The Human Circus in Columbus, OH

A weekend at the 2011 Arnold Sports Festival

[Disclaimer: most of this was written in a sleep-deprived haze following a hellish 20-hour drive back from Columbus, OH, which is over double the amount of time the trip should have taken. I therefore make no claims to the quality, coherence, or veracity of anything written below, as I am hesitant to edit it or even reread it. All I can really say for certain is that the Arnold Sports Festival happened this past weekend, and I was there for it.]

The wrong way to start your journey to the Arnolds

Having your car break down is an inauspicious way to start a 500-plus-mile drive to the middle of Ohio, which is exactly how my journey to this year’s Arnold Fitness Expo began. I thought I had covered all my automotive bases by switching over to summer tires (in retrospect, a bad move given the goddamn snowstorm we encountered in central PA) and changing my oil in the days immediately preceding my drive to the Arnolds. There were probably about a dozen other car issues I should have taken care of as well, but given the time constraints and my general poor planning I felt oil and tires were sufficient. Had I spent a little more time under the hood, or had I any real automotive knowledge, I might have noticed that trouble was on the way.

Thursday morning, the day of departure, I was scheduled to pick up my travel companion Lou Mangiaracina–unofficial mayor of USA weightlifting and general man about town at national meets–and his girlfriend, after which we would meet up with several members of Team NJ to make our way to the Columbus area in caravan style. I told Lou I’d pick him up at 9:30 in the morning, and so I was in the car and on my way promptly at 9:25. The drive to his place is just over forty minutes in the best of conditions, but I figured (correctly) that he likely hadn’t even started packing by 9:30, and therefore was certainly not going to be expecting me anywhere near on time. Fortunately I received a text en route to Lou’s from TNJ member Chris Oakley that he was running late, as well. All was proceeding smoothly at this point.

We shoehorned our bags into my trunk at Lou’s place and then aimed the car for a roadside Dunkin’ Donuts, our meeting place. On the way over, which is a short five minute drive, I noticed my coolant light blink on, which didn’t give me any immediate concern; it had been ages since I’d added coolant, and that combined with the abnormally cold morning temperature were likely contributing to a low reading.

But when I pulled up to the D&D’s I discerned a more than usual amount of steam coming from the front of my car, which is never a good sign with a foreign automobile.

“Is your car smoking?” asked Lou.

I nodded. “Yeah. I think I’m just low on coolant. Should be nothing serious.”

I popped and lifted the hood. Doing so was like opening the door to a Turkish steam room; I half expected a squad of large, sweaty men sporting towels and mustaches to come tumbling out. The two of us waved our arms to clear the haze, and eventually could make out the engine, which was covered–along with the hood–in coolant. Absolutely soaked.

“That doesn’t look good,” said Lou.

I agreed. “Shit. This is not what we need right now.”

By this time the TNJ crew, who had been sitting in the Dunkin’ Donuts, came out and were inquiring as to the status of the vehicle. None of us is a professional mechanic (at one point, TNJ lifter Dan Goeller commented on the issue of coolant getting all over the “manifest”, an engine part with which I am unfamiliar), but it seemed quite clear that the situation wasn’t good.

At this point the only logical thing to do was dump the car and take Lou’s truck. I topped off with some coolant and left the car in the hands of a nearby mechanic, cursing all the terrible  automotive cooling systems that have gone wrong on my watch (five, maybe six, all within the span of a handful of years). Thus about two hours after our scheduled departure time (a pipe dream in the best of conditions, given our general inability to get our collective shit together) we were finally on our way.

Of course, all that fretting over the car and pretending we could maybe fix the situation had worked up quite an appetite within us; we are weightlifters, after all. So before Lou’s truck even had time to notice it was moving we had stopped for lunch. And despite the desire to get moving, to put some miles between us and the goddamn car we had just abandoned, this was no quick lunch; this was a sit-down affair, complete with an appetizer and some post-prandial coffee. But when you’re about to embark on a journey across PA and central Ohio, with nothing more than Denny’s restaurants and fast-food joints along the way, you need to take advantage of good meals when you get the chance.

