Of Iron and Bronze – 16

 

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16.

When Pete and I were done lifting there was a short break before the one and only women’s session, during which time Ricky and a few of us ran across the street for food. Only Pete had been smart enough to pack food, bringing out a set of tupperware containers filled with Spanish rice and blackened chicken, complete with individually foil-wrapped wedges of lime. He laid out this repast—which I was fortunate enough to partake in—with the same practiced ease he displayed in his lifting. All he lacked was a chef’s hat. Ricky looked at this assemblage as though he’d not seen such nourishment in years, and he prodded us to share.

“You shoulda brought yer own food,” said Pete, in between huge mouthfuls of rice and chicken. “Or you coulda asked me!”

“How come he gets food?” Ricky asked, pointing at me like a jealous sibling.

“He lives with me. That’s a perk of puttin’ up with me.”

“I’ll live with yous. You let me sleep on the couch I’ll move in with yous tonight.”

Pete waved him off. “You don’t hurry up you ain’t gonna have time to finish yer Whopper or whatever before Libby starts…”

There were something like five or six women in Libby’s session—a fair turnout in those days. At the start was a girl so small that she could nearly hide behind the plates when she set up for her snatch. Despite her diminutive size she pulled with a ferociousness and technical proficiency that belied her age—and that put most other competitors to shame. Then followed an older woman chasing National Masters Records and a couple girls in the great middle: 58 and 63 and 69 kilo lifters. Afterward was a 75+, and then at the end—despite how new she was to the sport—was Libby.

Russ was handling counting duties and Nikos was keeping an eye on warmups. I was in the back helping to load the barbell and—I thought—keep her calm and ready for what was only her second or third competition. But after a few warmups, all done with a precision and crispness that suggested a far more experienced athlete, I began to think that she didn’t need me at all. She had a focus that was almost chilling, it was so finely honed, the way predatory animals look when stalking their prey. At times while idly chatting or loading the bar I felt like some clumsy interloper—a sensation that was confirmed in the moments before her opening attempt.

“Are you going to keep talking the whole time?” she asked.

“Uh…”

“Quiet,” she said, shushing me without even looking up. “I need to focus.”

I opened my mouth to indicate assent and then realized the inherent contradiction in this and so I simply stepped aside and waited.

Her snatches—all three of them successful—were wondrous to behold. Even the crowd, normally a bit tuned out for the women’s session, was drawn in by her attempts. Each one—80, 82.5, 85—was nearly identical to the one previous: controlled from the floor, aggressive through the second pull, and dynamic getting under the bar. Each had the beautiful auditory rhythm of a quick drumbeat of contact: first her body with the barbell and then her shoes with the platform. Pop pop and the bar was overhead. Perhaps most impressive was that there was room for improvement yet, and no doubt many of us in that room were calculating just how much more she could do with a slight tweak here, a minor adjustment there…

Even on her final lift she looked good for more, though she stepped off the platform grinning and happy with her performance.

“Sorry,” she said to me afterward, as I was stripping the barbell to get ready for her clean and jerk warmups. “I just needed to focus.”

I put a hand up. “No big deal. You do what you need to do.”

After that snatch performance there was every expectation of a similar show in the clean and jerk. And indeed her warmups looked much the same—efficient and strong and confident. But when her opener at 95 was turned down due to an elbow press out on the jerk I saw the first cracks in her demeanor. Unfortunately she was the only lifter at this weight, and there was nothing to do but try to recover during her two-minute clock as best as possible.

“Sit,” said Nikos. “Relax. Is light weight for you.”

She nodded and sat. I had a near irresistible urge to share some anecdote or bit of wisdom about pushing through this sort of thing—perhaps tell her about the white moment?—but I managed to refrain, remembering how she’d shut me down earlier.

When she missed her second attempt due to rushing the jerk she walked off the platform and seemed to scan the faces among us—me, Nikos, Russ, anyone—for some sign of help. Or mercy. I had the sense that by now, with the three good snatches nothing more than a memory—and a distant one at that—she was simply ready for this ordeal to be over. On her third attempt—despite the cheers and support of that small basement crowd—she approached the platform like a woman condemned, as though being led to her execution rather than to the barbell. I felt I knew her struggle—the desire to find the mental and physical strength to overcome the insidious doubts that threaten to rot you from the inside—and I tried to send whatever will I had across the room. But in the end it was not enough, and despite a heroic effort in the clean she did little more than throw the jerk forward.

“No lift,” was the announcer’s call, and he too sounded defeated—no doubt he was prepared to watch this new phenom revivify the old space, give it new life.

Libby walked off the platform, her face a mask of disappointment, and Nikos guided her to a seat with a gentle, almost fatherly hand.

