Andy Leonard, one of the country's best powerlifters in the 114-pound weight class, walks purposefully from the backstage of the O'Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul, Minn., onto a raised platform and into a spotlight's glare. He can't see the 900 people in the audience, but Leonard knows they're there. "C'mon, Andy!" a man bellows. "You can do it!" shrieks a woman.
Leonard's body looks as though it's cut from granite. He stretches his arms over his head and steps up to the bar, which he will attempt to deadlift. It carries 402 pounds. Leonard, a 23-year-old of Vietnamese heritage, is all of five feet tall and weighs 110 pounds. If he successfully lifts the bar off the floor, he will hoist almost four times his body weight—a personal best. "Only a handful of people in the world can lift that kind of weight," says Jan Shendow, president of the U.S. Powerlifting Federation and a judge at this event.
What makes the competition so extraordinary is that it's part of the 1991 International Special Olympics. Leonard, who is sixth-ranked nationally by the American Drug Free Powerlifting Association, is one of 6,000 athletes from nearly 100 countries who have come to Minnesota to compete. He, like all of the others, is mentally disabled.
Andy Leonard was born around 1968 somewhere in Vietnam during the war. According to his very sketchy recollections, he was orphaned at a young age when a rocket slammed into his village. Vietnamese neighbors gathered the children left parentless by the blast, including Andy and his four siblings, and delivered them to the An Lac orphanage in Saigon. Andy's siblings, all older, soon fled An Lac, presumably to live on the streets. Andy never saw them again.
An Lac means Happy Place, and indeed the orphanage was something of an oasis in a war-torn land. Still, it was at best a stopgap haven, a place where children were placed in an effort to keep them alive.
Andy's memories of An Lac aren't coherent. Over the years, they've come in out-of-sequence flashbacks. For one thing, Andy can't stand peanut butter, as his adoptive family, the Leonards of Northumberland, Pa., found out one day at lunch. "The orphanage ran a farm," says Richard Leonard, Andy's father. "And Andy said that peanut butter tasted too much like the mushy peanuts the kids had to dig out of the ground in order to have something to eat."
During a siege, that farm, which was some distance from Saigon, took a hit from enemy artillery fire. "Andy told that story when we were sitting around the dinner table one December 7," says Richard, a United Methodist pastor. "I was telling the kids about Pearl Harbor, World War II and air-raid sirens, and Andy said, 'Air-raid sirens. I know all about those.' "
In the spring of 1975, with the fall of Saigon imminent, the directors of many South Vietnam orphanages decided to evacuate the children, and the U.S. military cooperated. On April 12, as part of Operation Babylift, two planes took off from Saigon for the Philippines with 219 crying, terrified An Lac orphans aboard. It was a desperate flight. Only a few days earlier, a plane loaded with children had crashed in a rice field; only two weeks later, Saigon would fall to the Vietcong.
There were few seats in the windowless plane that Andy was aboard. Infants wrapped in blankets were placed in cardboard boxes. Some of the children were suffering from dehydration, pneumonia and malnutrition. A three-month-old girl later died of shock.
In the Philippines the kids from An Lac plus 100 other Vietnamese and Cambodian war orphans were jammed into a 747 headed for America. Andy doodled on a notepad for most of the flight.