Image: "Alternate Olympics 2012 Logo"
For Part 1 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 2 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 3 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
For Part 4 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
SO YOU'RE MISSING out on the biggest race of the Olympics. Okay, maybe not, but what you are missing out on is the biggest moment… for my father.
When they scheduled the surgery a month ago, it was the first thing out of our mouths. August third? Are you fucking kidding? That’s exactly when track and field starts. My brother and I went online, sick to our stomachs, telling ourselves, as long as they’re not running the 10,000, but of course they are, it’s happening early Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after they cut into my father’s spine and attempt to fuse it with three new cadaver bones in his neck.
For almost a decade now, my father has been looking forward to this race. It was late 2002 or early 2003 when he first told us of the golden-haired choirboy from Central Catholic named Galen Rupp. Rupp happens to be a Portlander, like us, and since his first race he’s shouldered the expectations of the small but passionate community of people in America who care about running. People like my father. People, I suppose, like me. Here he was, finally, the boy who could do what Steve Prefontaine could not: medal in the Olympics and stay alive. Prefontaine, who occupies the same kind of psychic terrain as Che Guevara. Who lives on the walls of hungry teenagers. Whose arrogant pre-race chatter has been silk-screened on t-shirts. Whose mustache continues to make Nike millions. Who has his own rock. Being compared to one of the only martyrs in American sports cannot be easy, especially when you look and behave like Galen Rupp.
Eight years ago my father urged me to fly up from California to catch Rupp’s final high school meet. You’ll want to be able to tell people you were there, he insisted. Magic words, those. If I, Michael Heald, have a creed, it’s this: I want to have been there. I went. I was there. I was disappointed.
Yes, Rupp floated angelically above the track. Yes, his blond hair flowed satisfyingly behind him when he was in motion. Yes, he finished his races off with a wicked combination of strength and speed. But he wore a frickin’ Breath-Rite strip, and had those goofy ears, and a coach who got more press than he did, and when he wasn’t running he had actual bangs, like the straight-across-the-forehead variety. I just couldn’t picture him on the starting line at the Olympics, let alone at the finish.
Followers of American distance running are as pessimistic as any group of people in our culture. Over the past 40 years, as runners from East Africa have become increasingly dominant at every event from the 1,500 to the marathon, people like my father have watched the heart of the action in their sport move further and further from home. The only distance runner in America who might qualify as a household name is Prefontaine, who died in 1975. Caring about distance running is a little like opening a rock club and finding out that the rest of the country has just gotten wind of this new outfit from L.A. called The Doors. But I hesitate to compare a life in distance running to a life in the arts; if anything, it’s even more depressing. Caring about distance running guarantees disappointment.
And yet my father ignored history and threw himself wholeheartedly behind Rupp, who, at 26, is just now entering his prime. It has been 48 years since an American medaled at the 10,000. My father was 24 years old when Billy Mills won in Tokyo. He wouldn’t meet my mother for another eight years, couldn’t know that the next time his country would have a legitimate shot at a medal he’d be propped up in a hospital bed, his head and neck immobilized, his wife barely concealing her terror, his grown boys pacing the room, wanting this for him with the scary kind of need you’d never want an athlete to know about.
The camera lingers on Mo Farah, the hyper-emotional Brit who must be feeling far more pressure than Rupp, competing, as he is, for the host nation. The Somalian-born Farah trains with Rupp here in Portland under the tutelage of former marathon great Alberto Salazar. There’s a nice moment between Farah and Rupp on the starting line, a hug, a few words of encouragement. Doe-eyed and impeccably goateed, Farah looks nervous as hell and way younger than the 29 he’s supposed to be. He can’t stop wiping his hands on his face. Rupp’s anxiety has a quieter, insomniac quality to it. I find myself worrying about the weight of his necklace. He’s going to be carrying that thing around the track 25 times, or a little over six miles.
With almost 30 runners clogging up the track, there’s all sorts of contact as soon as the gun goes off. Distance runners don’t look very fierce in repose but the truth is they’re very good at hurting each other. On the second lap, the runner in front of Rupp snaps his spikes up into Rupp’s knee. As Rupp stumbles, we all swear at the television, but he regains his footing and does not yield his position on the inside. At the front of the pack, in the green and red of Ethiopia, is Kenenisa Bekele, world record holder and gold medalist in the past two Olympics at the 10,000. Already a legend, if Bekele wins this race he becomes the greatest 10,000-meter runner of all time. Some equations really are that simple.
