(Ed note: We're pleased to bring you the Los Angeles Review of Books coverage of the 2012 Olympics. To read the complete series, click here.)
YOU LEFT YOUR KEYS in your car, the security guard on the phone told me. I said, Thanks, I’ll run over and pick them up. He added, Your windows were down. Okay, I said. And your door was open. I paused. … and the keys were in the ignition… and the car was running.
People who suffer from acute depression often describe a sensation of hovering somewhere outside themselves, watching. It sounds pretty cool, except it becomes a multiplication of terror when you’re used to lifting a knife if you tell your hand to lift a knife and putting it down if you tell it to put it down. It’s an eerie disconnection from the immediate world. You can’t seem to move anything, including yourself, and everything around you seems to be made of slate — slow and gray.
Another corrupting thing about depression, somewhat related to its bodilessness, is the way your sense of time distorts. Depressives talk about having running thoughts. Think of that rambling disclaimer voice in prescription drug commercials, multiply that rate of speech by at least a factor of ten, and fill the text with some murderous material, including rather inventive, albeit gruesome, applications for a bed sheet and a tall maple tree. The disparity in speed between what you’re thinking and whatever mundane task is at hand makes you feel like you’ve lost all agency. The suggestions of the voices you hear are numerous, swift, and convincing.
Well, with no job, I gave up my apartment and took residence on a couch in Jersey City, invited by my good friend, poet Ross Gay. We lived cheaply and it was good to have his company pretty much around the clock. I started reading again, Horace’s epistles, Larry Levis, and Rilke. We watched a fair amount of Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor. The laughter might have been what I had hoped for, the first bump out of depression.
The last full nudge back into my body was much more subtle and took some time. It happened after Ross, who is a six-foot-four Division I football alum from Lafayette College, asked if I wanted to work out with him. Me?
I did join track as a freshman in high school. But one day at practice, the field coach, after learning my javelin distances for the day, cocked his eyebrow at me asked, “Can you run, Rosal?” Kicked off the javelin squad and dumped in with the sprinters, I finished no better than second to last in every B-heat of the spring.
As for lifting, I had no interest in it at any point in my life, the repetitiveness of it and the apparent vanity. I did play a lot of street and league basketball all through my teens and twenties. I was also a 20-to-25-mile-a-week runner for a few years. But weights, in my mind, were for meatheads.
In a little cove of a room that joined the bedrooms and the living room, among all our cluttered guy shit — bikes, books, rags, dirty t-shirts — Ross had three iron globes of increasing size and weight, painted black, each with a handle on it. They were kettlebells. They were Russian, he told me, as he picked up the biggest one, about 50 pounds., and started to swing it.
You know that movement that a bird in a cuckoo clock makes? Its body drops forward and down, seeming to dip its beak repeatedly into some invisible pool before it tilts upright again? Imagine that — except the cuckoo bird is six-foot-four and about 210 pounds and he’s gripping the handle of a 50 pound ball of cast iron between his legs before he pops up and the iron bell floats up. I called it Ross’s Iron Curtain Workout and I politely declined.
I don’t remember what it was that got me into that room, but maybe a week after watching him a bit, I asked if I could join him. It’s all from the hips, he explained. So I gripped the smallest kettlebell, a 20-pounder, by the handle. I kept my back straight, gave the weight a little back swing between my legs, drove my hamstrings and quads up and popped my hips out, squeezing my glutes at the top. I used my arms for nothing except to guide the weight, which just flew up, no problem. I was a natural.
That six-minute workout had me sore for a week. I moaned at every one of the 75 steps of the brownstone to my spot on the sofa. It hurt so bad, I had to laugh. It felt like someone was ripping my tendons from my joints. After time, I stepped up to a bigger kettlebell.
It didn’t take more than a month for both Ross and me to start doing more sophisticated movements, like releasing the kettlebell at the top of the swing and catching it again on its way down. Then we would do the swing and release, but touch our shoulders while the kettlebell paused mid-air. We were flipping the weight and guiding it in figure eights around our bodies. We were tossing the bell back and forth to one another, inventing tricks, whistling Sweet Georgia Brown. A few times the whole brownstone shook when we dropped one of the bells.
By the end of the summer I lost 15 pounds and my knee, which I’d blown out ten years before, felt strong enough for me to cut on the basketball court. At some point the voices in my head, without me noticing, stopped.
Three years later, Ross told me I ought to try to do hang cleans. In that movement, you rest an Olympic barbell at about mid-thigh in standing position. Your grip is just outside your legs. From that position you have to get the bar to shoulder height and finally rest it on your collarbone and deltoids. It is one of the fundamental techniques you learn before you learn advanced lifts, like the Olympic snatch and clean and jerk.
To get the bar to the clean position requires precision and flexibility — not brute strength. The misconception is that beefy, bodied dudes muscle the weight up with their big biceps and shoulders. In fact, Olympic lifts (like most athletic movements) are powered from the hips. They engage everything from muscles in the foot and calf into the big muscles of the leg. It requires a specific firing, a very sophisticated order of detonation. Your elbows have to be high and you have to shrug your shoulders at just the right time. In slow motion, you can see the angle of grip change, how a lifter actually has to release the weight in the air. He has to let go.
For the highest level super heavyweight, that means well over 500 pounds is flying up from the floor toward your nose with nothing driving its trajectory except the original pop from the legs and hips. Look, Mom — no hands.
The word weightlifting is a misnomer. In Olympic lifts, the weight is, in fact, lifted from the ground and over your head. However, the movement is much, much less about the barbell and more about how the body moves around the weight. The burden’s vector is simple, the body’s is extremely complex.