“What happened?” asked Ricky when he strolled into the warmup area a short while later, in preparation for his own session.

I shrugged. “I think that first one threw her off.”

He shook his head. “That was a shit call.”

“Was it a press out? I couldn’t see from where I was standing.”

“Oh yeah, totally. But so what? She did the bow to the judges, they oughta appreciate that. Shoulda thrown her a favor in return.”

He stood and began going through his ludicrous and elaborate stretching routine, a vaudeville act of old-timey athletics. “Where’d she go?”

“Outside I think. She’ll be back to watch you.”

“Eh, she’ll get over it.” He then leaned in a bit and lowered his voice. “You know, now that she’s a little down, might not be a bad time to…”

I waited, not quite following.

“…talk to her about gettin’ on some shit.”

“Right now?”

“Maybe not right this second. But you know, soon. Soonish.”

The announcer mentioned the impending start of the session and Ricky put on his lifting shoes.

“Whaddaya think, Nikos?” he said, easing himself into a bottom and jumping up and down a bit to get the blood flowing. I could tell he was getting excited. “Go for some records today?”

Nikos raised an eyebrow. “Maybe just go for total first.”

“Ha! Ain’t no fun in that. Think anyone here wants to go head to head, make a real competition of it?”

Nikos just smiled, but from behind us someone spoke.

“I’m your huckleberry.”

Ricky and I turned, wondering who could be so bold as to accept this challenge. I heard a sharp intake of breath from Ricky—one of shock and genuine excitement.

“Myron!”

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 15

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15.

There’s a heady mix of adrenaline and panic when all the waiting is over and your name is finally called to the competition platform. I heard mine and then listened to a few words of support from Nikos and Russ, and then Ricky placed his huge hands on my traps and shoulders to slap and coax them into full potency.

“You know what to do, Jonathan,” he said. “You already done all the work. Just another day at the office here.”

I nodded and waited for one final slap to the shoulders, hard enough that it nearly sent me hurtling toward the platform. Before stepping to the bar I bowed to the center ref as reverentially as is possible when one is wearing little more than a spandex jumper. He nodded very slightly back to me, and I had the sensation—which I felt almost any time I encountered those old refs—of being just one tiny part of some larger thing, a history of physical culture and strength that perhaps stretched back to clusters of ancestral hominids hoisting stones or branches or primitive versions of Eleiko barbells.

Despite my nerves I loved stepping onto the platform: the smoothness of the plywood, the utter clarity and focus that came while I set up over the barbell, the feeling that the whole room, even the whole world, was directing all its attention to that singular spot occupied by me and the weights. For those few seconds this was the most important spot in the universe, and it didn’t matter that the crowd could have comfortably fit in a couple telephone booths or that my weight class had only three people or that the side ref appeared to be dozing off. The beautiful chromed bar and its plates—a big red and blue per side, signaling real weight to me—had the power to give any environment a certain gravitas. Everything became a little sharper around the edges, and my senses were lightly tinted with the coursing of blood—and chemicals, no doubt—through my head.

I knelt and gripped the bar and stared at a point a couple feet in front of me, trying to simultaneously relax and prepare myself for all-out physical and mental effort. The clock’s 30-second buzzer chirped loudly. I had a tendency to run the clock down that drove my coaches to near madness. Just one more second, I thought, crouched down like this, feeling the barbell, testing the grip, going through a quick mental checklist, then trying to clear my head of that checklist, enjoying the silence, the stillness, the sensation of imminent energy, imminent change, imminent controlled explosion… I looked at the clock again—17 seconds—and looked away. Whenever possible I liked that last glance at the countdown to fall on a prime number; there was no logic to it and it was as foolish as having lucky socks or magic crystals but I did it all the same, as though the power of numbers might shine favorably upon my efforts…

Feet flat, back tight, chest up, eyes focused, seeing through and beyond all those heads in the crowd, and then PUSH, pushing with everything against the floor, pushing as though trying to push the world itself away from me through my feet. Pushing and then pulling, pulling the bar up and in doing so pulling myself under it, feeling the speed of descent, racing gravity, and then turning my wrists and making contact with the platform and locking my arms and securing the barbell overhead. I stood, received the down signal from the center ref, and let the barbell fall, following it down to the level of my waist.

“Jonathan Scarpa… good lift!” said the announcer.

“That was almost a power snatch!” cried Ricky as I walked off the platform and back to the warmup area. “I shoulda had you open 125!”

Nikos too nodded and smiled and stroked his mustache in appreciation and thought.

“Go sit,” said Ricky. “It’s just you and Pete for a couple attempts so be ready.”

