Notes From The Iron Underground (Suicidal Port-a-loo Blames Lifting Event For Downfall)

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Powerlifting Australia ‘Return of the Iron’ Challenge; Iron Underground, Albion; 5/10/2013

“…in the absolute death-throws of a squat, upper back laden with iron, the face of a lifter tends to contort into an image of such explicit strain that, as a spectator, you can’t help but share some part of the ordeal.”

Report by G & T (Scott Gittoes and Nicholas Turner)

1. Transformation of man; AKA, The Hulk Effect

I introduce myself to a nuggetty, shaven-headed man, perhaps a few years shy of thirty. He happily answers my queries about the basics of powerlifting whilst gnawing on an awful smelling food bar that may or may not be beef jerky. Smiling, my friendly confidant hopes that I enjoy the contest on offer today. He seems balanced and peaceful, perhaps a little twitchy in foreshadow of the competition. But less than two hours later, this once approachable fellow will have descended into a state of pure animal frenzy, pacing red-faced, earphones in, veins protruding from his forehead. A puff of chalk dust explodes from his upper-back and shoulders as a trainer thumps him toward the lifting platform. The thump is unbelievably hard but he hardly seems to notice; he’s interested in nothing but the two-and-a-half multiples of his own bodyweight that’s waiting there to be picked up, squatted, and put back where he found it.

2. Competing hand to mouth; AKA, Tupperware Nightmares

The gesture of raising food to the mouth seems to be the number one physical activity of powerlifters. At any given moment before and during the competition, looking in any direction, you see food going in, followed by slow, dry chewing to get the unnaturally regular amounts down. All the rolling jaws around make it feel a little like I’m sitting among a herd of cattle that have just settled on a nice patch of grass. Tupperware containers (containing, usually, chicken or tuna along with vegetables or pasta) are scattered everywhere and a real hazard for an amateur photographer. Fair weight of reference to eating among these notes would leave room for little else. So take it as a given that at no point is food not a part of the action.

The two Port-a-loos brought in for today’s event have probably got the toughest job of all.

3. Not for a pretty face; AKA, All Business

The Iron Underground gym is set amidst an inner-city industrial area. This three-hundred-odd square metre warehouse – with its raw brickwork, dangling lightbulbs, and crappy boombox playing nineties CDs (incidentally, metal and rap) – is to a Fitness First gym what a junkyard dog is to a shampooed poodle.  Today’s competitors in the ‘Return of the Iron’ powerlifting comp are indeed a product of the environment; it’s evident right away that they regard the body not so much as a canvas but an engine to meet a very specific challenge – specific and simple – to lift as much weight as they can. To know how far, fast, high, long, accurate or, in this case, heavy one can go is an utterly human curiosity.  This is a sport that addresses its question through squats, benchpress and deadlifts. Competitors get three attempts at each, a total of nine on-or-near-personal-best lifts for the day. Heavy-set ex-competitors officiate and when they’re not watching lifts for technical breaches they’re, you guessed it, eating.

4. Compassion is a bar that won’t budge, pt 1; AKA, Pooface

“Get a great pooface photo for instagram” announces the competition MC.  She’s right; in the absolute death-throws of a squat, upper back laden with iron, the face of a lifter tends to contort into an image of such explicit strain that, as a spectator, you can’t help but share some part of the ordeal.  Here’s a woman in her early twenties, barely more than fifty kilograms of her, and she’s driving up almost double her body weight… shaking… palpitating… legs under so much duress that for a brief moment I think I can almost hear her quadriceps themselves screaming.  I can’t help but rise out of my seat, as though my movement will somehow assist her efforts. For that split second when the difference between all and nothing is right there in front of you, in the form of a bar that won’t budge, the drama of powerlifting literally possesses you.

