Today in The Los Angeles Review of Books Poetic/Olympic Coverage, Liam and Meghan O'Rourke continued their gymnastic poetic correspondence and Patrick Rosal talked about kettle bell, depression and the poem.
A Gymnastic/Poetic Correspondence
by Liam O'Rourke and Meghan O'Rourke
First of all, hooray for our two favorite American gymnasts, Danell Leyva and Gabby Douglas winning individual all-around medals!
Fortuitously I came across the following passage Thursday afternoon, not long after watching Douglas compete so fiercely and confidently to win gold: “How so slight a woman can roar, like a secret Niagara, and with so gracious an inference, is one with all mysteries where strength masquerading as weakness—a woman, a frail woman—bewilders us.” That happens to be William Carlos Williams writing in praise of Marianne Moore in 1948. Obviously I cringed at Williams’ sexist conceit just as I would a sit-down on a tumbling pass, but the words brought to mind the conflicting thoughts I have concerning the rush of innovation in women’s gymnastics that you mentioned in our last conversation.
These gymnasts in London are the farthest thing from frail or weak, but there’s no question that women’s gymnastics is in part popular because of something that is analogous to Williams’ fascination with Moore. We are irresistibly bewildered by the mystery where unimaginable strength masquerades as a 4’11” teenage girl. Despite the fact that these female athletes are among the strongest, most physically dynamic humans on this planet, fans and viewers are often equally fascinated by their contrasting girlishness. Mustafina’s glitter hairspray and eyeshadow, Deng Linlin’s shooting star barrettes, and Gabby Wilson’s sparkling, magenta leotard all smack of an incongruity with the punishing physicality of what they are actually doing out there. The image of Kerri Strug being carried by Bela Karolyi to the medal podium in 1996 made her look so small and helpless and yet there is something about the childlike nature of that moment that actually enhances the improbable fierceness of what Strug had just accomplished on vault. I can’t help but feel that the seemingly bi-polar nature of gymnastics is no small part of its siren call.
So let’s dissect Williams’ idea of ‘masquerading’ a bit further: how much of this frothy, debutante-like display is a mask for real strength and how much of it is integral to the genuine power of gymnastics as a sport? If you look at You
tube clips of Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut, or other gymnasts from the 70s, a sort of gymnastics culture war plays out in the viewer comments. The majority of people on there (I’m not counting the ones who write “LOL I can’t even do a cartwheel!”) bemoan the loss of grace in women’s gymnastics and look back at this period as a golden era of the sport when routines emphasized rhythm and fluidity. Gymnasts now are being rewarded for taking risks with powerful moves in a way that sometimes outweighs the need for what so many of these fans call “elegance.”
One part of me can sympathize: after all, there’s a reason I watch those videos over and over. I am stunned afresh each time I see Nadia’s 1976 perfect ten on bars, and that’s in no small part due to the uninterrupted flow of her movements. But another part of me chafes at this nostalgic outcry for gracefulness. So what if powerful gymnasts take awkward pauses before they execute a tumbling pass on beam or floor? They are attempting to do things in the air that neither Nadia nor Olga could have conceived of as possible. Hell, I bet Tim Daggett in 1984 couldn’t do some of what Shawn Johnson or Jordyn Wieber can do when they tumble.
When I dig back further in the history of the sport and watch routines by gymnasts of the 50s and 60s like Larissa Latynina (whose name has been invoked during this Olympics over and over by the swimming commentators as Phelps took aim at her record 18 Olympic medals), I find them absurdly simplistic by today’s standards. Latynina does scales on the beam, splits on the floor, and a round-off on the vault. She does so with great elegance and I know she was a marvel for her time, but it is readily apparent that the evolution of the sport is a good thing. I am more than happy to sacrifice a little elegance for a kick-ass whip triple twist.
But just when I’ve arrived at this defiant rejection of elegance, I think of Gabby Douglas and Nastia Liukin (our last two Olympic all-around champions), and I can’t deny that grace is part of their strength. In fact they both beat out teammates Shawn Johnson and Jordyn Wieber respectively—two of the best power gymnasts ever. Did a sense of elegance and femininity play an ineffable role in those victories? Even Gabby’s radiant smile seems inextricably linked to the brilliance of her gymnastics. In the best gymnasts, strength is amplified by grace.
I know we both have mixed feelings about leotards and the strangely submissive act of saluting (though that is probably connected more to the military history of gymnastics). I’m wondering if you ever think that all the girlish pageantry of gymnastics is holding back the sport. Is it time for gymnastics to grow up a little? Does this loss of elegance represent growing pains as gymnastics matures into a different sport, one that takes women more seriously as athletes?
P.S. On a somewhat related note, I watched that Magnificent Seven segment on Friday night, and I was fascinated to hear Kerri Strug talk about being embarrassed to have to stand on the medal podium “without any pants on.” Because of her injury, she didn’t have time to put on her warmup pants like the rest of her teammates. Interesting that wearing a leotard, the very thing she wore to win gold in front of the world, became an embarrassment to her once she was off the equipment.
Hooray indeed! These are two of my favorite gymnasts in a while. I was glad to see Leyva come from behind to get a bronze.
