Someone once said, many years before my time, that if “you are the strongest person in your gym, find a new gym and surround yourself with those stronger than you.” I don’t think any of this is true. Find those who make you want to be everything you never thought you could, and build something worth giving everything for.

I remember what it meant to me when I got that key—a small silver one, shiny from its lack of use, a sticker still half peeled away on its wide end. The property owner had notched a small cutaway at the top so that it wouldn’t blend in with my other keys. He left soon after that, cash in hand, with the signed paperwork.  The T’s had been crossed, the I’s dotted, and then it was just us three. A vacant, but renovated two-story chicken house that had been converted into a handful of storage units, housing nothing but plumes of dust and wild dreams. I had forked over what little money I had spared, the first and last month’s rent, commissioned from a few design jobs.

RECENT: From the Floor

I sobbed later that night, fumbling through my phone, looking at pictures of hastily snapped stained concrete floors and the cobwebbed corners of that old coop. When we started, it was just a few kids and I, gun running small trips of kilo plates and bars from the high school weight room in the feverish summer heat. I had been saving up and buying tidbits here and there for the last four years, keeping each new piece safe until we could find a place of our own. One hot fourth period planning, exhausted from the many pairs of loaded reds, an alumni turned to me. Both of us panting, soaking up the AC in my Subaru, he gasped, “Damn Rog, you really doing this. Like all that work, and now look, it’s really gonna happen.” We looked at each other for a minute agreeing in silence. We both knew it was not for me, that I didn’t have to say something of great importance, or lavishly convey how much it could become. I smiled shyly, humbled by what an old building could mean, and we stared out the window before rolling away, carefully taking in the small indents of uneven paint.


The last to go was the deadlift platform and competition bench. James had pulled up in his dad’s borrowed work van, and under the surveillance of an opposing basketball team, we picked it all up without ever unbolting a single piece. We were both clean-shaven that day and chuckled as the kids accused of us of being the biggest high schoolers they had ever seen. Sore from the previous day’s lifts, we waddled the equipment in, lining the floor with what rubber flooring we could afford from tractor supply and leftover wrestling mats we had found.

When the racks came the following week, many late nights ensued. We had shipped them to my parents’ house in Delaware, a 40-minute drive from the new spot, in order to be sure someone would be able to grab the shipping sheets and keep count of the dropped boxes. We picked them up in a trailer later that week and assembled both power racks that evening, one with an impact driver, the other with an old school adjustable wrench and socket. It was around midnight when we got our first complaint, the driver of our delivery pizza beating on the door at 12 a.m. of the residential 50 yards out front, terrifying the sleeping renters.

We finished the place in under three weeks, the last 30 days of prep for USPA Nationals taking place there, christening the horse stall mats with personal bests. I pulled 720 for a double that first day of lifting, the walls still mostly barren of vinyl banners, the platform still unsettled from its rebuilding. James had just pulled up, off early from the hotel, ready to install two mirrors he had managed to snag before they threw them away, beaming as he walked in with the cordless drill. “Sup slick, you having fun?” My hands already bleeding, I looked up from being doubled over and already knew that this was everything I could ever want.

We both went on to win our classes at USPA Ohio nationals four weeks later, James breaking a USPA world deadlift record, and myself entering the top ten 198 sleeve totals of all time. It was not a gym of fancy machines, protein bars, or even a working bathroom, but it was ours. A true cave of sorts, made from words and ideas, now fashioned into a living, breathing atmosphere. We joke now, that when the cave calls, we answer.

Sometimes I find myself, alone, before the turning off of flickering bulbs, staring intently at the individual machines. The turnings of their pulleys, the small chips of paint from the years of use before finding their home, now silent in slumber, lulled to sleep by the crickets in the cornfield behind me. It is beautiful to see such brute objects bring joy to others. To watch young boys, grow into strong men. To watch squeaking voices, now full of command and confidence. Other times I turn the lights off, the air still hot from movement and the quartz heater, and stare into the darkness of the cave, imagining the future in vivid color as it stares back at me.

custom-built-bench home