So by two in the afternoon, roughly four hours after our scheduled departure time, we finally crossed NJ state lines and made our way into PA, with Lou piloting his monstrously large pickup at warp speeds in an effort to make up some lost time. It sliced through the wind like an office complex, but turned out to be more than up to the task, even if its average of 14mpg was probably contributing to some of the unrest in the Middle East.

Just under eight hours later we pulled into the classiest hotel this side of the greater Columbus area, the fabulous Ramada Inn. Not the most ideal way to start a trip, but at least we had made it.

The Venue

We went over to the Expo Center around noon the next day. A few of us were scheduled to lift that day (Friday), and we wanted to check in and maybe swing by the main exposition hall to get a look at the Circus.

Those who haven’t been to the Arnolds will have a difficult time comprehending the whole phenomenon. And going for your first time–as in the case of our teammate affectionately known by the moniker “Gangster”–is an ordeal not easily forgotten. I’ve been going to the Arnolds for six years now, and I can still recall the shock at that initial encounter with the human freak-show on display.

The Arnold Expo floor is a legitimate human circus, one that manages to squeeze in specimens of all shapes and sizes and colors. The backdrop for all this is provided by the hundreds of vendors hawking their products to a public eager to piss away money on anything that might give them a chemical advantage (but legal and drug-free, of course) over the next guy, or over their own genetics. This is evidenced by the fact that the longest lines in the convention center are often for the ATMs. But really all the garbage being pushed on a largely ignorant and all-to-willing to believe public is secondary to the crowds. It’s here, among all the excesses of commercialism and consumerism, that cornfed midwesterners get to rub elbows with men and women whose muscular physiques have been inflated to cartoonish proportions, and slack-jawed yokels drift around ogling skimpily clad fitness models who are pushing products every bit as fake and unsatisfying as their surgically enhanced breasts.

It’s a sea of bleached hair, fake tans, cliched tattoos, dehydrated faces, and absurd outfits, all tossed into a heaping portion of middle America. But the Expo isn’t the only thing going, and the presence of so many other sports–gymnastics, fencing, cheerleading, martial arts, etc–only increases the crowd’s eccentricity. And while at first glance there might not seem to be much in common between a 300-pound bodybuilder and a peanut-sized cheerleader whose face has been painted with her weight in makeup, it doesn’t take much intelligence to recognize that you’re dealing with different branches of the same tree.

i would hate to fight these men

Given this situation, and the general ridiculousness of it, there have been those in the past who would have preferred to keep Olympic Weightlifting out of the whole scene, as if we were better than the drug-addled freaks and monsters and oiled up bodybuilders. But why let them–and even worse, the supplement makers and fitness-fad pushers–serve as the sole ambassadors and representatives of physical culture in America? Better to elbow our way in to this crowd with as much might as possible, and give people a chance to see that strength sports can be about more than just empty spectacles.

The advantage of all this insanity is never knowing whom you might run into. My first year at the Arnolds I nearly ran straight into Ah-nold himself. I was wandering around the convention floor trying to process the whole scene, when some thug pushed me to make room. That sort of thing didn’t seem unusual for a place where the air is filled with the scent of testosterone, but then I noticed he–and several associates–were pushing everyone aside, creating a human walkway right through the convention center. Seconds later the Governator himself appear, flashing smiles and tossing out handshakes, of which I was one lucky recipient.

Arnold, on a path toward my outstretched hand, in 2005

This year a similar scenario ensued, although after fifteen minutes of standing in the human walkway with no sign of the Man himself my teammates and I got tired of waiting; luckily the human tunnel provided a clear path out of the venue.

no Ah-nold sighting this year, but there was a Hulk sighting

But there are always bodybuilders, powerlifters, and general strength-sports personalities drifting around. Hang around long enough and you’re bound to bump into one of these planet-sized individuals, most of whom are more than happy to mug it up for the camera.


