Schwarzenegger Gives Them a Lift : He Helps Special Olympians Discover Benefits of Weight Training

Times Staff Writer

"Trust me."

That phrase is 18-year-old Mark Hembd's signal to Coach Arnold Schwarzenegger that he's ready to proceed with the weightlifting demonstration.

Yes, that's Schwarzenegger as in Conan, and Hembd as in, well, as in Mark Hembd, Anaheim Western High School swimmer, Mike Hembd's twin brother. Special Olympian Mark Hembd.

Mark and Mike, the elder by 10 minutes, have Down's syndrome. But each can bench press between 75 and 100 pounds, although 10 repetitions at 25 pounds was all they were called upon by Schwarzenegger to do last week at a press conference to promote the California Special Olympics Summer Games.

When the Special Olympics movement began in 1968, mentally retarded "athletes" weren't expected to really accomplish much. They were supposed to finish the race, sometimes after an agonizingly slow, cross-lane run; play the game, even if they shot at the wrong basket, and have the joy of participation, even if they couldn't understand that other people made millions of dollars in salaries and endorsement contracts in similar activities.

Heck, for these athletes, it was never whether you won or lost, it was whether you and your parents had the guts to even play the game. Just being able to participate in athletics was a lot better than being shut away in some institution.

When the California Special Olympics Summer Games are held at UCLA June 20-21, the athletes won't exactly be looking to impress professional scouts or persuade shoe companies to sign them to contracts.

And the kind of "competitive spirit" that the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons demonstrated for one another on the basketball court won't be part of the show, either. The joy of participation and the reward of a hug at the end of the race are still the big parts of the Special Olympics.

But now, 19 years after Eunice Shriver started the Special Olympics under the auspices of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, the athletes are becoming, well, athletes. They no longer merely participate; they train.

"When this started, I think most of us thought about what the limits were," said Rafer Johnson, the former Olympian who is president of the board of directors of the California Special Olympics. "Well that's changed. I don't think there's any limit to what can happen if you get the right kind of training."

The Hembds have the biceps to prove it. Trust me.

The weight training and conditioning movement in the Special Olympics started about eight years ago, when Schwarzenegger helped run a physical education workshop for teaching handicapped students at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin Superior.

"We found that it had a tremendous effect on the kids," Schwarzenegger said. "We found that like other athletes, it could really help them in perfecting their skills for sports."

Since then, Schwarzenegger, the Special Olympics national weight training coach, has traveled around the country giving demonstrations and helping to raise money for weightlifting equipment.

"It's most popular among the kids because it's easy to improve and they can see progress," Schwarzenegger said. "Maybe it's only two pounds to start with, but then they can lift five pounds. It gives them immediate satisfaction."

Mike and Mark Hembd have been training with weights for three years as part of their regimen with the swimming team at Western High. For Coach Larry Senglaub's high school squad, the Hembds are not "special" athletes. This is not a Special Olympics team. Along with the other swimmers, Mark and Mike go through a 26-station weight circuit three mornings a week from February to May.

"We're mostly working on speed and flexibility," Senglaub said. "They're fairly light weights. We're duplicating swim motions, not trying to bulk up or anything. We're interested in improving their swimming."

Which is exactly what the National Strength and Conditioning Assn. had in mind when it began to develop a training program to assist Special Olympians three years ago.

"We felt a program to develop strength and conditioning was important because Special Olympics was always strong in participation but not as much in competition, in developing the athlete," said Ken Kontor, NSCA executive director. "We felt preparation was important to the athlete so he or she could understand what is necessary to win the gold medal.

"Any athletic competition is 99% preparation and 1% competition. We felt a need for the athlete. Plus, the athlete will perform better and be a better athlete."

The NSCA and the Special Olympics have produced an instructors' guide for teaching strength and conditioning skills that will be available by the end of June.

Although Schwarzenegger and Kontor originally envisioned weightlifting as a training tool for Special Olympics athletes, its popularity has propelled it to a place for the first time in the California Summer Games and the International Summer Games in South Bend, Ind., in late July. Eighteen athletes will be in the weightlifting competition at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion and 28 will be at the International Summer Games, which are held every four years.

Greg Bingham, assistant executive director for California Special Olympics said the number of participants in a debut sport is always low.

"When we're showing a sport, we want to make sure the athletes that are coming are well trained," he said. "It allows us to show the best. . . . It also really encourages others if they see some people are already succeeding."

The biggest success so far has been John Brown of New Albany, Ind., who dead-lifted 370 pounds at a Special Olympics demonstration at the United Nations in September, said Tom Songster, national Special Olympics athletic director.

And although the Hembds each will be participating in three swimming events during the California Summer Games--they have not earned spots in the International Games--they also have proven the benefits of weight training.

"They think it's a muscle-builder," said their mother, Sandra Hembd, who is on the Special Olympics U.S. Advisory Committee. "They live in a real black-and-white world, so they like to see actual results."

It doesn't hurt, of course, to have Arnold Schwarzenegger improving your bench pressing technique.

"I think they feel that (Schwarzenegger) will be their personal friend," Mrs. Hembd said. "He was real sincere, and (Mike and Mark) pick up on that. They don't know his title, if he's a governor or a movie star, but they think they can call on him at any moment."

For Mike and Mark, during the weightlifting exhibition, Schwarzenegger was just a buddy, helping them while their father, Jim, photographed the moment for posterity. More important to the twins are the results that lifting produces.

Mike said he likes everything about the sport: "It's physical, it builds my body." Mark said he lifts because it makes him feel good. Trust him.

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