Much as I should have focused on myself while waiting for my next attempt I couldn’t help but watch Pete. When his name was called for his opener he strode out to the platform with a swagger that suggested someone possessed of an otherworldly confidence. I once watched him go zero for six in a meet and not break that stride even for a moment, such that you would have thought he’d just set six World Records rather than ended with nothing. Indeed here, at the Mets, he missed his opener at 120 with such good cheer that one ref gave him an accidental white light. On his second attempt he made the weight easily, but it almost didn’t seem to matter: his enjoyment on the platform was tangible, and few people—Ricky being one of them—could sell a performance quite like he could.

“Ain’t nothin’ but a peanut,” said Pete in his best Ronnie Coleman voice as he strolled off the platform.

By the end of the snatch session I’d managed to go two for three, with a successful 120 on my second attempt and then an almost comical miss at 125. Ricky had sold me on the dream of snatching two big red plates per side when he saw how easy my opener was, but ultimately it was just that: a dream. And not a very convincing one, either.

In the clean and jerk I fared similarly: two for three, with 150 on my second attempt—thanks to the dozing ref tossing me a generous white light despite some soft elbows. For my third attempt Ricky was convinced—with the fervor of a man possessed—of my ability to do 155. “The way you pulled that 150,” he said, “you could do 160 today!” Before I went out for that final attempt he took my head in his huge hands and looked at me as though he might tear it off.

“Jonathan, you got this! Remember Yuri Vlasov? The white moment?

I tried to nod but only managed a slight twitching of my head between his giant mitts. Indeed, Ricky’d spent a fair amount of time talking about the mythical “white moment” that the great Russian lifter Vlasov had written about—a burst of utter clarity and strength and confidence that comes in the midst of great and victorious effort.

“That’s it!” said Ricky, who looked so excited I thought perhaps he planned on running out and taking the weight. “Visualize this weight. Take in all the power of the world and do this!”

He let me go like some wild faith healer, raising his hands as though he’d just exorcised an evil spirit from my body. When I heard my name called for my final attempt a second later I felt invigorated, as if maybe he had imbued me with some new power, and I set up over the barbell in search of Vlasov’s mythical white moment. For an instant—just before I pulled the barbell from the floor—I thought I had it. The world around me—the crowd and the dingy basement and the shouts of my teammates—all faded away, and everything became very clear and bright. This was it, I thought, feeling powerful and strong and ready to take whatever energy was in the room and use it for my own purposes. This was the white moment! Feel the power!

But in the first inch of getting that weight—155 kilos—off the platform my body cried out in primordial horror What have you asked of me! and the white moment faded and muddied to a light tan at best and was soon a blur of static and chaos. In desperation I tried sticking with the weight but it was hopeless. The moment was lost, and in the end I barely did more than pull the bar and half-heartedly attempt to get under it.

Yet still Ricky looked at me when I walked off the platform as though the weight had just been a hair out of place.

“You almost had that!” he cried. “Just a little faster with the elbows. Did you go for the white moment?!”

“I almost had a brown moment when I pulled that weight from the floor, Puj.”

He laughed and slapped me on the back. “It was close,” he said. But Russ and Nikos were far more honest: the former just put his hands up and walked away smiling to himself. The latter looked at me, stroked his Soviet-era mustache, and said, “It was nice high pull.”

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 14

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14.

I weighed in at 77 on the dot—thanks to some careful assistance from Pete. After he weighed in comfortably below 85 I stepped on the scale. For a brief moment we watched as the digital readout shot through the 70s and well past 77; the likelihood of my making weight was somewhere south of zero. But at the moment when all hope seemed lost the numbers miraculously began descending, as though I’d stepped into some sort of anti-gravity well. We—Pete and me and the ref—watched this strange phenomenon until the readout settled exactly on 77.00—with Pete and I clandestinely holding hands like a pair of illicit lovers the entire time. His gentle shrug upward was just the boost I needed…

The basement slowly filled with more people as Pete and I sat with Libby and sipped coffees and waited for our session to start. Nikos and Russ showed up. A few of our teammates from Rutgers and FDU arrived, as did other lifters we knew from competitions past. Nearly every face among those competing was familiar, so small was our little corner of the sporting world: a promising Schoolage lifter in the 62s, a 77 who’d medaled at Junior Nationals, a 94-kilo guy who’d made a Junior World team a year or two back. These and other faces drifted through the basement, and each in turn was sought out by others: various coaches and old timers who were drawn to younger athletes, as though seeking some past version of themselves.

“I saw you at the Mintz last year,” I heard one old guy saying to the 77-kilo kid. “Four for six there… I remember you had a real nice crack at that 120. Looked like maybe just a little bit forward…”

And on and on. It was a degree of attention and memory that would be disconcerting were it not so sincere.