Lou, Oakley, and me at the foot of Mount Misha Koklyaev

Weightlifting on Saturday

Saturday afternoon was the main event, a clash of cultures dubbed “Islands vs Mainland”, but which could be more accurately described as “Fur’ners vs ’Mericans”, since I think several of the countries represented by the “Islands” team were not only landlocked, but also damn far from any significant body of water. But that’s not important; all that matters is that people came expecting big lifts by strong lifters, and the session did not disappoint.

But first a word about the venue: as usual, the space designated for Olympic Weightlifting was top notch. Mark Cannella and his team out in Columbus, OH, consistently do a fantastic job creating the competition environment, and this year was the best effort yet. The stage was slightly raised for better visibility, and the platform itself was one of the best I’ve lifted on; there were no strange divots or slippery areas, and its functionality and simplicity make you wonder why anyone tries to mess with such a good formula. Lighting, seating, and video screens were also well thought out, and the team out there does a solid job of providing a professionally-run meet. My only gripe was the lack of a screen showing session statistics (e.g., the board used at international meets) for the crowd, since this sort of information is always useful when watching a competition. But otherwise the setup was fantastic, and those running national meets could learn a lot from checking out how they do things at the Arnolds.

the warmup area

But let’s get down to brass tacks: the lifting, and the lifters.

[A quick disclaimer: I only had time to watch men’s sessions. This is not to diminish the female sessions, which I heard featured some excellent lifting. It’s merely a reality of being at the Arnolds–or any large, multi-day meet–as an athlete and a spectator: you simply cannot take it all in, unless you decide to completely give up on eating/sleeping/bodily functions. The exception to this rule is Rob Macklem, who is apparently able to survive for days at a time at international meets on photographic energy alone. I am not him, and so I missed all the women’s sessions; if anyone wants to contribute, be my guest.]

As I was saying, the lifting. There was much anticipation for the Islands vs Mainland session, due not only to the presence of several athletes of the highest caliber, but to the presence of one athlete specifically: the polarizing figure of youtube legend Pat Mendes. It’s been nearly two years since we saw Mendes at a national meet, although he and coach Broz have certainly been busy during that time. The Arnolds aren’t technically a national meet, but in profile and audience they beat any national event of recent memory (excepting perhaps the 2009 Nationals, which were tied in with the Pan-Am’s and Chicago’s doomed [and embarrassing] bid for the 2016 Olympics).

It was hard not to hear people asking whether Pat was going to lift, or whether he was even in the goddamn venue. By the end of Saturday afternoon, any potential naysayers had the answers (yes, and yes).

The room during the main event was packed, a standing-room-only affair with solid commentary provided by Mike Burgener. I don’t know if anyone has official numbers, but this was the most crowded I’d ever seen the weightlifting venue; it certainly seems like Mark et al may need to consider a larger space for next year.

part of the crowd during the main mens session

The lifting during the session was strong, although it lacked the otherworldly feats of strength on display in previous years (it’s hard to beat the times I’ve seen Klokov lift at the Arnolds, as anyone can attest to who’s been in attendance for those years). But the Islanders as well as the Americans put on a solid show, and there were a few standout performances. The 94-kilo lifter David Katoatau (Kiribati) was one example; the guy is fast, even if his numbers aren’t all that impressive on the world stage. Peter Yukio, the 77 from Nauru, put up some respectable numbers, something to be expected given the fact that his thighs probably count as municipalities on his tiny island nation.

