It was a recovery day for Konstantine Starikovitch. Two days after turning in a stunning performance at the Empire State Games in early August, the weightlifter was trying to improve his leg strength.
"My legs aren't as powerful as they could be," Starikovitch said. "I only squat about 550 pounds."
He asked a guest at the gym in Rye Brook, N.Y., where he trains, to spot him while he executed sets of three repetitions with that modest load. Standing behind Starikovitch, the visitor wondered how he could avoid being crushed. Heedless, Starikovitch ground out five sets without faltering.
"Other American lifters can squat as much as I do, but they can't clean-and-jerk 460 pounds like me, because they haven't got the technique," he said. There's a touch of arrogance in him, indicating that despite his nearly flawless English, his attractive American wife and his superb imitations of Beavis and Butthead, he stands apart from the rest of the U.S. weightlifting world, in which virtually no one lifts 460 pounds overhead. But then, the 26-year-old Starikovitch won championships in a Soviet Union that held sway over international weightlifting for more than two decades, forging both world-record holders and national icons.
But since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., its athletes, like most of its former citizens, have struggled. Three years ago Starikovitch, a former Soviet junior national champion from Podolsk, a small city not far from Moscow, heeded the advice of friends who told him that he could make a good living in America. He arrived at New York City's Kennedy Airport on July 23, 1991. He remembers not only the date but also the amount of money that he had in his pocket: $143. In fact, Starikovitch has an uncanny memory for most things. And if he doesn't remember something—such as a single example of how bleak Russians' lives have been in recent years—it's probably because he chooses not to remember. Life is not to be reflected upon, it is to be attacked methodically, like a workout schedule.
"I take everything step-by-step, like a Stairmaster," he says. "I just go up and up." Which is how he attacked the problem of arriving in Manhattan without knowing any English and without any contacts except a family in Troy, N.Y., that put up Russian travelers. Having missed a bus connection at the Port Authority terminal on 42nd Street, he decided to call Elena Thornton, his would-be host upstate. But he didn't have any change, and he didn't know how to ask for assistance. So, making a rare miscalculation, he accepted the help offered by a courteous local, who placed his call—in return for $25.
In Troy, Starikovitch's situation improved, but not by much. He spent the next six months in the home of Thornton and her husband, Jim, while he waited for working papers. "Most Russians lived with us for a couple of weeks, and we never heard from them again," says Elena, a teacher and herself a Russian immigrant. "But Konstantine wanted to stay in America. What could we do? He became like part of the family."
The new family member spent much of his time watching television to learn English. "I mostly watched cartoons," Starikovitch says. "I felt like a child, so I started simple and learned like a child."
But even after he got his work visa, Starikovitch was reluctant to venture forth. Finally, with a polite kick in the rear from Jim, a computer analyst, he found a part-time job in a Pizza Hut. "I saw a side of him that was not so confident and cocky," Jim says, "but I knew once he got into his own element, he would blossom."
Eliza Chew also saw Starikovitch's less confident side, if only on occasion. They met in 1992 at a bar in Albany. Starikovitch spent the evening staring at her from across the room, and when he didn't approach her, she bet friends $20 she could pick him up. They were married one month later.