Requiem for a Powerlifter

 

Last Thursday, 21 February, 2019, my friend Jimmy Robinson died. He was fifty seven. Cancer got him. Over the years, it got my Mom and one of my sisters and many others. I hate cancer, but I think Jimmy showed me that all it can do is kill you. It can’t take away the gifts that you can give with your life.
I met him more than a decade ago, because his daughter Teri was in one of my writing classes. I’d seen him around the gym and mostly kept out of his way. Teri described him as bald headed, tatted up, and strong. His wide back and rounded shoulders were easy to spot. I knew him to be part of a crowd who were serious powerlifters. They kept to themselves, trained hard, and were massive. They didn’t suffer fools gladly, and after seeing Jimmy work out, I knew why: they didn’t play at lifting. They might joke hard with each other, but jokes never got in the way of training. I knew better than to speak to Jimmy when he was busy, so I made sure that I introduced myself as he moved from one exercise to another. And, he was cordial, told me it was good to meet me and hoped that Teri would do well in my class. I told him that I’d give her every opportunity to succeed, as long as she’d do the work. He nodded and said “That’s as fair as you can get.”
So, I would wave and say hello from time to time, and occasionally I slipped up and spoke to him when he was training, and it was as though I wasn’t there at all. He could stare right through me. But with time, I saw that this wasn’t anger or pride as much as focus, pure, hard focus, and soon, I came to see Jimmy Robinson as damn near the epitome of powerlifting. His bench press and squat were impressive, but his deadlift was phenomenal. It wasn’t long before he had his picture on the gym wall for a world record in deadlift in his age and weight class.
He recorded everything in his training log, and his attention to detail was scientific. Some of his younger training partners might have lifted more than he did, but he was the one who helped them train smart, and, as far as I could tell, everyone knew this. I took advantage of it, and I figured that everyone in the gym knew that if you were serious about powerlifting, you talked to Jimmy.
But his records and his sense of discipline were only the surface level of the man. Although I was never in his close circle of friends, he gave me a gift that was born of what lay beneath his dedication and focus on training, and for that, I will always be grateful for the times we spoke. He knew that I was a writer trying to get one of my books published, and this impressed him. He’d say that he didn’t know how I could sit down and bring a whole book together, from beginning to end. I told him that it was just “my thing,” the one thing I was driven to do and would do, no matter what. It was like his deadlifting, which he told me was “just a thing” he did well, but I saw the determination, the will that he called upon to do it, and I saw how my writing was the same sort of thing.
To me, Jimmy was one of the most confident men I knew. Every piece of lifting advice or help he offered me over the years was solid gold. But for years, I tried to get something from lifting weights that they couldn’t give me: a sense of being okay. And, although I might be a high functioning depressed person, I always worked under a self-imposed demand to be strong, though I knew that being just as strong as I was would never be enough. Jimmy, I figured, had the kind of confidence I lacked. He was as strong as he wanted to be. I thought it shielded him, make him impervious, somehow, to the conditions of anxiety and depression that held me down. But one day, doing military presses, he gave me a gift that I can never repay.
Both of us were going through a rash of skin cancer scares at the time. Jimmy sported bandaids on his face from time to time, as various lumps and bumps got biopsied, and not long before, I’d had a basal cell carcinoma removed from my right cheek, and he had kept up with its progress. But I’d just gotten word that I had a melanoma on my neck. In was an “in situ” thing that did not go any deeper than my skin, so there were no further treatments than surgery. It was still cancer, and it scared me and made all my other issues, especially my self doubts, feel worse.
That day, I warmed up and stretched, got a bar and a rack to work in, and went about the business of getting started, even though my hands were shaking, heart pounding with anxiety. I couldn’t get any distance on it, couldn’t see anything but my problems. Then, Jimmy walked over and asked if he could work in with me. I said, “Sure, bud,” though it half scared me to think about working out with him. I didn’t want to tell him how this melanoma thing scared me because I thought Jimmy just wasn’t someone that fear had a hold on. So, I just decided to get on with it and train by his side, though I felt like I couldn’t bear up under the comparison.