From the US lifters, Caleb Williams (69) and Chad Vaughn (77) stood out in my mind two individuals who gave standout performances. I first saw Caleb lift at the Arnolds a year or two back, and while he was damn strong then he was also a bit unrefined; if I recall correctly, the forty-odd kilo gap in his snatch and clean and jerk back then was an indication that he had some technique issues to iron out. Whatever the case, he took care of it, and put together a damn fine showing: 125 and 157, with two very close misses with record attempts at 164. Chad Vaughn–who was the top male lifter based on Sinclair–put together his best showing in recent years that I can remember: 147 and 183. He also had a close third attempt with 150 in the snatch, and took a shot at 190 191 in the clean and jerk. Unfortunately I completely missed seeing his third attempt, since his wife Jodi, who had been seated on the floor in front of me, exploded off the ground when he initiated the lift, blocking my view of everything except the back of her head. But from the crowd’s reaction it sounded like he at least racked the weight.

Two American lifters from whom I had been expecting big numbers unfortunately failed to post totals: Zach Krych, who withdrew from the competition after missing 148 and 150 in the snatch (he made his opener at 143); and Kendrick Farris, who snatched 155 but then missed all three jerk attempts with 197. His epic miss on the third attempt at that weight is likely to inspire yet another round of debate on the merits and dangers of the squat jerk. I sure as fuck wouldn’t want to be sitting in my bottom position with 197 kilos locked overhead in my clean grip, but thankfully that’s something I won’t soon have to deal with. And clearly Farris’s shoulders are made from very different stuff than most people’s. Unicorn blood or something.

As for Mendes, he was in fact at the meet, and he did lift, and he posted a total. His weights weren’t anywhere near the youtube lifts of 207 and 240-something, but for someone coming off an injury they weren’t bad either: 175 in the snatch, with a very close miss at 182 and then a slightly less convincing crack at 183. In the clean and jerk he fared similarly, only making his opener at 207, before two misses at 217. Much like Farris’s ugly-to-watch third miss at 197, this performance is probably going to get people talking, regardless of whether they actually know Mendes or his coach. The kid is certainly strong and fast; we’ll see what happens next.

The session that followed, despite not being the “main event”, was in my opinion just as good, if not better. Mike Cerbus came damn close to a 300 total as a 77, and Columbia’s Andica brothers put on a fine display of strength and speed, with Jhoni (77) doing 138 and 170 for a 308 total, and Carlos (85) doing 153 and 187 for 340. The session’s big lifter, Carlos Manuel Campos, was also impressive, primarily for the BP-sized oil spill that seemed to have been generously rubbed on his thighs for his lifts. God help him if the EPA gets wind of that spill.

A fitting end (or so I thought)

Later that evening, after a fine meal at the Flatiron bar across from the venue, I wandered down to the lobby of the Ramada. It had been a long and exhausting day, but I was still riding the overstimulated high of spending a couple days at the Arnold Expo and drinking dozens of cups of coffee. I ran into Mike Graber (who is perhaps unseating Lou Mangiaracina as the unofficial mayor and man-about-town of USAW), and we headed into the hotel bar.

Although most hotel bars in mid-level American hotels are probably populated by individuals on the ‘larger’ side, this night’s crowd seemed particularly expansive. Only after a gaggle of full-figured woman had made their way past me did I realize what was going on, which was confirmed by the presence of mardi gras beads draped over many in the crowd. We were right in the middle of a BBW event. It was an interesting scene, with large women confidently dancing their way across the bar, weaving in and out of small pockets of weightlifters. On its surface nothing could seem further away from the physique-obsessed culture of the Arnold Expo, but it’s really not so different from the Circus on display at the convention center; each event serves to celebrate aspects of physical beauty outside the mainstream, even if they do so in different ways and for different reasons.

Walking in on a BBW event would have been a fitting end to the overblown salute to commercialism and hyper-fitness that the Arnold Expo has come to represent (excepting the Olympic Weightlifting portion, which–like many of the smaller sports at the venue–is far closer to the spirit of health and fitness than anything going on in the supplement-strewn main hall). Except that was not the end, as the next day would result in its own story: a grueling 20-hour drive home, thanks to awful winter conditions and accidents that, although unseen, must have been apocalyptic in order to result in the shutting down of route 80 for nearly five hours. But no time to tell that now.

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