Nothing much happens for a few laps, so we discuss Team USA’s boring red singlets — how hard they are to distinguish from half of the other countries in the race. Can you see? we ask my father. Do we need to adjust the bed? Commercial break.
When we return to London, a guy wearing the baby blue of Eritrea has surged to the front. Zersenay Tadese runs ugly, bent over at the waist, but he’s moving with a lot of momentum and has to be admired for shaking things up. Behind him, the pack convulses and spits out a dude from Uganda who picks himself off the track and fights his way back into the race. Olympic creed! the announcers shout gleefully. Farah and Rupp are in 11th and 12th, a little further back than we’d like them to be, but the race is really just getting going and their goal right now is to conserve energy by avoiding violent accelerations. They do some talking and gesturing and just kind of hang out mid-pack through the halfway point, which is marked by the next commercial break, and then NBC manages less than two minutes of coverage before succumbing to yet another commercial break.
While Walmart is telling us that their steak is indistinguishable from good steak, Galen Rupp steals past seven people and into fifth place. It’s unforgivable that his move is not televised, that there’s no record of it, but hey, we remind ourselves, at least there actually was a move that we can bitch about having missed. The race is suddenly two thirds over, and with two miles to go, NBC is promising us an “uninterrupted conclusion.” Rupp, meanwhile, is exactly where we want him to be. I run out into the hallway and apologize to the nurses for the alarming noises coming from our room and yank the door shut behind me. While hurrying back to the bedside I nearly kick my father’s pee bag open.
Now, Mo Farah is making his move, and my father’s hands are opening and closing, and he seems to be trying to turn his head, to look from one son to the other, his green eyes darting around the corners of his glasses, and we tell him no, we’re right here, just keep watching the race, and he says this is really exciting, isn’t it.
With six laps to go the top six are two Kenyans, the Bekele brothers from Ethiopia, and Farah and Rupp. There’s a nice symmetry to it: three sets of teammates. My family keeps talking about how smooth Galen looks, how easy this looks for Mo, and there’s a shot of Salazar in the stands looking totally relaxed. As for me, I’m doing this weird thing with my arms, flinging them out in front of me like this is the final step of a magic trick: tada! and tada! and tadaaa! This is how I get through the next five laps, but with one to go it’s almost too much to take.
There was a time when I told people I was over sports, like sports and I had had this embarrassing relationship and were finally going our separate ways. This was when I was nineteen or twenty, right around when I decided to become a writer. My plan was to transfer the intensity and frustration and euphoria of being a spectator to my own thing — to start making shit up. When I was stuck for ideas, I would self-medicate. Indie rock and Denis Johnson and THC. Was I watching? my father wanted to know. Are you seeing this?
I don’t need that anymore, I wanted to tell him. I’ve moved on. I’m full of new feelings.
My brother is bellowing at the television. My mother and I are going shhh, we’re in a hospital. Down the backstretch Mo is in front and Rupp is in fourth and he’s trying to make his move but he can’t quite do it before the curve and he patiently settles back in next to the rail with Bekele right behind him. I’m allowed to get excited, my brother says. My father grunts his approval and we stop telling my brother to shut up. Here they come, we tell each other, here they come, and just before the homestretch Rupp moves out into lane two and finally uncoils his long white legs. There’s this beautiful calm descending over him. We can see it in his face, around his mouth. The choirboy is going to do it. I finally stop holding back. I glance over at my father. He can’t see me, but his eyes are clear.
To invest oneself in a stranger, to say I believe in that person, and keep saying it for a decade — it’s the same kind of impulse that leads us to start novels, poems, families — the same kind of unyielding optimism that keeps us from abandoning them even when the brightness fades and the rhythms are tired and the truth seems impossibly distant. To root for Galen Rupp the way my father has is an act of love.
(Images of James Wright's WPA pool, Martin's Ferry, Ohio, by Kevin White)
MY HIGH SCHOOL didn’t have a swim team. We didn’t have a pool. We had a few hundred students in a single-story building just up the hill from the junior high, which was just up the hill from the elementary. A few miles away were the factories (GM, AK Steel) and farmland. I had a classmate who drove his tractor the last day of senior year (it took him two hours). We had a Biblically-successful boys basketball team who had come from behind, the underdogs, to win a state championship. The road to the high school was officially renamed ‘89 Championship Drive in their honor. Our mascot was the Minuteman. The girls’ teams were called the Lady Minutemen. We didn’t have a swim team.