As we went on, he watched me, and he asked where I was in my training cycle. I told him about following the Wendler 5 3 1 method, and he said, “Mark, you’re pushing too hard, too heavy.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I knew he wasn’t calling me weak. My shoulders and upper back were already fatigued from previous anxiety-fueled workouts, so I recognized that he was right, but I didn’t have a ready answer for him when he pushed the issue about my lifting goals. He talked good sense about keeping work loads well within a margin of safety and told me, again, about emphasizing good technique in the exercises that were designed to help my bench press. Improving my strength in the military press was a way to increase my bench performance, not a chance for me to push more weight overhead. The numbers I did according to the plan were the important thing, not just doing more now. He’d seen me injure myself before, lifting with more nerve than sense. So, I sort of broke down a bit and told him the truth:
“I think I’m just wrapped too tight inside my head, Jimmy. My anxieties make me push hard, even when it isn’t good for me.”
Expecting him to chastise me, I was shocked when he smiled, nodded, and said, “Yeah. I know what you mean. It’s like that in my head all the time.”
“You?” I asked, watching him tighten his wrist wrap, “You get anxious too?”
“Oh, hell, yeah,” he said, and did his set. “My whole life, I guess,” he said when he finished. We talked on about how lifting was a way to keep some of the bad stuff at bay, keep us moving on, though it only worked for a little while. It was better, we guessed, than doing some of the other things that keep the bad feelings at bay, even if it would never make them go away. And that conversation lifted my spirits so much that the moment stays etched in my memory.
Now, I’d heard stories from Steve, one of Jimmy’s closest training partners, about what a beast Jimmy had been in his early days, how tough he was, how he had no time for people who were just too stupid for their own good, how some folks ended up on his wrong side. That didn’t go well for them. Jimmy was tough, and I began to see that his toughness was a matter of choice. On my own, I’d observed Jimmy cocooned in his strength, his method, his laser focus, and thought him immune to such things as the sort of crap that plagued me all my life. Yet, he had just shared with me the idea that we were the same on the inside.
Having read before that the dark secrets we keep locked within ourselves are the most common things we all share, I never expected to hear this from Jimmy Robinson, to see that, like me, he saw himself as inadequate. He was an icon to me, a lifter who excelled because he worked harder, smarter than others. His accomplishments alone helped cement this image of him in my mind. And yet, on that day, his ability to accept—and share—my honest declaration of weakness came as a gift to me, one I will never forget. He was the strongest man I ever knew, because he chose to lift hard and smart, simply because he would not let the bad stuff inside rule who he was. It wasn’t a fight a man can win, but it was a good fight, a good race to run.
My world is a richer place, now, because Jimmy shared that with me, and I will miss him every day, even though I’m sure he did not count me one of his close friends. He gave me a moment of knowing, a realization that, indeed, we all have more commonalities than differences. And, he helped me see the necessity of not giving up. Every time I watched him train or compete since that day spoke to me of a shared need to just keep going. Doing what you can do, one thing at a time—and doing it to the best of your ability—is what matters.
Just about three months ago, I watched him as he did a deadlift workout, pulling multiple sets of three at four hundred and five pounds or more. I also knew that he was taking chemo because the disease had come back on him. He wasn’t quitting, and that is as mighty as it gets in this life.
God, how I wish Jimmy was still around, not because we were such tight friends, but because he was just so real, so willing to give, and so determined to keep the bad stuff at bay the best way he knew how. And he saw me doing the same thing in different ways. He always wanted to know about my writing, and it saddens me to think that I won’t be able to show him a copy of my book that is coming out this summer. But he leaves behind him a mighty legacy: do what you do to the best of your ability and keep doing it as smart as you can. Keep fighting the things that try and hold you back, and be real, give of yourself, help people do the things that keep the bad stuff at bay.
I learned with the losses I’ve had that I don’t want to blame God for taking Jimmy. I feel like Jimmy was a gift that brought grace and insight to my life, and for that, all I can do is be thankful and try to be like him in my own way. God knows that we need more people like Jimmy. We need to know that there’s more that connects us than separates us. Jimmy knew it, and if you knew him, maybe you know that he was given to us to help us know that. I hope so.

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