness model had just handed him.

“What was that?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Who the hell knows? How could I say no to her?”

“I need to get outta here,” said Ricky, shaking his head after being accosted by a pair of female bodybuilder types selling something.

By that point we’d been in the Expo far longer than is good for sanity, so we all agreed to head for the exit. But before we could make it out the crowd stopped moving and then a pair of bodyguards began pushing against us and cutting a path through the space.

“What the hell is this?” said Ricky. He was starting to look dangerously unhinged—his session was coming up and I knew he would want to spend some time horizontal before lifting.

We were standing at the edge of a narrow clearing that ran through the convention center. All around us people were looking up and down the human tunnel.

“Wait,” said Libby, stepping on her toes for a better look. “I think it’s Arnold.”

And it was. Distantly at first, then closer, closer, I could see him—the Governator himself, preceded and followed by bodyguards, walking through the space and shaking hands with fans left and right. Camera flashes went off around him and people flipped open cell phones hoping to get a picture as he went by.

As he neared I saw my opportunity and put my hand out; I was right at the edge of the crowd of people near the exit and the encounter seemed inevitable, perhaps ordained even. But just as he neared and extended his own hand I watched as Ricky’s enormous mitt cut in front of mine, making contact with Arnold’s for a brief shake before the legend moved on. It was done so skillfully, so deftly, that Arnold was in fact looking at me despite shaking Ricky’s hand, probably wondering to himself “Vy does dis little man have such enormous hands?”

“You bastard!”

But Ricky just laughed, crying out “He touched me!” and raising his hand as though displaying a reliquary to the crowd. But everyone’s focus was elsewhere, gaping after the man they saw as the perfect physical embodiment of power and masculinity and success.

“I mean, is he something or is he something?” Ricky asked later, as we were sitting in the weightlifting area waiting for the penultimate session to end. He looked at his hand again, as though some trace of the star’s aura might linger on it yet. “Maybe the greatest bodybuilder ever.”

“No love for Ronnie Coleman? Dorian Yates?” said Pete.

Ricky waved this aside. “Yeah sure, these guys now are huge, but Arnold had size and symmetry and everything.” He sighed dreamily, the way one might do when pining for an absent lover. “What a guy.”

“You ever gonna wash that hand?” Pete asked.

He considered this. “Maybe I should wait until after I lift. Might be some luck rubbed off.”

“You know he was a millionaire before he ever was in movies?” said Joe.

“No shit?”

Joe nodded. “He got his start doing construction or something with Franco Columbu. Then he started investing in real estate and bodybuilding stuff. Guy made a killing before he was really famous.”

“Definitely ain’t washing this hand now.”

 

[more to come]

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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.

 

[next chapter]

Posted in Of Iron and Bronze, olympic weightlifting | 1 Comment