Even as he paces the mottled black floormats of the Bally's Holiday Health and Fitness weight room, Mahmoud Tarha radiates a subtle aura of power and gravity, a confidence borne of awesome capability. It's evident in his walk, a short man's strut, cocky, assured as he picks his way through a minefield of iron plates and steel collars. It's evident in his preparations, as he loops a pair of thick canvas straps around his wrists and dips sturdy olive-colored hands into a yellow plastic bag full of powdery chalk. And it's evident in his observance of ritual, the pre-lift sacrament of wrapping the loose ends of the straps around a heavy metal bar, then methodically clenching and twisting those hands until the grip is a comfortable certainty.
But most of all, it's evident in the extraordinary sequence of events that follows. Having taken the measure of the bar, a barbell loaded with a daunting 285 pounds and settled on a rack roughly 12 inches off the ground, Tarha crouches, looks skyward, then literally hurls the weight into the air with a single explosive heave, a serpentine whiplash of legs and trunk and arms.
He slings the bar to a resting position around his sternum, even as his lower extremities rise, extend, then come crashing downward into a full squat position, his buttocks mere inches from the ground. His body quakes with the accumulation of force and impact, a veritable human tremor.
From that scarcely plausible stance, Mahmoud Tarha, all 63 inches and 130 pounds of him, rises again, this time with careful deliberation, to a fully erect position. The lift is particularly satisfying, as only minutes ago he had been bested by the same poundage, his compact body skipping lightly out from under the bar as the weight crashed heavily to the rack.
"The first one, I didn't pull enough with my shoulder," says Tarha, a Lebanese expatriate whose fluency with the English language is still very much a work in progress. "This time, I pull with the shoulder; this time, I make it."
For Tarha, overcoming a 285-pound barbell ranks as one of the lesser challenges of his adult life. Born to the unceasing civil unrest of Lebanon, Tarha ("Mike" to most of his associates, as the correct pronunciation of his first name requires a tongue more nimble than that of the average Westerner) as a youth transformed himself into a world-class Olympic-style weight-lifter, a feat accomplished in the teeth of daunting circumstance.
As a teen, he secured a berth on his country's Olympic team, the delegation that would represent Lebanon in the 1984 games in Los Angeles. After capturing a bronze medal in L.A., Tarha decided to flee the violence and perpetual uncertainty of his home country, escaping from a New York hotel room and the determined vigilance of his Lebanese coach.
What followed was a U.S. odyssey that, though bereft of physical danger, has been fraught with economic hardship, rootlessness, occasional discrimination and emotional upheaval. It has only been in recent years that the 33-year-old Tarha has seen the light of a brighter future, a glimmer kindled by his return to the discipline and promise of his weightlifting career.
"Mike has gone through a lot of trouble in his life," says his friend Steve Fauer, a Chattanooga strength coach and president of the Tennessee chapter of the U.S. Weightlifting Federation. "He's had bad times, been taken advantage of. The one thing he had to fall back on was weightlifting, and it helped pull his life together."
Olympic weight-lifting is a sport with which most Americans are only nominally familiar, a sport conjuring vague images of mammoth, big-bellied men in tightly-strapped bodysuits, and iron bars so laden with weights that they seem on the verge of splintering when thrust overhead. Little practiced in the U.S., it consists of two events: the snatch, which sees the lifter yank a barbell overhead from a half-crouch, straight-armed, with the final portion of the lift consisting of a full squat with the weight held aloft; and the clean-and-jerk, which requires that the lifter "clean" or yank the weight to the shoulders, rise, then heave the weight skyward with a violent admixture of leg and arm thrust.
It's a so-called "iron sport" that requires as much athleticism as sheer power; stressing speed, muscular explosion, and carefully measured technique as well as raw brute strength. In the words of Mike Tarha, "Technique is at least 25 percent. Seventy-five percent, you have to be strong. People do not understand that."
Tarha's interest in weightlifting was fomented by his uncle, an Olympic-style lifter himself. Accompanying him to his training sessions, Tarha carried the older man's bags and watched in awed fascination as he practiced the explosive art of lifting enormous weights overhead.
At age 14, Tarha began learning the sport himself, training in a basement gym as a protective measure against all-too-frequent skirmishes between the country's sundry warring factions; the Lebanese government and the opposing PLO; Christian and Moslem zealots. "There were too much bombs, too many people dying," he says, adding, with a certain droll subtlety, that "my family had a house. Now, we have a half-house."
But there was little humor in the bleak milieu of Tarha's youth; while his parents and nine siblings are all still alive, he lost both a cousin and a close friend in separate bombing incidents.
Those obstacles notwithstanding, his weightlifting career blossomed quickly. He began in local competitions, taking first place in the 52 kilogram weight class in his home city of Saia. His next competition was the Lebanese nationals, where he also took first place, and then a pan-Arabian meet in Libya, where he likewise won gold.