Still, I swam, mostly at various public pools, every summer day of my childhood. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, we would leave after breakfast, bags packed with towels, my mother’s novels. We would stay at the pool until late afternoon, having eaten lunch there, hot dogs or hamburgers, pale half-done French fries in a paper tray. Only in the car would exhaustion hit. I would feel the sun then too, prickling my arms and the back of my neck. There is nothing quite like the exertion of swimming, a kind of peaceful burn, my muscles loosening as I leaned into the seat, the fabric damp from my suit.
What was swimming about then?
Cooling off, primarily. I spent my childhood in rural Georgia, Indiana, and Ohio. In Georgia, the gnats would land on anything not moving. In Indiana, road dust coated the back of my throat. Ohio was a long fever dream.
Swimming also occupied us, keeping my little sister and me safe, busy and in motion. We speed-walked around the blue perimeter; flung our bodies from the diving board; crossed the length of water; pulled ourselves, streaming, out of the pool like gymnasts, arms trembling (no ladder for us) — and did it all again and again. We often fell asleep on the drive home.
When we were older, we rode our bikes to the pool. The pedals felt hard and weird against our bare feet, like Crunch bars. For the cycling home, my hair wet and heavy, drying into snakes, I didn’t bother putting on my shorts. I stood up on the pedals when we coasted down hills, wearing only my Smurfette swimsuit. Our towels were slung around our necks; we were champions.
We also swam a lot in ponds; specifically, my grandfather’s pond in the goat pasture, the water so dark and dank, my mother eventually made us wear life vests because who knew what was in there? We couldn’t touch bottom, a gulp of leaf matter and mud. We didn’t want to (we had seen Jaws, after all). Fish circled the nests where their eggs lay in the shallows, in Dixie Cup-shaped depressions in the sand. Every now and then far out in the pond, a bigger fish would leap, disturbing the black water, so smooth and still it looked like glass. I used to terrify myself on purpose by pretending to spot a large gray shape in the depths, then turning my back on it and sprinting through the water. I had to make it to the dock before the creature grabbed my leg.
There were other holes, other gashes in the earth. All through the farmland were fields sold for gravel. Companies dug the fields up, hauled the stones away for driveways or gardens. They filled what was left, a pit in the ground, with water.
In a world of quarries, of cow ponds and creeks, the child speaker of James Wright’s “The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martins Ferry, Ohio” has never seen a public swimming pool:
A long gouge in the ground,
That the fierce husbands
Had filled with concrete.
To us in the Rust Belt, in a record drought summer, Wright’s poem sounds achingly familiar:
When people don’t have quite enough to eat
In August, and the river,
That is supposed to be some holiness,
They swim in the earth.
Pits dug in the ground — the speaker, despite his youth, has seen those, of course. Those are graves. But he makes the leap in the poem, the child jumping into this strange, new pit filled with shining water. With energy and guts:
suddenly I flung myself into the water.
All I had on was a jockstrap my brother stole
From a miserable football team.
Swimming is always a leap: of trustfulness (this water will hold you, it is deep enough, it is warm), and also, of imagination (what you dream about once you are in there). When you swim you leave the earth behind.
Is she real then or imagined, the little girl, the stranger, who materializes like an angel beyond his shoulder, her “face thin and haunted” to tell him “Take care now, / Be patient, and live.” He rises from the pool, holding her memory (“I have loved you all this time”) to carry it with him, out of the water, out of that life.
Escape is what I think about watching 17-year-old, gold medalist Missy Franklin swim. Escape is what she talks about in interviews, what drew her to swimming in the first place, what keeps her there. In the water, she can let her imagination go wild, she says. She’s alone in her head.
In the silence of water, I used to dream I was a creature, a mermaid or fish. I used to evade sharks. Lately, in my parents’ pool, I tend to imagine I am back in that pond in the goat pasture, the dark cold water, racing my cousins. We learn that skill early, in towns like Martins Ferry or Mansfield: to dream ourselves out.
Swimming is a big deal at the Olympics. It’s pricey, commercialized, hyped. On the television coverage, slick graphics mark the winners in each lane as soon as they’ve touched the wall: bam, bam, bam like a video game. There are underwater cams. An animated line keeps the world record pace. The suits have become as chiseled as the bodies, aerodynamic and expensive (Speedo’s new suit sounds like an action movie: Fastskin 3). With their caps on, the swimmers look like torpedoes or bullets. They leap at a gunshot. Like ballet where the audience must never see you breathe, the best swimmers barely make a splash.
