|Illustration by Mitch Handsone|
MOST OF THE TIME, Schwartz was a regular fellow. An accomplished student of art history at a prominent American university. Recipient of constant praise from attractive female admirers. (“Totally hot!” “Your friend’s really cute!” “Like, a total, total 10.”) A healthy, not unreasonable young Schwartz. But every few months, he’d do something highly improbable. Put ankles behind neck and walk on hands. Hold fist in flame like Travis Bickle. Jump, flip over backward and land on his feet, in the middle of a conversation, for no discernible reason.
And put head through wall. On this occasion, we were standing in the hallway between our dorm rooms, splitting a beer, talking about bad music and pumice, waiting for the cafeteria to start serving dinner. Schwartz decided he’d splay his palms against one of the walls, about three feet apart, bend slightly at the knees and take a deep breath. Looked like he was going to try moving the wall. Then he tilted his head back, made a low, inhuman growl and bashed forth, his head breaking cleanly through the inch-thick industrial plaster.
Then he straightened back up, wiped the crumbs away and smiled, waiting for my reaction.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone attack this wall. It was, after all, a dormitory. To male college students in group-living situations who maintain staggering levels of blood alcohol, a wall is often construed as a threat. This was my second year here. Last year, several of us had taken minor divots out of this wall, using Yeager’s bat or Peinado’s golf clubs, but none of us, none of our implements of destruction, had ever done what Schwartz’s head had done: broken through.
My reaction was delayed, as I waited for more information from Schwartz, who showed no mark, no swelling, no sign of pain. I wore no expression. I looked at smiling Schwartz, then at the 10-inch-wide hole in the wall, then back at smiling Schwartz. I had no reaction prepared.
“Are you . . . dead?”
“Yes,” Schwartz replied, nodding, still smiling.
“Does it hurt?”
“Not too much.” Schwartz checked his watch. “Let’s go eat.”
FREAKISHLY OVERMUSCLED, the 5-foot-6, 138-pound Schwartz was probably the strongest human being I’ll ever meet. No steroids, just gymnastics. But not the parallel bars, the high bar, the pommel horse, vault or floor exercise. While he could find his way around these in private, in public Schwartz performed only on rings. Of the six exercises of men’s gymnastics, the still rings require the most sheer upper-body strength, in part because of the inherent instability of the apparatus. The rings just dangle from ropes, freely, about nine feet in the air. With anything less than the athlete’s complete and symmetrical control, they’ll wriggle and shake every which way. A rings routine lasts from 60 to 90 seconds, during which the gymnast moves precisely and fluidly through a series of swings and holds, keeping the rings still while holding various strength positions — crosses and planches — for two seconds each.
By far the most demanding maneuver in the Schwartz repertoire was the inverted cross — a handstand, but with the arms stretched out, perpendicular to the body, fists at the same height as shoulders. Another gymnast told me that Schwartz was the first person to hold a proper inverted cross for two full seconds, and that the inverted cross was technically called, in gymnastic circles, a “schwartz.”
All-around gymnasts tend to develop evenly muscled physiques. But Schwartz’s all-rings-all-the-time gave him a top-heavy, simian aspect, with big hard hands callused beyond leather, bordering on fingered hooves. We came to call Schwartz “Spud” in reference to his outlandish biceps. When flexed, they did not feel at all like human muscle mass; more like raw subdermal baking-size russet potatoes. People with arms made of potatoes tend to do unusual, improbable things.
THE FOLLOWING APRIL, Schwartz did something even more impressive, even more improbable, than putting his head through the Dungeon wall: At the 1983 NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships, held at Penn State, he was awarded a perfect 10 on rings. According to the Los Angeles Times, it was “believed to be the first perfect score ever awarded in NCAA competition.” UCLA ended up taking second place that year, with Nebraska winning its fifth straight title. UCLA had a pretty amazing team: All-arounders included Mark Caso, Tim Daggett, Mitch Gaylord, Mark Miyaoka, Luc Teurlings and Peter Vidmar, with specialists Eric Gaspard on the floor exercise, Kirby Real on parallel bars, and Schwartz.
After Schwartz returned from Pennsylvania, we shared a few celebratory beers at Schwartz’s microscopic apartment in Westwood. He’d spent most of his life chasing that 10.
“So did you get much attention from the press? Did you have to do a bunch of interviews and stuff?”
“Not really,” said Schwartz. “Not too much.”
WHEN THE OLYMPIC SUMMER of 1984 rolled around, Daggett, Gaylord and Vidmar led the U.S. men’s gymnastics team to its first-ever gold medal, winning six individual medals in the process, right here in L.A. (Vidmar took silver in the all-around, .025 points off the gold, which went to Koji Gushiken of Japan; he shared gold on the pommel horse with China’s Li Ning; and Daggett followed them for bronze. Gaylord tied with three others for silver in the vault, and took bronze in the parallel bars and rings.)
But what about Schwartz? What about the perfect 10? Schwartz wasn’t on the U.S. Olympic team — couldn’t try out — because all he did was rings. Only all-arounders can compete in Olympic men’s gymnastics, something Schwartz had known well since he was a kid, since he decided to become a still-rings specialist. But I didn’t know that until Schwartz told me, shortly after he returned from his 10. I’d just assumed that he’d be trying out for the Olympic team.
“Doesn’t that piss you off?” I said.
“Not really,” said Schwartz, scratching an inexpicably smooth patch of forehead. “Not too much.”