Ricky—in the midst of all of this—moved about the space like a shaggy and crude version of Blaine gilding among the tables in a ruined parody of Rick’s Cafe, as if they’d cast a wild boar for the role instead of Bogart. He was huge and loud and ludicrous and loved all the same—everyone past a certain age knew him and was happy to talk with him, and he in turn was happy to talk to them.

“Dude’s in his element,” said Pete, giving voice to my thoughts.

I nodded. Indeed, he was so in his element in a place like this it was hard to imagine him anywhere else. In normal society he always seemed a bit incongruous, as though the veneer of his civility were paper thin and might rupture at any moment. But down here—among the plates and the bars and the decaying memories of a thousand great lifts—Ricky just fit.

“What the hell are yous doin’?”

I snapped out of my reveries. It was Ricky himself, shouting at me and Pete.

“Get your singlets on!” he cried. “Session starts in ten minutes. How yous feel?”

“Uh…” I stammered.

“Don’t matter how you feel! Get ready…”

Despite Ricky’s agitation there was no real need for haste, as there were enough athletes at the beginning of the session to allow us time to ease into our warmups. We watched as the lifters began, Pete and I idly stretching and moving around with the barbell. In a twist of irony the first lifters here—and at most meets—were almost always those at opposing ends of the chronological spectrum: the youngest and oldest competitors, those just starting in the sport and those nearing the end of their time in it and in this life altogether. We watched kids who looked like little more than toddlers in baggy singlets throw 20 and 30 kilos overhead, kids who were barely taller than the weights and whose limbs were no thicker than the bar. Interspersed with them were creaky old Masters athletes with technique from another era, doing split snatches and holding the barbell with arms bent stiff from arthritis, but men still pounding away at the weights—at sixty, seventy, eighty and beyond—for the love of it, for the sheer reason that it is what they do, is what they’ve always done, and here they are, happy not just to be alive but to be well enough to put the bar overhead, if only for a little longer…

We watched as one of our own—a fellow Rutgers student named Robbie—struggled with a ferocity usually reserved for gladiatorial combat for a 65-kilo snatch. Robbie’d come to us over a year ago, a shadow of a human being, frail and sick and with a decidedly greenish cast. It was hard to imagine another sport—save perhaps shuffleboard—taking him in. But Ricky welcomed him as though he were the next great hope, as though he saw the second coming of Naim Suleymanoglu in him. He waxed poetic about how Tommy Kono had started out weak and sickly and had gone on to become one of the greatest lifters of all time. “Could be you,” Ricky’d said, and in Robbie’s jaundiced eyes there was what looked like real hope.

He was now slightly less greenish and was closing in on a bodyweight lift. His fight for the 65-kilo snatch felt interminable, as the bar overhead threatened to come crashing down—forward, then backward, then forward again… But Robbie hung on to the weight as though the fate of a small planet hung in the balance, and when he stood with it the crowd cheered as though the planet he’d just saved was their own.

“Helluva fight,” said Pete, throwing Robbie a high five so strong and excited that it nearly knocked him over.

And it was.

“What you are doing?” shouted Nikos. “Is time to warm up! Robbie, go sit. Celebrate later. You: Pete, Jonathan, take 50 kilos.”

“Hold yer horses!” said Pete, loading 50 kilos. “We’re gettin’ there…”

The warmups proceeded as usual, with Nikos watching for technique and Russ on counting duty and Ricky helping with loading and acting as general cheerleader and motivator, as he’d done for every single competition I’d ever lifted in. Fifty for a few sets, then 60, then a quick succession up through the weights: singles at 70, 80, 90, 100… As the weight on the bar increased I felt my focus narrow to the space just in front of me: this attempt, this rest, this next attempt. It was all part of an effort to keep the background hum of my nerves in the distance, and to prevent my overstimulated brain from thinking too much about all the nagging doubts that might plague me: Did my singlet feel too tight? Were my shoes laced okay? Was my thumb tape slipping? Did that snatch feel right?

But just below the adrenaline-fueled nerves—to which I’d long grown accustomed—was something else: the warm glow of confidence. The sensation that even then I was recovering, synthesizing proteins and muscle, thanks to the chemical restoratives. It was a subtle boost but a boost nonetheless, and as the weight on the competition platform neared my opening attempt I felt an anxiousness to get out there and show the crowd what I could do.

“You’re at 115,” said Ricky, after I finished a 110 snatch. “Stay there?”

He was used to me retreating: on my opening snatch I was always a coward, and I’d usually take it down 2.5 or 5 kilos to take pressure off myself. But this time I felt different.

“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “Fifteen.”

He smiled and nodded back. “Okay. You’re in the hole. Let’s go sit.”

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 13

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13.