A glance at the rooster of the 2012 US Olympic swim teams reveals very few small hometowns, very few places like my own Rust Belt home. In multiple interviews, Franklin and her parents defend their decision to stay in Fort Collins, Colorado — a town not known for its swimming legacy (her swim club doesn’t even have its own pool). Why do the Franklins stay? Because she likes it there. Because it is home. And swimming for her small, high school team — that is home too.
Olympic swimming is not an underdog sport, not by a long shot. Most of those stands will be full. Many of those athletes’ names will be known. Maybe that’s why we’re drawn to the new ones, the young ones, the ones who haven’t seen it all before, who, until these games, hadn’t won gold, hadn’t felt the world watching, hadn’t heard applause so long and so loud.
Like Franklin, who still believes the underwater world is one of imagination. Who still believes that matters: daydreaming, having fun. Isn’t that part of why we love to watch young athletes compete, young poets read? It makes us remember what it was like to feel such excitement, such joy, such wonder. It was magic once. When did we forget that?
At the pool, we had to go early so my mother could snag a chair, and my sister and I could be among the first ones in the water. That seemed important: to disturb the calm, to make a sound, make a splash, be first. Often, we arrived before the pool had even opened, and waited at the fence, towels across our shoulders, our fingers gripping the chain links. When the lifeguards finally unlocked the gate, we would throw our towels, wiggle out of shorts or shoes while still in motion, walk as fast as humanly possible — No Running! — and stand at the edge of the pool. All that water, all that waiting. Our toes curled around concrete. Our knees shook from being still. Finally, a lifeguard blew the whistle. And we leapt.
“It'd be a tough one, but I think we'd pull it out."
—Kobe Bryant, on the 1992 U.S. Men’s Basketball Team versus the 2012 U.S. Men’s Basketball Team
The debate is still going on, spurred on by Kobe’s quote above and more recent comments by LeBron James, as to who would win a game between 1992’s Dream Team (the quote-unquote greatest basketball team ever assembled) and this year’s Team USA squad. I won’t rehash it. If such competitive abstractions interest you, a Google search will provide you with hours of reading.
Poetry is antithetical to rankings, and I think basketball should be too. Was Jordan better than Dr. J? is as boring a question as whether Bishop was better than Stevens. In both cases, the artists in question are inextricably related and much more interesting when we get past simple binaries that exclude questions of aesthetic similarities and differences.
Still, with all apologies to Patrick Ewing’s flattop, the Dream Team was a prosaic bunch: all scowls and frowns and old rivalries, a veritable telenovela of who-did-what-to-whom, with Michael Jordan starring as the jealous viejo who thinks everyone is after his estate. (Which they were.) If Chekhov had been their coach, he would have started every practice by placing a revolver at center court.
2012’s “Dreamy Team” is having much more fun. I imagine USA Basketball’s lodgings in the Olympic Village as some sort of Hogwartsian castle, with passwords and secret tunnels and skull-size doorknobs. Kobe’s room is still probably all Barcelona chairs and glass coffee tables, but otherwise, a rope swing hangs from every ceiling. 87% of the surface area of the floor is hot tub.
Here’s why I love this team:
James Harden’s Beard
If Harden were a poet, he’d be Walt Whitman. He doesn’t look at all like an NBA shooting guard. He looks like a Portland, Oregon bartender who listens to God Speed You Black Emperor and makes knock-off Danish furniture in his garage. But once on the court, everything about the way Harden moves is like a line from “Song of Myself”: a clear idea flying through contorted syntax. Was Whitman also left-handed? Players who shoot left-handed are inherently more beautiful, but Harden takes it to a new level. His three-point stroke is effortless; the way he finishes a lefty layup is like whipped cream coming out of the can. He’s not one of these players who will retire early on a high note. Harden will be 40+ and still at work in the Association, pads on everything, socks fraying, salt-n-pepper hair, spitting blank verse in his press conferences, reading Tasso on the bench.
Russell Westbrook’s Glassless Glasses
The Heat defeated the Thunder in the NBA Finals this year, but there was another battle going on behind the stands that not enough people acknowledged: Dwyane Wade’s press conference outfits versus Russell Westbrook’s. Like Hansel vs Zoolander, Westbrook is the upstart; Wade the reigning champion. Wade owns more pairs of socks than some small countries, and I think he can be safely credited with turning David Stern’s draconian fashion laws into one of the best things about the NBA. Every game it seems is now a contest to get photographed by The Sartorialist, and Westbrook is quickly establishing himself as Wade’s usurper. He made the black-frame-eyeglasses-that-don’t-actually-have-glass-in-them the must-have item in the 2011-12 season. Then, in a bold attempt to one-up Westbrook, Wade came out during the Playoffs in custom-made “Dwayne Wayne” flip-up shades, a reference which Westbrook, 23, might not have even gotten. Wade’s look is all, “Hey I’m only teaching in Rome for a semester and then my sabbatical’s over and it’s back to running accounts at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce,” while Westbrook’s look says, “I used to be in a little band called Vampire Weekend so why can’t I bring my skateboard into the All-England Club?” It’s safe to say if Wade hadn’t been injured this summer, Team USA would’ve needed an extra plane for the luggage.