This undeniable connection to the struggle of others must go some way to explaining the warm, open camaraderie here today between the competitors.  There’s no doubting these lifters are competitive, looking for the trophies, but the real battle is internal. Whether you’re the young woman going for a thirty kilogram bench press or a big lad urging up a small car, the competitors clearly share the knowledge of what it’s like to be there, in that place where your limits wait for you, the place that it hurts a lot to go to.

5. Shepherd to the precipice; AKA, The Main Spotter

The main spotter, waiting on the platform, sizes up an approaching competitor. He has done so, carefully, all day. Once the lifter has approached the bar on the squat rack, the spotter will set himself just a few inches back, a sort of buffered spooning. The lifters feel his breath on their necks as they engage and contend with the weight. This delicate spotter’s role is clearly reserved for veteran lifters of considerable experience, not only because he’s the one who’ll save the lifters from being crushed by a falling bar.  This is, moreover, a job that requires utmost finesse in human judgement before any iron has even left the rack. The spotter must decide how to greet the competitor on stage; with a quiet encouraging word, a subtle tap on the back, or else nothing at all. It might not sound like much, but in the fragile moment when a lifter is about to address the bar – the physical manifestation of his or her own limits – it is everything. Today’s ‘main spotter’ appears to be a master of such judgement. If the competitor looks a little nervy, he calms them. If they’re cocooned in a deliberate rage, he keeps out of the way. If they glance at him wantingly, he’s there to tell them that, yes, they can and will overcome the weight. And it’s always a whisper, a private moment for just the two of them; ‘come on now, you’ve got it.’

He is the shepherd to guide them through this particular valley of personal darkness.

6. Texas Chest Massacre; AKA, Freakishness as Nature

Limbo-ing under a warehouse roller door, I spot on my way out an unfathomably proportioned man at the very depths of a dip exercise. Not content to lift his own formidable body weight, he’s wearing a kind of chain necklace that looks heavy enough to pull mining equipment uphill. His left deltoid muscle is protruding so far that, at first glance, I’m convinced he has two heads. It’s one of those black-and-white laminated posters of big men under strain, staple of every complete weight-lifting gym. A symbol of aspiration, respect, and the freakish, or else perhaps entirely natural, possibilities of the human form.

It depends on how you look at it.

7. Compassion is a Bar that won’t budge, pt 2; AKA, The Deadzone

A seventeen-year-old takes position under a bar loaded with plenty, readying himself for a personal-best bench press. Lifting the load off the rack you can hear a pin drop; everyone’s focus is on this curly-haired kid, who dares thumb his nose at his limits. He lowers the iron to his chest.  Seconds later, on the up, he’s abruptly hit the deadzone; despite every sinew, every nerve synapse in his body firing upwards, the bar has stalled, hovering in a deathly trance, arms quivering.  What’s required from him now is something more than strength or ability. I’m shouting. Chairs fall back on the concrete floors as the crowd gets to its feet. Tupperware skids left and right. (I almost dare suggest that the universal eating has come to a complete halt just this once.) Ever so slightly the bar begins to nudge upwards, stalls again, drops a whisker, then rises about as much. We all know, but are too involved now to admit, that the longer the bar stays there, frozen in the deadzone, the less probable a good result. Gravity’s the constant, the kid’s strength is conditional. What could be no more than a few fleeting moments, maybe four or five seconds, seems to last for minutes.

After it’s all over, I have to wipe away tears that are fair homage to the purity of the drama. From the moment he hit the deadzone, he was never going to make it. And then it got worse. And worse. And then, somehow, he found what was needed.

It’s his now to keep.


Match Day Burger Score: 4.0

MDB Price: Covered in $10 entry

MDB Service Atmosphere: 5.0

Match Day Results:

Best Female Lifter: Tammie Sarkozy, 307.5kg total in under 63kg class; Squat 112.5kg, Bench 65kg, Deadlift 130kg (Achieved Elite Level 2)

Best Male Lifter: Scott Williamson, 605kg total in under 83kg class; Squat 210kg, Bench 145kg, Deadlift 250kg (Achieved Elite Level 2)

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