Just over two weeks later was the first real test of the new chemical aids and the first time I could pinpoint their effectiveness: The Metropolitan Weightlifting Championships. Though only a local meet, in Rickey’s eyes this was a competition on par with a major continental championship, even though the caliber of athletes varied—significantly—from weight class to weight class every year. There was always a fair chance that your class might only have one or two other lifters, in which case you were all but guaranteed to place so long as you didn’t bomb out.

“A medal is still a medal,” Ricky would occasionally say in response to this. Although he’d sometimes contradict himself moments later by saying that medals didn’t matter if you lifted like shit…

(The only area competition that outranked the Mets for Ricky were the Empire State Games. Back in the Bayonne days Al had once asked him—jokingly—whether he’d rather be Empire State Games champion or Olympic champion. Ricky, after a brief pause, had responded: “What year we talkin’?”)

The Metropolitan Championships were held at Lost Battalion Hall in Rego Park, Queens, which meant an early start to the day for those of us going. In the wee hours of the morning, before the sun had yet risen, Pete and I woke and groggily prepped our supplies for the day: shoes, singlets, tape, protein bars, Advil, creatine, Gatorade, a box of Oatmeal Squares for snacking. And, of course, we each tossed back a few little pink pentagons before heading out the door…

We picked up Libby and then left New Brunswick for the Turnpike up to Ricky’s house. When we arrived I was about to give the horn a light tap—to let him know we were waiting—when the front door flew open and Ricky came bounding down the steps, his old duffel bag thrown over his shoulder and swinging about wildly as he ran.

“Who’s ready for the Mets?!”

“Oh Jesus…” said Pete.

His voice was booming—terribly, offensively loud. Certainly far too loud for something shouted across the lawn at 6:30 on a Saturday morning. People in neighboring houses were no doubt wondering why some idiot was screaming questions like that at an hour when the sun was still below the horizon.

But Ricky was certainly up, and he cared little for what his neighbors thought of him and his antics. He cried this question to us from a good fifteen feet away, as he jogged from his house to my car.

“You think he slept at all?” asked Pete.

“I think he was up all night watching VHS tapes of every past Met Championship in history,” I said.

“He looks… excited,” said Libby.

Ricky threw his bag in my trunk and then came around to knock on Pete’s window. “Whaddaya doin’?” he asked. “I’m the coach, I get the front seat.”

Pete rolled the window down a crack. “Seat’s taken.”

“What! I can’t believe this! Kicked outta my rightful spot by my own athlete. How you gonna like counting for yourself at the meet?” He shook his head and walked to the rear of the car.

“You believe this?” he said to Libby in the back seat.

“Puj you been up all night gettin’ ready for the Met?” asked Pete.

“You nuts? I was in bed at 9:30. Left work to make sure I could get to bed early. You don’t mess around with a meet like this. Now let’s go! You guys gotta weigh in. You clowns gonna make weight or what?”

“I’ll make weight,” said Pete.

“Yeah? What about you Jonathan?”

“I’ll make the 85s,” I said.

“What? No way. You gotta be 77 here. Libby what about you?”

“Seventy-five on the dot last night. I’ll be fine.”

“Atta girl,” said Ricky. “You hear that? That’s somebody who knows how to make weight.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said, pulling onto the highway toward the city. “I’ll have Pete help out at weigh ins.”

Making weight had been a challenge almost as formidable as lifting the barbell for almost as long as I’d been competing. Unable to endure a long cut or the rigors of clean eating, I instead opted for last minute efforts of incredible foolishness: fasting for 24-hours with only sips of water or ice cubes; sitting in cars wearing multiple winter jackets and the heater on full blast; the occasional laxative to get things moving… I’d arrive at weigh ins hungry and exhausted, feeling like something spectral and wasted, as though I were a shadow or a projection of my being rather than the real thing.

For my entire lifting career every time I’d starve or sweat myself to 64 or 70 or—ultimately—77 kilos I swore it was the last time, that I’d learned my lesson and would train lighter, that I’d do a long, easy cut. This was never the case. In retrospect I think some part of me needed to cut weight in this fashion, as though the fasting and sweating sharpened my responses and actions and gave the competition a gravitas that it might otherwise have lacked.

But ultimately I simply gave up cutting weight for most competitions, barring Nationals and the occasional local meet. For the Mets that year my cutting consisted of a somewhat lighter than normal dinner and skipping breakfast, which felt like a tremendous sacrifice in the moment. I was at least two or three kilos over and I knew this was unlikely to be sufficient but I was willing to risk it.

“How far is the drive?” asked Libby.

“‘Bout an hour,” said Ricky. “Hour and a half maybe if there’s traffic. You never been to LBH before?”

She shook her head.

Really?

“Really.”

Ricky leaned forward and popped his head between the two front seats. “You guys tell her about LBH?”