I was sad to see CP3 leave New Orleans, a city I love just as hopelessly as I love Chris Paul. Want to be sad with me? Watch below and try not to weep.
The New York Knicks currently have the NBA superstar who least embodies their city’s values: Carmelo Anthony isn’t in a hurry to do anything. He’s just as content sitting on the bench as he is dropping 37 points in 14 minutes, as he did this past week in a game against Nigeria. Think about that for a second: 37 points in 14 minutes. That’s insane. Most of us would have trouble scoring that much in 14 minutes in an empty gym. Why can’t he do that all the time? Melo is a mystery wrapped in an enigma cut-n-pasted into a John Cage acrostic. He’s the place where all meaning and explanation go to eat Chik-Fil-A at a Democratic National Convention. What does a man of mystery do at night in London? Benedict Cumberbatch, watch your back.
If you’re on Instragram, follow @cp3 or @dwill8 or any of the other Dreamy Team members, and you’ll start to notice a game they play with one another called #gotem, which is adolescent and silly and makes me laugh every time. Basically, it involves waiting for another member of the team to fall asleep on a bus or an airplane, then dressing him up and snapping a pic with someone in the background smiling or making googly eyes. Various members have proclaimed “Game over” but it seems to be a game without an end: the best kind.
Kevin Love is a good-looking man. If Ryan Gosling fell into Cary Grant’s martini and was then consumed by Gary Cooper, the man who popped out carrying Jean-Paul Belmondo’s revolver would be Kevin Love. Not only is he the face of the new-look Minnesota Timberwolves, he also comes from pop music royalty. His uncle Mike is none other than Mike Love, who co-founded the Beach Boys. Love’s point guard on the Wolves is Ricky Rubio, a young Spanish genius who may be related to the Jonas Brothers. Why does that matter? Because the late James Wright also did many fine things while in Minnesota under Spanish influence; in his case, the point guard was the great Peruvian poet César Vallejo. I fully expect Love to win multiple championships, and upon retiring, declare, “I have wasted my life,” then disappear to Paris to die in the rain.
Anthony Davis’s Unibrow
I’m not making fun of backup center Anthony Davis’s unibrow, merely celebrating what the man himself has already fully-embraced. Just before he was drafted number one overall by the New Orleans Hornets this past June, Davis trademarked the slogans, “Fear the brow” and “Raise the brow,” in reference to the uncommonly united shape of his eyebrows, paired with the uncommon athleticism he possesses for a man who stands six feet eleven. Not since Shaquille O’Neal has this much talent been paired with such a great sense of humor, but unlike Shaq, Davis is refreshingly self-deprecating and humble. As the youngest member of the Dreamy Team and the only NBA rookie, he’s probably enduring some hilarious hazing rituals during these Olympics that I would give anything to witness.
Potential Anthony Davis Hazing Pranks: A Sonnet
after Terrence Hayes
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Shave the brow while he’s sleeping
Will this team win gold? Probably. Spain and Russia, by my estimation, are the only two squads who have a shot to knock them off, and even then, I just don’t see it happening. But even if they fall short, I don’t care. I love this new era of the NBA.
THE TRUTH IS I screwed up. I got my priorities wrong. I missed out the real show. I watched the wrong games. I've been able to see my favorite players — the ones I already follow closely—on Team USA, which I do support, being American; but Team USA, which I've been watching, had exactly no close games, and about five close quarters, during its four games (16 quarters) of pool play. The first game, against Croatia, exposed some weaknesses — not much depth in the low post, for example — but it was also a tune-up; the United States spotted the Czech Republic the first 10 points, and didn't play defense against China for the first six minutes, but the Americans still won both games by an almost arbitrarily large span. Diana Taurasi appears to have found her shot, Maya Moore never lost hers, Tina Charles did just fine (against slower or less polished, albeit taller, opponents) while Sylvia Fowles gave a hurt foot time to heal, and Angel McCoughtry, as is her wont, scored and scored. Team USA are, in other words, still the favorites, and while they might be severely tested on the way through the elimination rounds (which started Tuesday morning: USA vs. Canada) they could also make it look easy. Like all great performers, they make it look easy because they work hard.
