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Little Big Man

Nov. 11, 1991
Nov. 11, 1991

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Nov. 11, 1991

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Little Big Man

Andy Leonard, who came to America as a Vietnam War orphan, has become a very special champion

By Lisa Twyman Bessone

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.

This is an article from the Nov. 11, 1991 issue Original Layout

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.

He and scores of other An Lac orphans eventually reached the Army base at Fort Benning, Ga., where they were kept for about a month. The Leonards, meanwhile, had read in the newspaper about the An Lac children. Three years earlier, they had adopted an abandoned South Korean infant, Joy, and now they decided to adopt again. One midnight, Richard got a call from the adoption service: There was a boy available to be picked up. Nothing was known about the child's past or even his age. The next afternoon, after a long drive in the family station wagon from their home in Lock Haven, Pa., the Leonards, their three biological children and Joy got their first sight of Andy. He walked into the parlor at the adoption agency wearing a polyester shirt and women's shoes. His purple pants were slit in the seat, and he wore no underwear. Pinned to his lapel was a scrap of paper on which was scrawled "Leonard."

"He looked like a piece of tagged luggage," says his mother, Irene.

The Leonards named their new son Andrew. Since his birthday remains a mystery, the family celebrates it on the anniversary of the date they picked him up—May 7, 1975.

At first, communication was nearly impossible. Andy spoke no English, so the family got by with pantomime and sign language. Even so, the Leonards could appreciate the ordeal Andy had been through. "We shared a bed," says Andy's brother Peter, now 28 and a computer-industry consultant in Columbus, Ohio. "Andy had terrible nightmares. He'd roll up under the blankets in a fetal position, moaning and crying."

"And when we would sit down to meals, Andy would eat and eat, almost to the point of sickness," says Irene. "And then, when he could eat no more at the table, he would fill his pockets with food."

Andy was very frail. There was a small incline on the Leonard driveway and Andy would ride a tricycle down, then walk it back up. "I wondered why he wouldn't ride the bike up the hill," says Irene. "Then I realized that Andy was too weak to push down on the pedals." He suffered from severe ear infections that had started in Vietnam. Reconstructive surgery a year after he came to the U.S. restored Andy's hearing to near normal, but in treating him the doctors found that the infections had caused some brain damage.

Remarkably, Andy began to thrive physically. He swam for the local YMCA team, and he qualified for the state meet as an alternate in 1981. He played Little League baseball.

In 1984, Richard Leonard got a posting to State College, and the family relocated. Academically, Andy was having great trouble. "But we didn't know precisely what the problem was," says Irene. When Andy was in ninth grade, education specialists at Penn State determined that his brain damage took the form of a "language processing disability." Richard Leonard explains simply, "It's difficult for him to read and write." Even today, at 23, Andy struggles to read at a fifth-grade level.

Andy enrolled in the special-ed classes at the high school. He discovered a talent for art—his huge pencil drawing of two flamingos has hung in the family's living room for years—and for mechanics. "He can just look at a machine and figure out how it should run," says Richard. But now, even as he was beginning to accomplish things in other realms, his physical progress stalled. His fellow teens were growing, but Andy remained under five feet. He was cut from the soccer team in 11th grade. "He was really down," says Peter.

Back on the stage at the Special Olympics powerlifting competition all eyes are on the massive platters of gleaming steel collared to the bar. In the first two rounds, Leonard lifted 352 and 385 pounds as effortlessly as bags of groceries, but 402 is something else. With a big lift Leonard will win the all-around gold, which is awarded to the cumulative high scorer in both the bench press and this deadlift.

Complicating matters is the wad of gauze swaddling his right index finger. "I was changing plates on the bar during warmups," Leonard explained before beginning the deadlift competition. "I caught my finger between two of them. It got smashed."

Leonard chalks his hands and adjusts the rawhide belt that is cinched tight around his tiny waist. On his feet are red and blue aquasocks. "They don't slip," he says. Around his neck is a gold charm, a barbell, on a chain. "Andy bought it for himself," says Richard. "He must have really liked it because Andy is tight with his money."

He grips the bar harshly, one fist facing him and the other facing the crowd. He ignores the pain of his mashed finger. Both feet are under the bar, shoulder width apart. The muscles of his body are taut. He blows out four short "huts," then one big one. His face reddens, and the veins on either side of his neck pop as Leonard strains against the weight. A voice in the crowd cries, "Do it, Andy!"