I learned the Olympic clean on my first try. Same with the jerk, a tricky lift that requires a simultaneous aggressive push of the bar overhead and a quick dip beneath it; your body moves in two directions at once.
The snatch, in which you lift a weight from dead position, i.e. the floor, directly into an overhead position, was much more difficult, but I mastered that with a modicum of effort too. The kettlebells were a great schooling ground for these complicated movements.
In Olympic lifting, there is very little room for invention. The snatch and clean and jerk have been essentially the same for a century (the Olympic press was eliminated from competition in 1972). What affects the lift are the miniscule variations, a one degree angle change in the trajectory of the weight, an imperceptible lean of the weight to one side, a one hundredth of a second lag in your dip in the jerk. The lifter has to adjust not only to what is unforeseen, but what is altogether invisible. He has to feel his way through the lift.
Though the strongest lifters in the world are capable of bearing, in full extension, the weight of three or four full grown men over their heads, the real struggle is with what he can’t see. Rocking back a half-inch on your heels with 550 pounds over your head could mean a failed lift. It could also mean a torn tendon or snapped bone (I watched Korean lifter Sa Jae-hyouk dislocate his elbow in the 77 kilogram contest last week). The immense weights get dropped all the time, and one has to know how to get out of the way — quickly. Sometimes, in holding and controlling his breath, a weightlifter will almost pass out, dropping the weight and staggering away or collapsing into a drunken squat or even blacking out altogether for lack of oxygen.
One wonders what the payoffs for these risks are. At the elite level, records are broken every year and at almost every major competition. Heading into the last days of the Olympics in London, several world records have been broken, including the total weight record by women’s superheavyweight gold medalist, Zhou Lulu. She was too big to work in her family’s apple orchard, knocking things over whenever she turned around, and now she is the strongest woman in the galaxy.
As a poet, I’m fascinated by limits. Some people who follow the sport say there will be a weight that will never be lifted by human effort alone. Even with likely abuse of performance enhancing drugs in the sport, some physiologists say that there is a limit. Right now, we don’t yet know what that is — if it exists at all.
Behdad Salimi is a young, charismatic Iranian lifter. He holds the super-heavyweight world record for the snatch, set previously by another retired Iranian powerhouse, Hossein Rezazadeh, who waited in the wings to be the first to embrace Salimi as he came off the platform from his record breaking lift.
Salimi himself weighs about 360 pounds and he snatched 214 kilograms, or about 470 pounds, to set the new world record. In a proper snatch, the lifter’s feet actually come off the floor. You’ll see a small jump or stomp with both feet. So for a split second, one man, by his own force, puts 800 pounts between heaven and earth, touching neither exactly. Furthermore, Salimi held the weight over his head a full second or so beyond the judges’ horn, indicating that he was not struggling after jerking the weight into its final position. Maybe he’ll break his own record this week.
Watching Usain Bolt last night, I wondered if he would be the one to break the nine-second barrier in the 100 meters. They said the four-minute mile could never be run, and now milers are running regularly under three and a half minutes.
And then I thought of Salimi and his sport’s barriers. Will someone ever snatch 500 pounds? Will someone break the 600 pound clean and jerk limit? Will a human be able to make a total Olympic lift of 1100 pounds? 1500? 2000? If there is a top-end total weight that can be lifted by a human being, is there a limit to the ratio between barbell weight and body weight? Om Yun Choi of North Korea, for example, joined a very select group in weightlifting history when, last week, he lifted three times his body weight; the 123 pound athlete clean and jerked just over 370 pounds. How far can we go?
These days, my depression is gone. I have time and space and enough serenity to contemplate the physics and metaphysics of weightlifting. I stopped swatting at the hundred wicked birds flying around in my head and I guess they got bored without me attending to them. So they don’t come around much any more.
It seems, the more I worked out, the more fully I started to inhabit wherever I was; I could feel myself in material space again. Learning kettlebells, I had to imagine the swing. I had to imagine the tempo of it. I had to adjust my feet, my hips, my elbows accordingly. My mind had to rediscover its cadence with my physical surroundings. The kettlebell swing and the Olympic lift make demands of so much of you in a matter of a second or two. Learning the lifts, I had renewed my relationship to time itself. Throwing around cast iron in a cramped apartment in Jersey City showed me how a lost man could be called back into his body again.
Epilogue: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the name of the great Tommy Kono, hall of fame weightlifter and one of the greatest Olympic athletes ever. He made his debut in the Helsinki games in 1952 — exactly 50 years ago. The 24-year-old rookie brought home the gold medal. He would win gold again in 1956 and take home the silver in 1960. Over the course of his career, Kono set more than 20 world records in four different weight classes. After winning the World Weightlifting Championships in 1953, he successfully defended it another five years consecutively.
The kicker is that, in 1942, as a child, Kono was put in the Tule Lake internment camp with his family during World War II, for nothing more than being of Japanese descent. Despite overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of Japanese were not a threat to this country, FDR signed an order that “relocated” more than 117,000 people like Kono, two thirds of whom, according National Archives, were native-born citizens of the United States.
Cheers to Mr. Kono, who is antecedent to Asian American Olympic athletes like Lia Neal, medalist in swimming in this year’s games. Unfortunately, it’s not impossible for history to overlook his achievements, and furthermore, to mute the injustice of the American internment camps that are a part of his life story. I acknowledge both the achievement and its contradiction here. I thank Tommy Kono for his work and for his legacy