A second place at an international meet in Syria and a victory at a national competition in Morocco led inevitably to Tarha's placement on the Lebanese national Olympic squad, the contingent that would represent the country in the '84 Los Angeles games.
Tarha acquitted himself admirably in L.A., taking the bronze medal in the snatch and finishing fourth (just out of medal contention) in the clean-and-jerk. But the young lifter had more than medals in mind through the course of his first trip overseas. While on a stopover in New York City on the way home, Tarha and another athlete snuck out of their hotel room and fled into the unknowable promise of the New York night.
"My country, there was just too much fighting, killing," Tarha relates. "I decide to become a citizen, U.S.A. Because I was number one lifter in my country, my coach want me to stay. I escaped while he sleep, but he have all my papers, my passport."
The defection presented perhaps more adversity than the powerful teenager had bargained for. With no papers and only a scant understanding of the English language, Tarha drifted, from New York to Washington, D.C. and finally to Tennessee. His was the life of an itinerant cook and delicatessen worker, dependent on the benevolence of a few Lebanese-American contacts for employment and shelter.
On moving to Knoxville in 1989, he met a girl named Lisa, fell in love, and married. And for a time, his life improved; the marriage rendered him a legal resident alien, and through a combination of his wife's efforts and night-time adult education classes, his English grew more fluent. But the union ended suddenly and tumultuously in 1992, and even today Mahmoud speaks of the split with a bitterness wholly absent from his account of other stateside travails.
The divorce was also a portent of ill fortune to come. Tarha lost many of his possessions, including all of his weight-lifting trophies, when his apartment was burglarized. And in perhaps the cruelest cut of all, he spent months in jail awaiting trial on an assault charge that was subsequently proven false.
Bitter, jobless, given to late nights marked by less-than-productive pursuits, Tarha sought salvation in the only haven he knew.
When Mahmoud Tarha works out, heads turn. As he chalks up and commences his exertions, a domino-chain of furtive glances and outright stunned stares ripples through the other lifters in a crowded gym, most of them weekend warriors and callow frat-boys pumping biceps for the beach. They marvel as he performs full squats with 350 pounds astride his back, or pushes 200 pounds overhead, a pot-bellied, almost elfin little figure heaving imposing weights with such precision and power...
"They ask me, 'Man, how you can do that?'," Tarha laughs. "They ask me what I eat, how much I can lift. Sometimes, they get too excited, worried because they think I have too much weight, a small guy with a little body."
His experience notwithstanding, Steve Fauer had a similar reaction the first time he saw Tarha perform. Then a strength coach at Vanderbilt University, a skeptical Fauer invited Tarha to Nashville for a workout when the diminutive Lebanese ex-pat was referred to him by the United States weightlifting federation in Colorado Springs.
"You talk to a guy on the phone and they're hard to understand, talking to you about how great they are," Fauer says. "Your natural reaction is 'Yeah, right.' Then he comes to the gym, and he doesn't look like much. But as soon as he starts lifting, you know this guy has been there."
Fauer took Tarha under his wing, trained him, involved him in regional competitions. Since his association with Fauer began, Tarha has entered eight U.S. meets, taking home first place-trophies in most of them.
"Mike hasn't had a coach for a long time, and his technique is a little rusty," Fauer explains. "There are techniques he learned in the seventies that you don't use nowadays. If he could find time to train and a regular coach, he'd easily be one of the best in the U.S.
"Sometimes, Mike needs his hand held. I train with him, take him to competitions, keep him involved as much as possible. But he's done a lot to get himself back on the right track. He had reached a point where he was out of money, out of a job, struggling. He's really started to turn it around."
Tarha's strength, says Fauer, is his strength—the sheer, inexorable torque in his shoulders, back, and legs, the true seats of power. Currently in training for the Master's Olympics (for lifters over 30) to be held this August in Miami, Fla., Mahmoud hopes to match his personal bests in both the snatch (where he has hefted upwards of 250 pounds) and the jerk (a lift he has successfully performed with 375 pounds.) It bodes well if he can approach those efforts, as both poundages would exceed the American record in the 59 kg weight class.
But those goals are yet distant. Notes Fauer, "Mike still has some things to work on, both personally and in the gym." And while Tarha's current job working construction is one of the more lucrative endeavors of his life in the States, the hours are long, the work arduous, leaving ever-diminishing portions of his time and energy for the spartan six-days-per-week workout schedule necessary for competition. And even with a sturdier, steadier income, Fauer says Tarha still desperately needs sponsorship if he truly aspires to regaining his world-class form.
"I love weight-lifting, and I love being in Olympics," Tarha enthuses, relaxing between one of several dozen sets during his two-hour Bally's training session. "You have to be a special person. But often, it takes too much energy, too much money."
Then mighty Mahmoud Tarha turns, loops his soiled canvas wrist-wraps around a 300-pound barbell, his hand and wrists kneading and turning once again in that inexorable ritual, and he does what he has always done. He lifts. He overcomes.