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Shelley Smith
July 15, 1991
Weightlifter Mark Henry is a prodigious prodigy
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July 15, 1991

Heavy Duty

Weightlifter Mark Henry is a prodigious prodigy

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By the time Mark was in the fourth grade, he was 5'5" and weighed 225 pounds. He was bigger than any of his classmates, even bigger than the principal, who finally had to hold Mark out of recess. "I didn't know my own strength," Mark says. "I wasn't a bully or anything, but I'd be out playing and end up hurting someone. So I had to sit out or play with older kids."

When he was 14, Mark was diagnosed as being dyslexic, which explained why he had fallen far behind in the classroom. Ridiculed by classmates and labeled an underachiever by his teachers, Mark lost interest in his schoolwork. After he strained ligaments in his wrist in the first football game of his senior season and scored below 700 on his SATs, recruiters gave up on him. "It was hard to accept that I wasn't going to play football anywhere," says Mark. "I felt really bad for a long time."

However, he maintained his interest in weightlifting, which he and Pat had taken up when Barbara, fearful that her sons' roughhousing would destroy her home, bought the boys a set of weights in 1981. "They used to imitate TV a lot," she says. "When they started watching pro wrestling, that's when I decided something had to be done."

So when Mark and Pat weren't eating or throwing rocks down by the dam with their friends or singing in the church choir or trying to put hammerlocks on each other, they were in the basement lifting whatever they could attach to the bar. Sometimes it was weights. Sometimes it was cinder blocks. And sometimes it was even small children.

One day during Mark's freshman year at Silsbee High, Pat was walking by the weight room at school when he heard a ruckus inside. A friend came running out and told Pat that Mark was squat-lifting 600 pounds. Pat, who had set the school record a year earlier at 570, walked in and was stunned to find his brother squat-lifting 600 pounds and doing it in repetition. "I couldn't believe it," Pat says. "Mark grinned and said, 'See, I knew I'd be stronger than you some day.' "

By the time Mark finished high school he was a three-time state champion with state records in the squat (832 pounds), bench press (525) and deadlift (815). It was at the Texas high school powerlifting championships in April 1990 that Terry Todd, a University of Texas kinesiology professor and former weightlifter, discovered Mark. Amazed by the youngster's performance, Todd persuaded Mark to come to Austin after graduation to train in the Olympic lifts and to enroll in a remedial-reading program at Austin Community College. "When I saw him, he looked like an African king surrounded by his children," says Todd.

Indeed, Mark had become immensely popular. Whereas at one time his friends called him Fatty Boy or Fat Albert, they now called him Hercules and Hulk. He was a hit at any shopping mall, signing autographs for children who believed he would someday be famous.

"An Olympic weightlifter?" says Henry, thinking back. "I thought it sounded great. And I realized that maybe football would come later. And that you can't win a medal on a football team and that you can't get into the Guinness Book of World Records playing football. Weightlifting sounded pretty good."

It is a typical night in the dorm at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Henry and his roommate, Tim McRae, who compared with Mark resembles Mighty Mouse, are a half hour into a discussion. The subject: What else is there to life but women, money and cars? There is a very long pause in the conversation before McRae suggests, "Family and friends?"

"Nah," says Henry, leaning back on his seemingly minuscule bed in the seemingly minuscule room. "If you have a great woman, you don't need family and friends." End of discussion.

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