COLUMBIA — In the small cafeteria at Lange Middle School, Anchana Heng is called to the small stage where stacks of weights await him.
Heng is 5 feet, 2 inches and 148 pounds. He is dwarfed by the other weightlifters who appear to be 12-foot tall giants in his presence. However, he is not lacking in muscle mass. Heng has biceps the size of cantaloupes and legs like steel support beams. Heng is participating in the Show-Me State Games powerlifting competition, and is next up for the bench press.
Heng steps up to the stand where a long metal bar waits for him with 315 pounds, a weight equal to two Hengs on each side of the bar. He slides under it, and lifts the bar up. It slightly bends from the weight at the ends. Then he slowly lowers the bar to his mid-chest barely breaking a sweat and pushes it up to the rack.
Heng spent the first 12 years of his life fighting for food and water, and working for survival in Battambang, Cambodia. And every day Heng and his family had to pray that no one found out that his father was a French translator not the farmer he claimed to be.
“If they would have found out my dad was a French translator, they would have killed my family. They don’t want people to be educated, speak other languages or become a police officer. They would just kill them,” Heng said.
Heng, now 42, has competed in the Show-Me State Games off and on since 1988 in power lifting and has won several gold medals for bench press and dead lift.
Heng owns Heng’s Gym in Jefferson City and holds five Show-Me State Game records for the bench press and the dead lift in the 148- and 165-pound weight class.
Heng competed in powerlifting Saturday afternoon. On the stand, everything was easy. For Heng, life wasn’t always that way.
As a boy, he would get up at the crack of dawn to help tend to the cows and take care of his two little sisters and brother while his parents were often sent away for long periods of time for work. At night the seven family members would crowd into a small room lined with mosquito nets as they slept on the floor. There was little food to go around, and often rice was the only thing that fed the whole village. Several kids starved to death, and at 14, Heng came to America weighing only 65 pounds.
“It’s tough. You’d get to eat once or twice a day if you were lucky, you have no education, and you just go to work every day,” Heng said.
When Heng turned 12, his family decided to flee to Thailand, where they stayed in a refugee camp for two years, before winning a lottery to move to America. Heng’s family decided to move to Jefferson City to be closer to nearby relatives. Upon arrival in America, Heng and his family had only the clothes on their back and no shoes. Heng spent his first years living with the Bounds family in St. Martin where he learned English and acclimated to an American lifestyle. Despite the cultural differences, Heng was grateful to live in America.
“It was almost like home, but the only difference was when I would open up the fridge, it was almost like heaven, because there was food and water,” Heng said.
When Heng got older, he began wrestling and he soon developed a passion for lifting weights.
“When I was little, I wrestled at Jefferson City. I began lifting weights at the YMCA because I was 5 feet 2 inches and 100 pounds, and wanted to put on size,” Heng said. “Then I began to see results more and more, and thought, 'If I can do it, anyone else can.'”
After training for several years, Heng began competing in powerlifting competitions in 1988, and body building competitions in 1994. Heng attributes his successes in competition and life to some of the hardships he faced in Cambodia.
“If I put my mind to something, I do it. I look back to see what I didn’t have then, and what I have now and that makes me stronger. I have the will, and I don’t take anything for granted,” Heng said.
In 2005, Heng decided to open a gym to combine his passions for teaching and weight lifting. Heng used to work as a teacher’s aid at Lewis and Clark Middle School in Jefferson City, but weight lifting and training were always his main desire.
Frank Gilder, who trains at Heng’s gym and won a medal for bench press, says Heng has helped teach him better techniques so he can become more competitive.
“He’s willing to train and show and share information without anybody thinking he’s a know-it-all,” Gilder said.
Heng tries to provide motivation for all the members of his gym. Baclesse says that Heng’s work ethic has helped motivate him to train harder.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable. He’s intense, and that’s the way he motivates everybody else in the gym,” Baclesse said.
That intensity has led to success in competition for Heng. He finished Saturday with two gold medals and matched his record bench press mark of 315 pounds. Heng also set a new dead-lift record with a 460-pound lift.
Records aside, Heng says a chance to reunite with friends keeps him coming back to the Show-Me State Games.
“All my friends from the gym are here to compete,” Heng said. “We help push each other, hang out, and it’s a really good time.”