The real drama, the big surprises, and all the close games, involved teams full of names unfamiliar to me, with two or three or no WNBA players. In Group A (the USA's group) the surprises were bad ones: Brazil, who won gold in Barcelona and have put up good fights ever since, went 0-4 — something's gone badly wrong with their national player development. The Czechs, who played the United States close for a half and then wilted, lost unexpectedly to China and Turkey.
But the games that would have been fun for me to watch have come, by and large, in Group B, and I missed all but one. The Australians are, on paper, almost as good as expected, with multiple low-post options, including big, young Liz Cambage, who last week became the first woman to dunk in the Olympics; and the Canadians, who were supposed to feel lucky just to show up, have made it to the elimination round. I did watch Canada vs. Australia on Sunday, and the Opals (the Aussie women's team) ruled the first quarter, then they lost focus, baffled by the Canadians' superior coordination and apparently equal foot speed. A lead that was, early on, 22-7, shrank to just three points late in the match; given five more minutes of play, the Canadians would have won Especially fun to watch, against the Opals, was versatile guard Courtney Pilypaitis, recently a standout for the University of Vermont — she can shoot threes, and distribute, and turn on a dime. There's also Shanna Thorburn, who's tall for a guard, wields a weirdly flat long-distance shot, can see the floor well, and played briefly for my Minnesota Lynx. Thorburn's last NCAA game was the sort of so-close, so-close performance that no one deserves to go out on; she missed a free throw, made a free throw, and sent her team to an overtime loss, when a win would have put them in the 2005 Final Four.
That was the one truly close game I did get to see. The French went 4-0, beating the Aussies (a surprise) but needing overtime to beat the British (another surprise), in games I did not see; instead, I got bored watching France steamroll the Russians — the final score, 65-54, reflects a lot of garbage time. I should have been watching Celine Dumerc, and Edwige Lawson-Wade (another WNBA veteran) all along. Though nothing is certain, and injuries can screw up anyone, Team USA at the moment just looks like the best — too deep, the bench too good, the possible substitutions too complex, for the French or the Opals (as I saw them) to keep up a lead beyond the halftime break.
What does any of this second-guessing, any of these close matches, or these predictions, have to do with poetry, or with any other art form that's not about direct competition? Just this: what I’ve missed by not watching the other teams in the prelims looks a bit like what you miss if you read only the established poets, or only the so-called canon, or only the supposed best. The way to enjoy a sport, or an art form, or anything really, has to involve evaluation, which means comparison, which means competition, but that doesn’t mean that you just ought to find the one best. Make that your sole goal, and you will miss the pleasure of other competitions, other moves and other matchups, elegant moves and unique accomplishments that show up only on the right day, in the right light. If you like seventeenth century forms and concerns, don't stop with Donne, or with John Milton: who's Richard Corbett? Who's Richard Lovelace, and why are his most famous poems ("Stone walls do not a prison make") so unlike his best poems (say, "The Snail")? If you like Frank O'Hara — and who doesn't like Frank O'Hara, these days? — which among his dozens of sometime imitators also speaks to you?
Moreover: people divide the arts — none more so than poetry — up into opposing teams: language poets, post-language poets, formalists, regionalists, neo-surrealists, neo-Objectivists, precisionists, the Gurlesque. (I've supported a couple of teams myself.) Sometimes it's useful to think about teams, schools, opponents, given how many artists define themselves against their immediate precursors; but it's never a good idea to watch just your own team. If you're attracted largely to the traditions of Williams and Oppen, to plainness and precision, what if you tried to read the neo-Baroque (e.g. Angie Estes)? If you're interested in the Gurlesque, are there neo-confessionals you might dig? If you're American, what about reading Canadians (Mary Dalton, for example), or South Asians? Why are so many classes, anthologies, notions of modern poetry, organized in effect around one national team? Look around; look for the unfamiliar, the minor, the work that might reveal itself only in certain contexts, against certain challenges; vary your viewing, and don't just watch your own side; see the others too.
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
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’s 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 eye shadow, 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 YouTube clips of Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut, or other gymnasts from the seventies, 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 do when they tumble.
When I dig back further in the history of the sport and watch routines by gymnasts of the fifties and sixties 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 Jordyn Weiber and Shawn Johnson 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 warm-up 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 — 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 cons