When Andy was in 11th grade, a teacher suggested that he enter a Special Olympics meet. Andy declined, saying that it would be unfair to compete against more severely handicapped athletes. The next year, however, he did compete in a local meet in some track events. He competed in 1986 in a county meet. That same year he qualified for the state championships, where he won the pentathlon—an event consisting of long jump, high jump, 100-meter dash, 400-meter run and Softball throw.

He joined a Special Olympics running program coached by Marie Doll. She, in turn, introduced Andy to her husband, Clyde, a powerlifter. "This wisp of a kid comes to me and says he wants to lift," says Clyde. "I smiled. He looked sturdy enough, so the first time I loaded the bar with 40 pounds and told him to do some presses. I thought he'd do like eight. He did 20. I raised it to 50, and he did 20 more." Doll, a bear of a man at six feet and 275 pounds, entered Andy in some local meets—standard powerlifting meets, not Special Olympics events. In one, Andy finished second to the perennial deadlift champion, Phil Hile.

There's a difference between powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting. The latter demands specialized technique as well as strength to get the bar overhead. Powerlifting features the squat, deadlift and bench press: exercises that measure brute strength.

In his five years of lifting Andy has competed most often in meets sponsored by the American Drug Free Powerlifting Association (ADFPA), a sanctioning body "violently against steroids," according to Doll. Andy finished fifth in the 1990 ADFPA national championships in Chicago, and second in the Lifetime Drug Free nationals this past February in Tempe, Ariz., losing by just 14 pounds. Andy is the reigning two-time ADFPA Pennsylvania state champion. His records coming into this year's Special Olympics were: bench press, 205 pounds; squat, 330 pounds; and deadlift, 400 pounds.

As Andy was gaining renown as a powerlifter, he was becoming increasingly self-sufficient. He graduated from high school in 1986 and got a job cleaning dishes at a pizza parlor. Two years ago he went to work at The Waffle Shop in State College, and he is still working there today, washing dishes and busing tables. Near the restaurant's door, patrons can find newspaper clips about Andy pinned to a corkboard.

In July, Richard took a position in Northumberland, 65 miles east of State College. When the family moved, Andy made the decision to stay put in the one-bedroom apartment that he shares with a cat named Ashley. "Andy does everything for himself now," says Richard. "The only thing I help him with are his income tax forms."

Frequently, Andy will hop in his blue Mitsubishi and drive to his parents' home for a home-cooked meal and some fishing with Joshua, a 10-year-old South Korean who is one of the Leonards' two newest children. Joshua was adopted in 1983, and then in 1988, Mary Ellen, a two-year-old neglected child from an adjacent county, came to live with the family as a foster child.

Sated now, no food in his pockets, Andy will drive home. He has carved out a life for himself in State College. He takes a weekly reading class, and participates in the Boy Scouts, which has allowed him to continue past age 18 because of his disability. Andy is working toward Life Scout, one rung below Eagle, and is a member of the Order of the Arrow, an honor given by his peers for service to his troop. He trains two hours a day, three days a week, and has begun helping Doll with the coaching. He's an inspiration at the gym. "I have five other Special Olympians here, and they all work hard so that they can be strong like Andy," Doll says. "In fact, there are a lot of other guys in here who would like to be as strong as Andy Leonard."

For a few agonizing seconds, it looks as though the bar isn't going to budge. But Leonard, his form flawless, continues to pull. The auditorium is silent. Slowly, the bar begins to rise off the platform. Andy's knees finally lock with the bar hanging at midthigh. The referee signals to Leonard that the lift is completed. The bar crashes to the floor as three white lights appear on the scoreboard, indicating that all judges have ruled the lift legal. Leonard has his new record. And the gold.

He is smiling so wide that the dimples in his cheeks look like fissures. He raises one eyebrow impishly. The crowd is on its feet, clapping madly and roaring in praise. Andy Leonard flashes a No. 1 sign with his bandaged finger. "I told everyone that they could look forward to my best effort today," he says.

PHOTORICHARD CORMANAt the Minneapolis meet, Leonard strained with the weight of a personal-best deadlift.PHOTORICHARD CORMANTeam L: the Dolls and Peter (rear); Andy, Josh, Irene and Peter's wife, Bonnie.

Lisa Twyman Bessone is a free-lance writer in Chicago. She's a frequent contributor to SI.