This is a story that will be in a book one day.
When I was nineteen, I made the decision to transfer from University of Missouri to Columbia College Chicago. I wanted to pursue music production—that's what I told my parents. Really, I wanted to rap. I broke up with my girlfriend. I traded fraternity parties and southern belles for art classes and a CTA pass. I roomed with two guys I'd never met, one a cartoonist and the other a reclusive Nine Inch Nails fanatic with a vision to launch a music career of his own. I moved into my tiny dormitory bedroom and I set up my laboratory, my Mac and my keyboard, my speakers and my mic. And for a year, I worked the 5 a.m. shift at Argo Tea while taking classes and trying to start my own production company—homeGrown Entertainment—while I worked on my next Mixtape on the side.
I didn't make many friends that year. Art school attracted a different type of kid, and it was clear I didn't fit the mold. I didn't have multiple piercings or purple hair, I didn't have a well-crafted closet of thrifty clothes to be modeled or Anime comics in my backpack ready to be discussed. I wore Addidas sweatpants and Jordan sneakers, Nike t-shirts with massive bold lettering: JUST DO IT. I was, to my knowledge, the only male that played sports in any of my classes. And yet, I also led my poetry class discussions, prompted beat battles in Music Production 101. Every now and then, someone would extend an invitation to an apartment party, but I always declined. I didn't want to drink or smoke anymore. I was trying to be sober.
After I took my first fiction writing class, I abandoned music. Writing had been my first love, hence the fascination with rap, but it was my fiction writing class that I discovered what would end up becoming my biggest artistic undertaking yet. I realized that my years of playing World of Warcraft, my stories and the lessons it taught me, had long been suppressed. I wanted to write a book. It's been almost four years since and I'm still not quite finished.
In doing so, my life became much more quiet. Rap in many ways resembled a sport. Our apartment lacked air conditioning in the summer, and many afternoons I would stand up to my mic, no shirt, sweating profusely as I drilled the same line forty-seven times, trying to get it perfect. It allowed me to exert my energy in a visceral, physical form. When I replaced rap with quiet afternoons of writing on my laptop while sipping a cup of hot tea, I knew I needed something to counterbalance it. I needed a physical outlet. So I joined the local gym.
My first week there, I went through the motions. I'd always wanted to be strong, bigger, but I never really knew how. I didn't bench. I did a lot of machines. Every day was bicep day.
I'd show up and go about my haphazard routine. And every day, I'd see the same guy making his rounds. He was big. He swaggered from station to station, dapping up other crews, exchanging positive words before settling on the incline bench and loading it up with plates.
I wanted to introduce myself, but I was scared. I wasn't big. I couldn't even bench 45lb plates. I thought I'd just embarrass myself and so I stayed quiet instead.
I went over to the dumbbells and picked up the 30's. The only thing I seemed to know how to do well was curl. Slowly, with deep focus and intensity, I brought each dumbbell up in a hammer position, holding it for a second to get a deep squeeze, before letting it drop and repeating with the opposite arm. Just then, the guy I had been wanting to ask so many questions came up beside me, grabbed the 50lb dumbbells and as he curled beside me, looked over and said, "Nice form."
I put them back down on the rack and looked around, positive he was talking to any number of the other guys standing nearby. "You've got good form," he said again, making sure I heard him.
"Yeah, you've got the pause."
When he finished his set, he gently put the 50lb dumbbells back on the rack and someone from the other end of the gym yelled, "YOU GONE LIFT SOME REAL WEIGHT TODAY CHRIS?"
Chris was his name, and he yelled back, "HAH! YOU COME CURL THESE 50'S TERRY."
"WELL ALL RIGHT I MIGHT."
The gym was his domain. And I had a million questions.
"How do you get the outer part of the bicep?" I said, getting his attention.
"This part," I said, pointing to the outside of my thin arm.
"Ah, you know I was just asking Terry about that last week. Here, watch."
He pulled over a bench, grabbed a 20lb dumbbell, and used the bench to execute a strict one-arm curl.
"Here, you try," he said, handing me the weight. I got in the same position, but I couldn't get the weight up. He brought me over a 15lb dumbbell instead and said, "This one's tough. Don't worry about the weight."
After that, I asked him about triceps. And then benching. And then the infamous question, "But how can I get bigger?"
He laughed and said, "Why don't you come hit back with me tomorrow."
"You spend an entire day lifting just back?" I said. I didn't even know back was a muscle group.
"Here's my number. Be here at 5 p.m. tomorrow."
We lifted together for the next eight months, and then on and off again for the following two years.
He was my first weightlifting mentor, and one of the most influential people to ever cross paths with my life. Besides teaching me about benching and squatting and doing dips with two 45 plates strapped to a chain around your waist, he taught me about humility and discipline and what it means to train your heart out. Our lifting sessions would often times roll for four hours. His parking limit would expire half-way through, so we'd grab our gym bags, walk outside, hop in his car, drive out of the garage, drive back in, renew the ticket, and go back inside to finish lifting. There was no such thing as overtraining, training heavy with low reps or training light with high reps. Every exercise, of every set, was to failure.
We competed against each other with ratios. If he got 10 reps of 315 on the bench then I had to get 10 reps of 185. If he did 20 curls with 50lb dumbbells then I had to do 20 reps with the 35's. Within a few weeks, the other big guys started saying to him, "What are you doing training with this kid? Come hit the heavy shit with us." And Chris would say, "Just you wait, lil' Cole here is gonna be a monster."
A few months later, I had half the gym in a half moon behind me on the bench, watching me attempt the 100lb dumbbells for the first time. Chris kneeled behind me and said in a quiet voice, "Get your mind right, Cole. Don't go until you're ready." I was nervous. This was about more than just lifting heavy weight. This was about proving to everyone that I deserved to train with them, that Chris had been right about me.
He saw me nod my head and said, "On your count, C."
I let out a fast exhale, squeezing the massive dumbbells resting on my thighs as tight as I could.
"One," I said.
"LET'S GET IT."
"THREE!" I leaned back on the bench, the 100's swayed back towards my chest, and with Chris's hands hovering under my elbows, I pushed as hard as I possibly could.
When it was over, each one of the big guys came up and gave me a dap. One of them, a guy who stood three heads taller than me, said, "I doubted you at first, but you proved me wrong man. Welcome to the big boys club."
It's a moment I'll never forget. And the only reason I got to experience it was because a big guy named Chris believed in me.
This many years later, and Chris and I still talk all the time. (We just got off the phone before I was inspired to write this.) I consider him a close friend, and will always look back at the years we got to train together as pivotal in my growth as a human being. He is a powerlifter, yes, but more than that, he is a mentor. I don't remember every single lift, but I do remember every single time he made me realize my true potential.
Now, Chris is doing big things by launching his own personal brand. He's started a movement on Instagram under the all-too-fitting hashtag, #RespectTheDepth. He's strong, he's wise, and he's going to change many more lives just like he changed mine. He goes by the name C3, and if you've never heard of him, then let this be your introduction.