“We didn’t wanna put her to sleep,” said Pete.

“You kiddin’?!” He leaned back and looked at Libby, his expression a mix of shock and excitement. This was his chance to do the one thing he liked almost as much as lifting, which was to talk about lifting…

In Ricky’s estimation Lost Battalion Hall was the sport’s Mecca—and he spent a good part of the drive that morning expounding upon this to Libby. He spoke like some deranged orator from Ancient Greece, enumerating points of history and famous personages in a manner connected by only the loosest of threads. His conversation ranged, without clear purpose, from LBH’s founding in the 1960s to the great American athletes who trained there to a discourse on how its location in New York City made it a natural destination for top foreign athletes newly arrived in the US. He did all this with little regard for her occasional dozing off or for the fact that we spent twenty minutes going the wrong way since he’d failed to attend to his duties as navigator.

“You know Krastev snatched 210 here?” he said, still talking when we arrived at the Lost Battalion Rec Center, a nondescript red brick building on Queens Boulevard.

“Bullshit!” said Pete.

“That’s what they say!”

“Did you start that rumor?” I asked.

“Mighta been. Anyways, some of the best athletes in the world trained here, is my point,” he said to Libby.

The competition was held in the basement, a slightly under-lit space with linoleum flooring and a yellowed cast of age to everything. A platform was set up in the main space, along with a few rows of folding chairs, and to the right—separated by a curtain partition—was the warmup area. The total absence of windows or natural light made it feel as though you were standing in a bunker, and it wasn’t long before you started to feel as though vitamin D supplementation might be a good idea…

Aside from us the only other people there were some of the organizers and a few scattered athletes: a tiny kid in a singlet that looked several sizes too big; an old man with a handlebar mustache and a singlet several sizes too small; a middle-aged lifter walking around in his underwear, which looked nearly as yellowed as the basement itself.

“Don’t get intimidated by all this greatness, Libby,” said Pete. “Remember they’re just normal people. They put their pants on one leg at a time.”

“Or not at all, apparently,” she said, referring to the pants-less guy, who was now spinning in a circle very slowly with his arms outstretched, in what looked like some strange and ungraceful mimicry of ballet.

“It’s still early,” said Ricky. He then turned to Libby. “This place got history,” he said. “You win the Mets today, you’re a part of a long history of great lifting here.”

“Are there any other girls in my class?”

“Ain’t the point,” he said. “But no, I don’t think so.”

An old referee who’d been sleeping in a chair by the platform and who looked like five miles of unmade bed roused himself awake. When he gazed about he seemed surprised to find himself in these surroundings but he ultimately stood up all the same, as though resigned to make do with whatever world in which he’d woken up.

“We’re going to start the weigh ins for the first men’s session,” he said in a thin voice, and began shuffling off to the room where the scale was located.

Pete and I dropped our bags and went to follow him.

“Wish me luck,” I said to Ricky. Then turning to Pete I whispered: “Stay close in there. I may need a little boost.”

 

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Of Iron and Bronze – 12

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12.

Training, perhaps more than anything else, defined that era. The carefully written programs—emailed out by Ricky Sunday night or Monday morning and detailing exercises and reps and sets—gave my universe an order and shape that otherwise was not present, the way history fixes the chaos of the past into a semblance of coherence. In the course of the week the numbers written down became real, transformed into the sights and sounds and physicality of training: the steady rhythm of rubber plates dropping to the platforms, the sharp and high crack of shoes against wood, the metallic clanking of the smaller plates, the dust and chalk and menthol that filled the air, the varicolored bumpers that were loaded onto chromed barbells. And while the actual workout in the gym didn’t quite always match what was written—a skipped rep here, a little weight added there—what history has ever been entirely faithful to what it purports to record?

“Training,” Ricky said once, early in my time with him, “is the best. I mean, yeah, competitions are fun. Winning medals and that shit. But there ain’t nothing like training. No judges, no politics, none of the bullshit. You either put the bar overhead or you don’t.”

Pete seemed to have taken this in from the very start. He loved training almost as much as he loved food, and it made no difference to him whether he had a competition or not. There’d even been times when others had called him out for this. I remember a night in the Bayonne basement when he hit a PR clean and jerk of 125 kilos—two weeks after missing the weight in a competition. After the obligatory celebrations, Al couldn’t help but comment.

“Why the fuck you didn’t do that two weeks ago?” asked Al.

Pete shrugged. “Ain’t no rush. I did it now. That’s what matters. Now I can get ready to do more.”

“Man,” said Al, smiling, “you gotta do it on the platform for it to count.”

“Bullshit.”

“Bullshit?”

Pete nodded and smiled back. “Bull-shit.”

