Daniel was cast into a den of lions. David and his slingshot took on Goliath. Underdog battled Simon Bar Sinister. And me? I was assigned to try out for American Gladiators. Everyone I knew thought it was a really funny idea, everyone, that is, except me. I kept seeing myself being steamrollered beneath the quadriceps of hulking blond women. This was no idle fantasy: I’m reasonably athletic, but confidence is not my middle name and I feel lucky if barely moving septuagenarians don’t pass me on my morning jogs. Hell, I’m lucky if I make it to work on time with no food in my teeth.
The Gladiators, on the other hand, are a superior kind of mammal: 10 well-muscled, super-moussed warriors who have become cult heroes to the almost 6 million viewers who tune in to their weekly show. Their one-hour athletic extravaganza, one of the more popular shows in syndication, begins its third season in September. It features Contenders — the part I would try out for — who battle for prize money by scaling walls, jousting, and running through futuristic obstacle courses, only to be met at every turn by veteran Gladiators trying to impede the contestants’ merely mortal efforts.
I tried to psych myself up. I thought about Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky speech — how if the bell rang and I was still standing, I wouldn’t be just another bum from the neighborhood. I dreamed that my punchy, one-syllable first name, so like the Gladiators’ (”Ice,” ”Lace,” ”Gold,” ”Blaze”), would give me an edge. The fantasies didn’t last. When I stepped out of a cab in front of the New York Coliseum at 7 a.m. one gray April day, there were already 200 people in line, and they all looked tougher than I was. Leading the pack was Barry Wassum, a postal worker from Pennsylvania who had been waiting since 5:30. His nickname, ”Hot Dog,” was embroidered on his jacket, and his sweatshirt proclaimed: ”Arrive Pumped.” Then there was a Maryland fitness trainer named Melinda Munafo, who was drinking something called ”Liquid Fuel” and said she’d been bodybuilding and power lifting for nine years. When I asked why she wanted to be a Contender, she sneered and said, ”I wanna knock ‘em down.” That was enough small talk for me.
At 8:15, the Contender wannabes were led, 20 at a time, into a cavernous room that was divided into four ”elimination stations” — not a comforting description. ”We’re expecting about 7,500 people, and we’d like to eliminate 7,400 right off the bat,” proclaimed event coordinator Dan Goldberg, who sounded as by-the-book as Joe Friday. Looking over the four-stage course, I decided I had about as much chance of succeeding as I did of fitting into Madonna’s teddy: I would have to do seven chin-ups in 30 seconds, run the 40-yard dash in six seconds or less, climb 15 feet of rope in 20 seconds, and execute in less than 17 seconds a running drill called ”ladders,” which included a suicidal sprint back and forth between three progressively distant lines. The last one looked like it was in Philadelphia.
Before I even took off my raincoat, I was hyperventilating. I stretched. I eyed the competition. I stared at the bar. I prayed for the Bionic Woman to mysteriously enter my body. The whistle blew. I grabbed the bar and did my very best upward pull. It was something to see: a chin-up so beautiful it would have made even Hans and Franz proud. And there I stayed, suspended in a glorious moment of triumph. I realized I could do this but once. My arms were stuck, their way of saying, ”This is it, honey.” And so I let go, my Gladiator fantasy shattered in less than three seconds. I wondered: Why had my mother made me take ballet and not power lifting? Was there a God? Could I join the Witness Protection Program?
And then I noticed that many of my pumped-up fellow contestants were also heading home: Barry (Hot Dog) was clocked at a disappointing 5.7 in the dash, and Melinda (who had wanted to knock ‘em down) missed getting to the top of the rope by inches. Nicole Bass, who at 6 feet 2 inches and 220 pounds bills herself as ”the world’s largest female bodybuilder,” complained of a false start in the 40 but was sent packing anyway.
Because I was a journalist, the Gladiator staff let me keep going. I clocked a 7.0 in the 40 and completed the ”ladders” drill in 18 second — both times a mere second off Gladiator quality; I decided that extra bag of Ruffles potato chips on Friday had made the difference. But the rope climb was another matter. I just stared ceilingward from the rope in a state of panic. I could hold on to it, I could squeeze it tight, but I’ll be damned if I could pull myself up more than six inches.
Still, most of the 5,000 people who had showed up didn’t make it even that far. Only 120 passed all four physical trials and got to continue to the final test: powerball. Goldberg said this game would serve as a ”screen test” and, as a bonus, reveal whether we ”could take a shot.” It wasn’t exactly something I wanted to know about myself.
The question was: Whom would I choose as my powerball competitor? I studied the survivors. Carola Plumhoff, who sported a rose tattoo on her shoulder and had hurled her previous partner to the floor like a blitzing linebacker, was out. My eyes were drawn to a sweet-looking sprite named Elaine Wilton. I was three inches taller and outweighed her by, well, let’s just say a few pounds. Elaine agreed to defend against me in the game, sort of a no-dribble form of one-on-one basketball with a tall trashcan as the hoop. It turned out that she was a four-time NCAA gymnastics champion and that she and her husband, John, had cruised through all the events even though they had never even seen Gladiators.
Maybe it was the headgear. Maybe it was my early basketball moves coming back to me. Maybe I was afraid that failure would cost me my job. Whatever — powerball was mine. I faked and scored. I faded back and let go a successful mini-sky hook. Then I moved in close and performed the only slamdunk of my life. I could barely breathe, but if this was my screen test, I felt like Lauren Bacall, just waiting for them to whistle.
Of the people who made it through powerball, 60 (including eight women) were selected for interviews. American Gladiators’ new producer, Brian Gadinsky, said he was looking for Contenders with ”interesting jobs and good values who would make great television.” I persuaded Gadinsky to interview me anyway. He wanted to know how my best friends would describe me and what I would say to intimidate the Gladiators if I had the chance. I said I was loyal and kind and had a pretty good sense of humor. I tried to pump myself into an invincible Schwarzeneggerian state of mind, but all I could come up with was, ”I’m ready for you.” He just stared at me with his mouth open. I knew my day was over, my Gladiator experience done. But there was still a tickle of desire. What if I brought a chin-up bar to work? What if I trained? What if I took some attitude lessons from Arnold? And what if I changed my name? Come to think of it, I’ve always liked the sound of ”Thor.”