Stepping out of my rental car, the Canadian air bites my lungs. An ache in my hip takes my mind back to when a walker was both friend and foe. With it, I could escape my room, but it betrayed me, revealing the weakness in my body.
I walk into the convention center with my brother and sister by my side. They abandoned the Arizona to watch me compete for the first time. They comment on my stride. I stop and look at the sign: World Bench Press Championships. All falls silent.
Sevens year earlier, I sat in deafening silence in a sterile room. My oncologist came in, and he didn’t pull any punches.
“Your blood work hasn’t changed,” he said, “and your body is not responding to the treatments. Six months, possibly a year, is what you have left to live.”
His words hit me square in the face. I’d been beaten up before but never like this.
In the eighth grade, getting knocked down had become as common math quizzes. My heart raced as I hurried down the halls from class to class. I took a different route each day to avoid the bully. It didn’t always work.
I’d lower my eyes and scurry along, hoping to just disappear when he saw me. In my meager state, he’d slam his shoulder into mine, sending me and my books tumbling to the floor. His deep laughter filled the hall. I scrambled to pick up my books, my mind racing.
”Did anyone else see this? Are they laughing? Will I be late for class? If only I were bigger and stronger, I could stand up to him.”
Mr. Ludwig, our PE teacher, took up the entire doorway as he stood waiting for us. His massive chest swallowed the whistle that hung from his neck.
“I bet no one pushes him around,” I thought.
After class, I mustered up enough courage to ask him, “Coach, how did you get so big and strong?”
He answered with a question. “Is everything OK?”
No, I confided in him. No, everything was not OK. I skulked around the halls every day at school, trying to dodge the bully, who picked me as his moving target.
Coach encouraged me to take up weight lifting. It became an obsession.
By the first day of ninth grade, my friends didn’t recognize me.
“Dan?” they asked, bewildered.
Coach Ludwig, however, said, “Dan, it looks like you’ve been lifting.”
I told him this year would be different. I was going to fight the bully.
He had a better idea. A note got my out of my sixth period class. My heart raced as I walked to the gym. Silence met me in the locker room, but it was broken when the school bully asked why I was in there. I changed and went to the gym.
Wrestling mats had been rolled out, and coach told us to stretch and warm up. He chose two kids to come to the center. As the anticipation built inside me, I had to tell myself to breathe.. After the first match, Coach called my name. After a long pause, he called the bully.
I was staring my tormenter in the face. This was the moment I had been waiting for. The whistle blew. A violent collision ensued like two bulls fighting for territory, pushing, pulling, trying to get an advantage. A window opens.
I grabbed his arm and head together and stepped forward, throwing my hips under his stomach. With all my strength, I throw. Twist. I see the ceiling.
I was on top, squeezing his arm and head with all my might. Arching my back with only my feet touching the ground forced all of my weight against his chest. His face turned bright purple; his eyes wild with panic.
I’m not sure but I believe that Coach gave me a few extra seconds to hold him in my grips before he called the pin. The sound of his massive hand slapping the mat broke the silence.
That familiar silence began to surround me again as I warmed up at the World Bench Press Championships in Canada.
I chalk up my hands. The announcement seems faint: A New World Record Attempt of 683 pounds. But the voice in my mind is loud: “Stand up to this weight, do not back down!”
I swiftly approach the bench, automatically laying down and gripping the bar.
I lower the massive weight to my chest, pause and press. I can barely get it to budge. I walked away, feeling defeated. What should I do? Return? Retreat? I try to focus for the second attempt.
I sat, frozen. My brother finally approaches. “Your name was called,” he said.
I locked eyes with him. “I will break the record,” I said.
I return to the bench. Lay down. Grip the bar. Once again, lowering the massive weight – 683 pounds – down to my chest and pause, my mind screams, “You will not defeat me!”
I press with all my might, lock and hold. This time, my body doesn’t betray me. It brings me back to victory. Silence is broken and the record too.
Ode presents an evening of true stories, told live in the lower level of Iowa State University Design West, 1014 ½ Design Place, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 25. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Storytellers will share personal essays crafted around the theme of "Wherever you go, there you are: Giving an ode to travel and inescapable truth.”
For your listening enjoyment, we'll also have music by Northcutt.
Freewill donation. Give what you can.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. Sioux City Journal features reporter Ally Karsyn is the founder, producer and host. For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling. Listen to stories from past events, recorded and broadcast by Kwit-Koji: Siouxland Public Media, at kwit.org/programs/ode.