Al laughed and shook his head. With great flourish and theatricality he then began to enumerate his points on one hand. “You didn’t weigh in, you took the weight when you wanted, you ain’t got no clock runnin’ on you, there ain’t no judges watching, you probably got some grease on them thighs…”

“I ain’t got nothin’ on these thighs!”

“They look a little shiny to me, but okay. You gotta do it when it counts, son.”

“Same gravity, ain’t it?” Pete picked up a 1.25-kilo plate and let it fall to the platform. “Yep, same gravity.”

Al waved this aside. “Ain’t the same. Puj, am I right?”

Everyone in the gym looked to Ricky, our authority on these things in those days and for many days to come. He was rubbing his hands together over the chalk bin—little more than a steel bowl—and when he heard the question he stopped and pondered it, as though weighing some great question from the ancients.

“Yeah, it ain’t the same,” he said sagely, when he finally spoke. “But who cares? Still did the weight.”

“Who cares?” asked Al, incredulous.

Ricky shrugged and walked over to his own barbell. “One twenty five is still 125 kilos.”

“Y’all are crazy…”

But we could live with this apparent contradiction; indeed, we were willing to consider the possibility that training was somehow purer than competition. That it was the ultimate expression of athletic performance, stripped as it was of pretense and formality and politics. It took me a while to come around to this fully—I wanted medals and recognition in some official capacity—but now, looking back, I can appreciate that the life I built was crafted not so much in competitions but in the weeks and months and years I spent hammering away at a training program alongside like-minded lifters.

Training, when Pete and I were in school at Rutgers in New Brunswick, was generally divided between two places: the Rutgers Power Gym during the week and FDU on Saturday mornings. If we felt like splurging on gas and time we would head up to FDU another weekday, as well.

The gym at Rutgers had been a struggle just to bring into existence. When we first started college there was nowhere properly equipped for us to train. The training facilities for the school’s athletes had an extraordinary number of Eleiko barbells and platforms—something like sixteen total—yet all of them were off limits to us.

“What the hell you mean we can’t use them?” Pete had cried when informed of this. “I pay tuition! I’m a student here! I got a right to use that!”

“Those are for the school’s athletes,” a guy from the athletic department told us.

“I ain’t a athlete? I been to national competitions! Hell, weightliftin’s an Olympic sport! Is football in the Olympics?”

The man looked at us.

“Is it?” asked Pete again.

“That’s not the issue here,” said the man. “The issue…”

“The issue is it’s bullshit! I pay all this money and you got bars and platforms and ain’t nobody usin’ them and yer tellin’ me we can’t use them.”

“There is a student gym available for…”

“I know about the student gym. You think I wanna go do curls with those meatheads? You even know what Olympic lifting is?”

“I know…”

“We’ll be back,” said Pete, cutting him off.

Unfortunately the school didn’t quite see it Pete’s way. Moreover, the school felt that not only were we barred from using the athlete facilities, but Pete was barred from even asking about them or contacting anyone in the athletics department again.

Initially we struggled through workouts using junk bars and plates in the regular gym—and making as much of a scene as possible—until another lifter, a 69-kilo kid named Lou, forced the school to buy some Olympic lifting equipment through sheer stubbornness. Eventually we ended up with a couple of platforms and York bars and plates, tucked into a room off a hallway—away from the hoi polloi in the main gym on College Ave. There were still battles to be fought—like when they tried telling us we couldn’t use chalk because of “safety concerns”—but ultimately we prevailed on most fronts. Or we simply ignored whatever rules didn’t align with our own goals…

For all its shortcomings the Power Gym still managed to provide the best of what training has to offer. There was no real coach, the York barbells were a poor substitute for the Eleikos of FDU, the hours were limited, and the room in which the platforms were located was also host to any number of other activities with people who knew nothing of weightlifting gym etiquette. But it had a core group of six or seven or eight of us who showed up three or four evenings a week. We came from class or from dorms or apartments, from the Student Center and from far flung campuses and from student jobs. We walked down College Ave in the snow and rain and in the heat of late September summers. We trained two or three or four to a bar, going from 50 kilos to 110 or more from one person to the next, and we became experts in the strategic loading of a barbell to make the changing of weights easiest. We did what we could to provide the feedback we thought our coaches would have provided. In short, we made a little outpost of weightlifting—a home away from our regular home—where we could focus on training.

Saturday mornings were different. The training often revolved around that session, and many of us—Pete and myself included—looked forward to Saturday training as the highlight of the week. It involved its own set of very specific—and rarely varied—rituals. Like a Japanese tea ceremony these were particular actions that took place in a set order; to disturb them was to risk upsetting the balance of the whole morning, or even the entire day. Packing the gym bag, stopping at Easton Ave Bagels for food and coffee, taking little handfuls of ibuprofen, listening to particular CDs—all became part of what it meant for us to be a weightlifter.

