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.
Eliza says she throws a tantrum if she can't find a sock. Konstantine isn't as easily rattled. When a truck carrying propane gas exploded like a bomb less than a mile from their house late one night in July, Eliza woke up thinking it was the end of the world. Her husband rolled over, announced that everything was O.K. and went back to sleep.
"If a bomb dropped on the area, everyone would die anyway," he says now. "So what's the big deal?"
Eliza takes glee in exposing her husband's occasional lapses into the role of sensitive male. She says he cried while watching the movie Ghost. At first he denies this, but she is insistent. "Well, maybe just a little," he concedes. "But it was so sad."
He also plays down the despair he felt two years ago. He was working on a construction site when the ring finger on his right hand was crushed in an accident and had to be amputated at the second knuckle. Starikovitch, who was about to resume his weightlifting, thought his career was finished. But two months later he was in the gym, attempting to grip a weight bar. Eliza says her husband was a mess after the accident, and it wasn't until he gripped the bar for the first time that he realized he had a future in his sport.
Since then Starikovitch has been on a lifting rampage. At a meet last February, after only minimal training, he put up excellent numbers—330 in the snatch and 418 in the clean and jerk—at 91 kilograms (200 pounds). In May, after deciding it was time to prepare seriously for the 1996 Olympics, Starikovitch moved to White Plains, N.Y., to work with Marc Chasnov, a physical therapist and weightlifting guru. A respected international-level coach with a self-deprecating manner, Chasnov launched Starikovitch's career as a personal trainer and found him clients. Chasnov also gave him access to superior facilities and ministered to his old injuries. As a result Starikovitch, with Chasnov at his side, performed unforgettably at this year's Empire Games.
A sort of mini-Olympics staged annually for residents of New York State, the games were held this time at Syracuse University, though weightlifting was shunted off to a high school auditorium across town. There, backstage, other athletes stole glances at Starikovitch. When he warmed up by snatching 264 pounds, more than most of them would attempt during the meet itself, they shook their heads and smiled, as if to say, "What can you do? I'm shooting for second."
Competing in the 99-kilogram (218-pound) division, Starikovitch snatched 160 kilos (352 pounds) on his third attempt. Though no one else of his size in the U.S. has succeeded at that weight, Starikovitch was upset at missing his second attempt, which cost him a chance to try for 165 kilos. He took out his disappointment on the clean and jerk, and on his last attempt went for a personal record of 210 kilos (462 pounds).
The 5'10", 211-pound Starikovitch strode onstage with a confident, rolling gait. As he cleaned the bar and got underneath it, he showed some hesitation, but he was able to stand up. As he stepped back and raised the weight over his head, the bar teetered forward. Not having received a signal from the judges that his lift was complete, Starikovitch, who by that time was shaking and hyperventilating, stepped forward and regained control of the bar.
"It was the gutsiest thing I've ever seen," says Joe Carbone, a nationally ranked lifter at 76 kilograms (167 pounds). "You never see a guy at his level make a lift like that when he's shaking so much."
Starikovitch's snatch and his clean and jerk bettered existing U.S. marks but are not considered records. Only weights lifted in national or international meets are official, and in any case, Starikovitch is not yet a U.S. citizen. That should change in April 1996, when he will become eligible for citizenship less than a month before the Olympic trials. If he makes the U.S. team he will become the first ex-Soviet athlete to compete for this country since the disintegration of the Soviet bloc.
"He's a very talented man," says Dragomir Cioroslan, the U.S. national coach. "If his citizenship comes through in time, I see him as a member of our Olympic team. The totals he's doing now put him in the top six in the world. Assuming the evolution of performance, he'll need to lift another 10 to 15 kilograms to win a medal in Atlanta. I think that's very achievable."
Becoming a U.S. citizen, winning a spot on the Olympic team and improving his lifts shouldn't pose any problem for Starikovitch. He will continue taking his future step-by-step.
Mark Jacobs is a freelance journalist who lives in White Plains, N.Y.