It was not my idea. I haven’t watched American Gladiators in fifteen years. Until a week ago, I didn’t even know it was back on the air. I now think of those days as the B.G. era, and oh, how I long to return.
Last Wednesday, I got an email from the only other woman I know whose testosterone level matches mine, who makes up games and then alters the rules to make sure she wins. She’s even got my same initials, or I guess I’ve got hers. The email sounded like Hulk Hogan was dictating: "American Gladiator Tryouts – this SATURDAY!!!!!!!!!!! WHO’S WITH ME????????????? I AM SO GOING TO THIS." I responded instantly: "i could not be more IN," and printed out the 28-page application and a picture of me looking ripped, even bought sweatpants and a sports bra from KMart when I got home from work Friday too late to pick up my laundry. So when BT texted at 10:20 Friday night that she had to bail because she had "way too much to do," it was too late for me to back out.
The doors to Crunch gym at 38th and Broadway opened at 10 a.m. Saturday morning. I got there at 9:11 a.m. — having woken up at an ungodly 7:45 a.m. to get here from a friend’s place in Brooklyn — to join a line of about 4,000 people, some of them camped out since midnight, wrapped all the way around the block. This is an expression that gets tossed around, so let me make clear that I mean it quite literally. I was standing twenty yards from the entrance to Crunch, in a procession that filed around the corner from 38th Street onto Broadway, down Broadway, across 37th Street, up 7th Avenue, and back onto 38th Street, and then into Crunch. NBC had grossly underestimated just how many people desperately wanted to get shot by tennis ball canons on national TV. There was no chance we were all going to make it in and out of one small gym by 4 p.m. Had I grasped that, I like to think I would have peeled off and salvaged my Saturday, like the school teacher in front of me in line who, when we hadn’t turned the corner by 11 a.m., called it a day.
Instead, I got a cappuccino and called my brother. "Oh my god, you’d be perfect, Bec!" he laughed. I had to agree. When four p.m. came and went, I was a block and a half from Crunch — halfway there. And halfway hypothermic. An NBC rep walked the line announcing that they would stay open until everyone in line had been seen. That’s when the fun really started. And by fun, I mean agony.
Did I mention it was cold? Or that it rained for most of the morning? Windy? That there was a half hour line to pee at the nearest Starbucks? I took turns waiting with Ginette, a Queens native, mother and bodybuilder, and Sean, a restaurant owner and martial arts aficionado. Collaboration was necessary for survival. I’d go browse in the cheap-o shoe stores on 7th Ave., and then come back and hold our spot while Sean and Ginette went someplace warm. They went together, because they had more to talk about. Everyone in line seemed to have this something in common. They liked discussing protein powder and they knew all the names of the Gladiators.
By now I really should have figured it out, but my overconfidence regarding physical contests had acted as a buffer between the ample evidence at hand and my comprehension. Amazingly, it took about ten hours before I finally stopped thinking I was going to rule it, for all the pieces of evidence to come together like so many ingredients of humble pie. I was listening to a blonde South African mother of two and Iron Man triathlete tell a touching story about a father dragging and pushing his disabled son through the 2.4 mile ocean swim, 112 mile bike, and marathon. It struck me that if I emptied my bladder, I’d probably feel warmer. South Africa’s 18-year-old little sister, a distance runner and a bombshell, informed me that I could use the bathroom inside Crunch.
I pushed through a group of Gladiator wannabes pressing up against the the door to the gym like desperate orphans. When I got inside, I saw what it was they were gawking at. Even the most unfortunate-looking people in line, when they took off their clothes, had muscles so big there were baby muscles growing on them. There was a man with a ponytail, wearing a tight Under Armour sleeveless tank, bending over to tie his shoe. His bulging right bicep looked like the trunk of an immature tree. I peed, came out of the bathroom, and felt sick. That guy with the tree trunk arms was a girl. A girl who could easily kill me.
She would not have the opportunity to kill me today, because the tryout did not involve any sort of combat. Through exit polls, we’d learned it was a simple 15-minute affair: smile for a picture, pull-ups, burpees (calisthenics where you stand, squat, do a push-up, stand, and repeat), do the grapevine through a ladder, sprints, three-to-five-minute interview.
