The beat of the music is heavy, the lights are flashing, and 19-year-old Mark Henry is working the dance floor in a large way. At 6'3", 370 pounds, everything Henry does, he does in a large way. "Here we go, here we go, here we go," the rap singer chants, and off goes Henry, surprisingly light on his feet. Henry is jamming M.C. Hammer-style, and when he suddenly twirls and jumps, a gasp rushes through a crowd of onlookers in the lounge at the Holiday Inn in Minneapolis, where Henry is relaxing a few hours after competing in the U.S. National Weightlifting Championships. Superheavyweight division, of course.
"Dancing," Henry says, sweat starting to pour down his face. "Girls like that."
With Henry there is a lot to like, more than just his sumo-wrestler size and dance-floor prowess. After only eight months of supervised training in Olympic-style weightlifting, Henry broke four national junior records, then he placed fourth at the U.S. Nationals in April and finished sixth at the Junior World Championships in Germany in May. His rapid progress from Texas high school power-lifting champion to Olympic hopeful has been so stunning that many established weightlifters and lifting experts say Henry could be a contender for a medal at the 1992 Games in Barcelona and should be gold medal material by the 1996 Games in Atlanta. That no American has won the Olympic superheavyweight class (over 242½ pounds) since Paul Anderson in 1956 makes Henry's potential even more noteworthy.
"He may be the strongest man in the world right now," says U.S. national coaching director Lyn Jones, who is well aware that Henry is still developing his skills. "He is the greatest natural talent I have ever seen."
July 14, 1991
Henry wants it understood that he comes by his extraordinary strength naturally. "I hate drugs." he says. "I drank a beer once and threw up. We broke my mom's cigarettes every day until she quit. I didn't even know what steroids were until two years ago, and I'll take a test every day if someone wants me to. I can't wait until they start the really refined tests, because everybody thinks I'm on some kind of drugs."
Jones is among the coaches who are convinced that Henry is clean. They were further assured by a second opinion four months ago when Henry accidentally dropped a 352-pound weight on his foot and suffered only a bruise. The doctor who examined the X-rays of the foot was dumbstruck by the thickness of Henry's bones and the density of his muscles.
His body fat has been measured at 22%, which means if you took all the fat off him, he would still weigh 289 pounds. Henry bench-presses 542 pounds, squats 895, runs 40 yards in 5.2 seconds, dunks a basketball, can sink into a split and can belt out a Baptist hymn in a voice so sweet that you would swear some diminutive tenor is hiding behind him. "Singing," Henry says. "Girls like that, too."
Everyone in Silsbee, Texas (pop. 6,368), expected Henry to be like his older brother, Pat, a star on the football field and in the classroom. At 6'1", 261 pounds, Pat was a third-team all-state nosetackle and an honors student in his senior year at Silsbee High. He signed with Texas A&M, where, in September, he will be a junior starter and will continue work on a double major, in speech communications and accounting, with designs on playing pro football and starting his own telecommunications or advertising firm.
"Patrick was very good in athletics and very, very smart," says the boys' mother, Barbara Mass. "Mark was bigger, but slower in everything. He could take apart a radio and fix it and amaze us with the work he did on electronic things."
Mark's size, Barbara figures, came from her mother's side. Her uncle Chud stood 6'7" and weighed more than 300 pounds when he died. Mark's father, Ernest, who was divorced from Barbara when the boys were small and died of complications from diabetes when Mark was 12, was 5'10", 225 pounds. Barbara is 5'4" and 187 pounds. "You could tell Mark had unusually big body structure when he was a little boy," she says. "He was born three weeks early [at a modest seven pounds, one ounce] but made up for lost time."
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.
McRae, too, is an Olympic hopeful, but weighing in at 222 pounds less than his roommate, in the lightweight division. They are two of seven members of the U.S. national team who have been offered the opportunity to live and train at the center. "We had someone scout Mark at a collegiate invitational meet in December, and Mark was impressive," says Jones. "So we invited him for a tryout here. We weighed him in straightaway, and he weighed 398. We started him off on squats, and we couldn't get enough weight on the bar. It was literally bending. We had 935 pounds on, and it wasn't enough. That impressed me."
After the tryout, Jones persuaded the U.S. Weightlifting Federation, which already had chosen its six resident athletes, to make room for Henry. He quit Austin Community College and moved to Colorado Springs in March. "Raw talent is a great find," says Jim Schmitz, president of the U.S. Weightlifting Federation. "I don't want to jinx his potential down the road, but he looks like an alltime great."
The key, weightlifting observers say, is to keep Henry interested in lifting and not to lose him to pro football or even to track. Henry threw the discus 176 feet in his senior year in high school—without spinning in the ring.
"Being a lifter is a very difficult life," says Jeff Michels, a member of the 1988 Olympic team, who has been training for 11 years. "There is so much to be learned technique-wise. Mark is very, very strong, but he needs the technique, and that might take some time. But if he sets his goal to be Olympic champion and doesn't stray, I think he can be. We see a lot of faces like Mark Henry come and go. Most don't have what it takes to stick it out. Time will tell."
Henry insists he is committed. He works out twice a day with the training center's resident coach, Dragomir Cioroslan, a former Romanian Olympian who defected last year. The twice-a-day sessions are grueling, often lasting two hours each. Henry's best lift is the snatch, in which he has lifted 352 pounds in practice. He has cleared 343 pounds in competition, which is 23 pounds more than Anderson hoisted in '56 and 125 shy of the Olympic record. His best clean and jerk is 431 pounds, but only 374 pounds in competition—188 short of the Olympic mark. In the Junior World Championships, Henry placed fourth in the snatch and sixth in the clean and jerk to help the U.S. wind up ninth in the team competition-its best finish ever. Henry turned 20 three weeks ago, so this is the last year he is eligible for junior competition.
"Most lifters can snatch their body weight," says Jones. "If Mark does that, he's close to the national record [420 pounds]. Most can clean-and-jerk double their body weight. If he docs that, he's the world-record holder."
Between workouts, Henry spends his time eating and napping. At night, he and McRae practice dance steps, talk about girls, cars and money and play jokes on other athletes at the complex. "He told me once that he's the happiest he's ever been," says Jones. "I think it's because he's found a place he finally fits in."
The training center provided him with several size-XXXXXL T-shirts and a warmup suit with U.S. WEIGHTLIFTING embroidered on the jacket. Now, when he enters a restaurant, the waiter knows that Henry is eating his way to the American dream. "Before, they just thought I was eating to be eating," says Henry.
Jones also found a company that would make a pair of weightlifting shoes to fit Henry. You don't find size 16EEEE on the rack. "We had to trace his foot and fax it to Germany so Adidas could make a custom pair," says Jones. "Adidas faxed back, 'Thanks for the joke.' " Assured it was no joke, Adidas shipped the shoes three weeks later. Finally, Henry could toss aside the hightop sneakers he had been wearing and tie on a pair of shoes suitable for world-class competition.
"There is nothing more in the world that I want right now than to win that Olympic gold," says Henry. "Then I'll win another. Then I'll go on a tour across the country like Paul Anderson did and make me some good money. Then I'm going to play offensive lineman for the Cowboys. And then I'm going to be a movie star."
Henry has a thousand dreams. "There is one," he says, his eyes twinkling, "where I get sent to some planet where I'm beamed into a kind of ship where they change my mind and return me to earth to fight. I always win. And there always is a beautiful woman around. I guess I'm a romantic. Call me rough and romantic. Girls like that."