Hell, I could have made something of myself, could have been somebody.
The dream flows through him like a violent river, and then the children awaken upstairs; there are four of them, and they are real. Norbert whispers up the stairs and tells the children to be quiet, because their mother is still sleeping. Then he goes to the kitchen, his massive hands and arms moving gently in and out of the china closet, and he begins to prepare breakfast for the kids. He will also pack their school lunches, and in the evening he will prepare dinner. Yuri Vlasov, Russia's champion weight lifter, once said: " Norbert Schemansky is the greatest and strongest athlete I have ever seen."
Sometime during the day, after the dusting, Norbert will go into Detroit, where he is offered such jobs as fishing kids out of an indoor swimming pool ($1 an hour), cleaning latrines ($1 an hour) and the kind recently described by a brewery spokesman: "Sure, we can fit you into our public-relations program. What would you think of going around to bars with one of our salesmen? When you enter all you have to do is lift a keg or two over your head. Sort of entertainment for the customers." In May of 1962 Tass reported: "The story of Schemansky, who just recently established a new world record in the snatch with 362 pounds, a full kilogram over the Soviet bogatyr, Yuri Vlasov, reflects the attitude toward man in a capitalistic world."
The Tass report irritated Schemansky. Sure, it was just propaganda, he felt, but why should he be special? This country doesn't owe a weight lifter anything! "I've never wanted anything for nothing," he says now. "Just a decent job that will allow me to compete at the same time." But the jobs have never been decent—a champion always has to feel like a champion—and making it possible to go on competing has been an unending struggle. Yet he does compete, and exist, but only because of a few people. A neighborhood druggist will not take his money for prescriptions. The family doctor doesn't want his money either. And there is Jack. Jack takes the dues he collects from the 10 other weight lifters who train at the gym and slips the money to Norbert.
How can it be that a man who has won respect for himself and prestige for his country clings to the shadowy periphery of life, is a nonperson without status or function and one whose wife for most of the last 20 years has, in effect, supported his participation for the U.S. with an $80-a-week job? Is it because of those who, with outraged rhetoric and instant chauvinism, are always alert and yakking when America is embarrassed in world competition but are never to be found when the time comes to back up their cocktail-party passion for American excellence? Is it because of Norbert's long and bitter feud with the AAU? Is it because of the obscurity of weight lifting? Or is it because of Norbert Schemansky himself?
Immensely popular in Europe and the Near East—the Egyptian pyramid builders were probably the first lifters—weight lifting occupies an inferior position in this country; the national championships draw little more than a paragraph in most big-city papers. The public relations of the weight-lifting division of the AAU, possibly devoted to the aggrandizement of officialdom, is in part responsible. But, mainly, lifting offers no glamour, no color or escape to those who share the popular misconception about the sport. The fact is that for years the weight lifter has been associated in the public consciousness with the body-builder, that curious creature who can stare trancelike at his own pectoral muscles and become emotionally moved by just measuring his calf. Weight lifters are not fond of body-builders; they often call them "sweethearts." Body-builders refer to lifters as "clods" who cannot comprehend anything beyond a dumbbell.
But weight lifters are not easily categorized. Vlasov, for instance, is an intellectual, and his comrade, Leonid Zhabotsinski, is a bumpkin and a slob who always makes certain he accompanies lighter lifters to dinner because they have to watch their weight; when they leave he stays behind and mops up all of their potatoes. Schemansky has a 132 IQ and a fine sense of humor, and Light Heavyweight Champion Joe Pulio of Detroit spends most of his time trying to solve the mysteries of Zen. There is one U.S. lifter who wants to be a history professor. "I'm great on dates of events," he says. All lifters, however, are similar in this respect: they have misshapen, even grotesque, bodies, and they derive the same satisfactions from the sport.
What drives a man to compete seriously in weight lifting? Obviously, the act of lifting weight cannot spring a man from public anonymity, which is what spurs so many athletes early in their careers. Nor, as many theorize, can a case be made that lifters are psychologically disoriented. They do not worship strength and do not think they are superior human beings because they are among the physical elite. Rather, what motivates them, fulfills them, is the act itself. It is, to them, a beauteous assertion, simple and direct, of the human spirit. The lifter temporarily defeats that which is ultimately superior to him, the physical universe; the weight always remains the same, but the man does not. A guy can get hooked on lifting. Norbert Schemansky is hooked.
"If you quit lifting," says one who did, "you have to have something to take its place. That's why Norbert will never quit." The truth is that Norbert could not have found anything to replace lifting 25 years ago, even if he had wanted to.
The puniest of four brothers, Norbert had no future except the production line of an automobile plant. It was not enough for him, not enough just to make money, but he did not know what he could do about it. People do escape from their environments, but Norbert lacked the type of mind for such a solution. One has to know who he is, what he wants, before he can break away. Quite simply, Norbert had not given birth to himself until one day in a garage when he picked up an old barbell and found in it a beginning. He could break away now, he could become somebody, if only to himself.