Bombshell endeavored to comfort me by explaining that there were two different tryouts going on. Pro bodybuilders were vying to be Gladiators; the rest of us were trying out to be contenders. Still, my confidence was shot. I finally comprehended that even amongst "the rest of us," I was not going to stand out. I am an Ultimate Frisbee player, not an Ultimate Fighting Champion, and you can’t just make up the difference in adrenalin.
My back and neck were knotted from having been clenched against the cold all day. Three days later, I would find myself unable to move my neck to either side. But was I going to call it quits? Oh hell no.
By now it was officially Saturday night, and I was missing out on boozy gatherings to stand in the cold in midtown. The glowing yellow Crunch sign was still a distant beacon. There was only one thing I could think to do. I took a field trip to a deli a few blocks up 7th Avenue and bought a 6-pack of Colt 45. If there’s one advantage Ultimate players have over any other athlete, it’s the ability to perform drunk, high, hung over, on no sleep, with a broken sternum. When I cracked the first can and poured it into my empty Gatorade bottle, I got some looks. "What is that?" asked an over-tanned bodybuilder who had earned the nickname Medusa for the strands of gelled hair coming out of her high ponytail. She was impulsively drawn to it because she thought it was some new energy drink.
"Beer." And just like that, I had embraced my role as outcast. I would not be ashamed – or at least, I would be less ashamed, because I would be drunk.
The evening and night passed relatively pleasantly. As ten rolled around, then passed, everyone settled into the idea that this was our Saturday night, and the mood became accordingly jovial. We were giddy with fatigue and had long ago abandoned rational perspective in favor of the group mentality: these people are still here too so it can’t be that insane! But then, my boyfriend showed up.
"What a waste of a day!" That was literally the first thing he said. He did not understand that we were part of a sociological phenomenon, not just an open audition for the reincarnation of a show that should have died when it did in the 90’s. He had driven in from the suburbs and he wanted to have, you know, a fun Saturday night, that would involve things like being warm, and sex. I fed him beers but it didn’t help. I was not going to leave, so I just stopped talking to him. But I felt him there, silent… rational.
When I finally got through the doors, it was like getting off the bus at Port Authority after having lived your entire life on a farm. Everything happened way too fast. They wrote my name in Sharpie on a folder, threw me up against a wall, told me to hold the folder up and smile. I barely had time to pull off my winter gear. (I knew from watching through the door that everyone stripped down to workout gear for their mug shots, and I didn’t want to be the only one who looked like a second grader going out to recess.) Fight forgotten, I kissed boyfriend goodbye and ascended the stairs to a gym that was far too small for all the bulging bodies in it, lifting weights, jumping in place, circulating Human Growth Hormones.
No amount of warming up was going to endow me with the power to do 20 pull-ups like some of these women, so I sat on a weight bench and enjoyed my buzz. My flushed face felt windburned, like I’d been out snowboarding all day. From my vantage point, I was able to see both the pull-up bar and the glass-enclosed gym where the sprinting was happening, and I noticed the following: bodybuilders can’t run. The more pull-ups a person could do, the more she resembled a newborn deer when lunging to touch a cone. This might have boosted my confidence if I had still given a shit.
When my turn came, I did two pull-ups (I’m coming off a shoulder sprain, the bars were really wide apart, wah wah wah) and dropped off the bar. The embarrasing part was officially over. I powered through the other stuff and proceeded red-faced and sweaty to the interrogation room. South Africa, Bombshell, Medusa, Sean and Irish were there. It felt like a family reunion, except we missed poor Ginette, who had finally gone home to her kid an hour earlier. I chatted with an NBC rep about why they should pick me, fully aware that they never would.
Thank God almighty, I was free at last. I took the stairs to the waiting room two at a time and covered my boyfriend’s sad sad face with kisses. He was not much better off than the "supporter" who was passed out on the floor, oblivious to an NBC rep’s attempts to rouse him.
It was past midnight, the first day of the A.G. era, a period of my life marred by nagging self-doubts regarding my mental health, subliminal resentment from my significant other, and a horribly stiff neck.