But the real work began when we arrived at the gym, after we’d greeted everybody and set our bags down. We’d all take our sneakers or boots off and then put on our lifting shoes, and then we’d rush into hastily executed stretching and warmup routines.

“You ain’t gonna be able to do that forever!” Ricky had said once. “Once you get to my age you’ll be spending more time warming up than lifting.”

“By the time I get to your age I’ll have quit,” said Joe. “Taken up golf or something easy.”

Soon—always too soon—we took barbells to our respective platforms to start the day’s training. We felt the bar’s weight, the same as every day prior and all days to come—a fact that could be comforting and unsettling, for it can feel lighter and heavier.

Weight would go on the bar. Chalk would go on the hands. We’d take warmups, check programs, take more attempts, and generally go through the motions until things started to feel right, or at least less bad than the first reps. We’d do more reps, more checking of the program, more chalking of the hands. Snatches. Cleans. Jerks. Pulls. Squats. Variants of them all. Core work. Presses. More snatches, more clean and jerks, more squats and pulls. More chalk. More lifts. Hundreds of them, thousands of them, tens of thousands of them. So many reps performed in the search of the right repetitions, which seemed to come more rarely than any of us would have liked.

Watching over all this were Ricky and Nikos and Russ, with Ricky doing double duty of training and coaching. With their feedback—which we’d lacked all week—we slowly became more refined versions of ourselves. A word or two—the right words—and suddenly the snatches or the cleans we missed on Monday or Wednesday or whenever were made with ease.

More weight. More reps. More sets. More chalk. Chalk in the air. Chalk on our shoes, our shirts, our singlets, our platforms, such that we often ended up looking like strange athletic bakers coated in sweat and flour.

Still more lifting. Watching others lift, responding to the feedback of coaches, responding to the way we felt or thought we should feel.

“Pull straight,” a common refrain on my own attempts. “Stay over the bar and pull straight.”

I know this, I would think, but how can I get my body to listen??

Days when every kilogram, every gram, was felt. Days when gravity was strong. Days when every lift felt different from the last and none of them felt right. Days when my body was unable or unwilling to do the things I knew it was capable of, things I might have done just a day previously. Days when the barbell won. And won. And won. Over and over, despite all my best efforts and all my work and all that I had given to it, days when still the barbell won, callously and cruelly in its impartiality. Days when the weights came crashing down and I would look to the heavens and shout Why?! Why?! Why in the name of the gods did I pick this awful sport and not choose something like golf or bowling or chess? Why is my body unwilling to do what I tell it to? Why do the weights hate me? Why am I here, still, day after day when it feels like this?

I had more bad workouts than I could count in those days. But always Ricky or Nikos or Russ would know—from their own experiences, no doubt—that such days were part of the natural order of things. Each knew how to respond to us when things went poorly.

Sometimes it was as simple as one cue on which to focus.

“Be patient. Don’t yank it from the floor.”

Sometimes it was a more involved request.

“Go back down. Take some weight off and then go back up.”

And sometimes it was the ability to see beyond that day’s training and appreciate the bigger picture.

“That’s it for today. Go on.”

But then there were days when the weights moved as if of their own volition. Days when my body was at harmony with the barbell. Days when the weights didn’t seem to exist, when the barbell moved through the air and overhead with an almost transcendental ease. Days when the completion of each lift provided a burst of euphoric biofeedback, like hitting the jackpot on a slot machine over and over again. Days when the pop-pop of the barbell and the soles of my shoes against the platform made a steady music in which I was at once artist and audience.

Days when Ricky or Nikos or Russ smiled at me after every lift, more often than not staying silent but speaking volumes with that silence. Days when the rhythm of the barbell felt especially tuned to the movements of my body and my muscles. Days when the bar and I and the platform resonated at some higher frequency, some chord that I swore approached divine perfection, and I would think My god this is what it must feel like to be one of the greats!

“Nice work today.”

“Thanks.”

That was the best of training, which I came to appreciate only through knowing the worst of it. But those days were what I lived for and remembered and sought out, trying—and sometimes, succeeding—to find the right, seemingly mystical combination of factors that would make them more likely than the others.

 

On the day Pete and I took our new restoratives—with my right thigh just beginning to develop a little soreness at the injection site—we were convinced we’d found what we were looking for.

“I know it’s too soon for the d-bol to be workin’ but damn if I don’t feel good,” said Pete, grinning, as we walked down College Ave to the gym.

I nodded in agreement, feeling much the same.

 

[next chapter]

 

[NB: keen-eyed readers may recognize some of this (in modified form) from an OLift article I wrote a while back. This is the original chapter from which that article was developed.]

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