As for the very interesting point you raise about the masquerade that is female gymnastics: Well, first of all, I agree that it’s there, and that it’s part of the siren call of the sport. There is a strange, subterranean current drawing us to watch these tiny women tumbling in shiny outfits—which seem only to get shinier and tighter every year, looking today like a hybrid of night-club wear, little-girl glitter dreams, and body armor. (The gymnasts call them “leos,” and the cuteness of the word always strikes me as odd.)
I wrote about the complexity of watching women’s gymnastics in Slate last week: it’s always on my mind, this tension between grace and strength, between power and vulnerability. This tension is absolutely part of what it means to be a practicing gymnast (not just a performing one). Ever since the publication of Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, Americans have been made unavoidably aware of the abuse that is part of the sport, the way domineering (often male) trainers psychologically push these girls—and they are girls at that point—beyond their breaking point: forcing them to do weigh-ins, pushing them to compete. Nadia Comaneci, in her memoir, talks about Bela looking at her in disgust and calling her “fat” when she told him she wanted to compete in the 1980 Olympics. As I recall, he made her stay with him and Marta; forced her to run around for days on end; and fed her only lettuce and vegetables.
And yet this is, at least in part, what Nadia wanted. So it’s quite complicated, isn’t it, because on the one hand what’s beautiful to me about the sport—part of its siren call—is the way that it dramatizes obsessive determination. When McKayla Maroney sticks that crazy Amanar vault, we feel, viscerally, the extraordinary power of not just the human body, but the human will. And of young women’s will! Tiny Kerri Strug in big Bela’s arms! Which is especially striking, because teen-age girls are so often talked about in the language of victimhood. Even here, the way we talk about women’s gymnastics is different from the way we talk about men’s—there’s much more concern about the vulnerability of these girls, who, like Gabby Douglas, often leave home to train intensely under the control of obsessive trainers. And that’s probably how it should be. Cultures of abuse, as we now know, can be changed, but only with great effort, and certainly one hopes that all this is changing in gymnastics (as it supposedly is). There’s the pursuit of excellence, and then there’s that funny mind-game that some controlling coaches like to play. I believe they can be separated.
But—back to the aesthetic question. I do love the elegance in women’s gymnastics, and I ask myself if it’s OK to. I think that the expressiveness of the sport is a huge part of what draws me to it. The women still dance to music on the floor---as the men don’t. When women’s gymnastics became popular, around the turn of the century, it was, as you say, all about female elegance, not male strength. Still, it takes some strength to do even the routines Larissa Latynina did on the uneven bars. (Note: in that video she is apparently four months pregnant, which also tells you something about the evolution of the sport.) And I think that this perfectionistic expressiveness is also what drew me to both gymnastics and poetry. If I were a man, I’m not totally sure I’d have loved doing gymnastics as much as I did. Both gymnastics and poetry are about form, using form and constraints (the sonnet; the 1:30 floor routine) to do extraordinary things. Both demand obsessive concentration, and painful repetition. Sometimes as a poet I miss gymnastics, because it was so clear when I was doing something well or poorly. As poet, it’s not so clear. Also, the practice of sport is so much more legible than the practice of writing; you can tell yourself you’re going to do ten back handsprings in a row on the low beam, and then you’ve done it, and you know exactly which muscles you’re exercised. It’s less clear in writing – did that failed poem help me in any way become a better poet? Or did it just make me feel terrible about myself? I think a lot about gymnastics when I’m writing, as a way of reminding myself that practice is crucial.
I’ve really enjoyed watching the gymnastics this Olympics, because so many of the men and women seemed expressive in some way. I don't just mean skinny and balletic; I mean that you could see their joy. Wieber, who doesn’t move me as much as Gabby, still looks like she’s having fun; she’s no automaton. I can’t get enough of her concentrated face and little shoulder twists (she’s imagining her rotations) between and before events. I love that. What determination!
Overall I’m also struck by the fact that the evolution in gymnastics resembles the evolution in so many sports over the past half century – from the athletes who used to drink beers in the middle of training sessions to Ryan Lochte cutting all the sugar out of his diet to get just that little bit faster. What’s cool is that women’s gymnastics has gone along with the improvement. Larissa Latynina, by the way, was the Soviet Women’s Olympic Coach in 1972 and 1976 when Korbut and Comaneci began to permanently change the face of women’s gymnastics. I love thinking that she was the last person to hold the Olympic record for most medals.
I could go on forever here, but I think I’ll leave it there -
Body Limits: Weightlifting and Depression
By Patrick Rosal
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. OK, 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 also gave up my apartment and took residence on a couch in Jersey City, invited by my good friend and 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 the first bump out of depression which I had hoped for.
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 twenty-to-twenty-five-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 lbs., 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 lbs. and he’s gripping the handle of a fifty 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 twenty-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 seventy-five 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, had 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 collar bone 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 lbs. 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 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 lbs. 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 dislocat his elbow in the 77kg 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 lbs. and he snatched 214 kg or about 470 lbs. 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 put 800 lbs. 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 9-second barrier in the 100m. 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-lb.? Will someone break the 600-lb. clean and jerk limit? Will a human be able to make a total Olympic lift of 1100 lb.? 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-lb. athlete clean and jerked just over 370 lbs. 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 fifty 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 th course of his career, Kono set more than twenty 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.
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