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.”