While reviewing footage from my first ever national level competition, the 2016 USAPL Collegiate Nationals in Providence, Rhode Island, I can’t help but chuckle at myself. On that day, April 14th I was so focused on pulling that weight that I didn’t even notice my team cheering me on. 600 pounds was my Moby Dick. In the previous two months, as the final lift of the Collegiate Regional meet, I ambitiously took on 601 pounds and after ripping open my hand, I let the weight crash to the platform. I was defeated.
Rewind back to my senior year of high school. Fresh after falling 10 inches short of my high school’s javelin record, I decide to be a small fish in a big pond at Rutgers. I was a three-sport athlete at Delran High School playing football, basketball, and being on the track & field team. I was vice president of my class and had the honor of being voted homecoming king by my peers. I was pretty sure that I would one day say that I “peaked” in high school.
As a 6’2” over 200-pound “retired” athlete, I had a target on my head while walking to my freshman convocation. I was stopped by a member of the crew team and was heavily encouraged to stop by the general interest meeting. This WOW’d me. “Was I just recruited?” “Do they think I could be a great rower?”
Those 7am practices every day on Cook/Douglass were grueling. I was lean, mean, and eating a ton of ice cream. However, my crew career was cut short because of a back injury.
Lucky for me, I was always in the gym lifting weights. Just because I had been doing it for so long, I achieved a solid physique. A few students approached me and told me I should “compete.” I thought to myself, “I can make lifting my sport?” Throughout high school and early college, I lifted weights to be bigger and stronger FOR my sports. Now that I did not have a sport, I finally had the idea to make lifting my sport.
This realization motivated me to document my progress. I wanted to become the best and I wanted to show every step of how I would get there. And thus, my Instagram account, @Hejnasty, was born.
Over my freshman and sophomore years of college, I competed in Men’s Physique 4 times. My placings ranged from unplaced up to 4th. To be blunt, I wasn’t very good. I lacked time in the gym and, more importantly, knowledge.
So, I turned to science. I learned how to control macro-nutrient consumption to decide the way my body weight increases and decreases based on my current training goals. I found out how strength progression is vital in obtaining more muscle mass.
While chasing this dream of becoming HUGE and becoming a better bodybuilder, I started deadlifting (one of the three powerlifting exercises) in late 2013. With a lot of time, practice, and consistency, I was able to get pretty strong, hitting a 500lb deadlift by the next year. This motivated me to do my first powerlifting meet shortly after.
After my first meet I was hooked. I was counting the days until I could compete again. Your closest competitors are the loudest people cheering you on. No one wants to see a missed lift. The camaraderie is more motivating than anything I have experienced in my life.
In October 2015, Dallas Bey, a fellow powerlifter approached me and said that he had started communicating with the director of club sports at Rutgers about establishing a powerlifting team.
In our first semester, we were able to get 40 members on our team. Many of us entered the Collegiate Regional meet in early 2016. My team members were very competitive and even won their weight classes, however we were still a small team, so we did not take home the title.
Two months later we found ourselves taking 15 lifters to Providence, Rhode Island to take on the best collegiate powerlifters in the nation. I had the best meet of my life where I successfully completed all 9 of my lifts and ended with a 502-pound squat, 314-pound bench, and with my team cheering me on, finally successfully pulled 601 pounds.
The Rutgers Powerlifting Team ended up taking 3rd in Men and Women’s in the raw division, and had the highest point total of all raw teams. Two days later I receive an invitation to the 1st ever IPF Collegiate World Cup in Minsk, Belarus.
I was incredibly honored and excited to have the opportunity to represent not only my school, but also my country. I never would have thought I could consider myself a “world class” athlete.
Over the 9 days we were there, the team was truly able to bond. We ended up taking 5th place in Women’s and 13th in Men’s. Being one of the few teams to have both a Men’s and Women’s team qualify, our team overall took 5th place in the world.
“601!… 601!… 601!… LET’S GO!”
Without hesitation, and with eyes locked on that Eleiko bar with razor knurling, I set my feet, took a deep breath, and reached down. I wrapped my hands around the bar with my pointer and middle fingers encasing my thumbs to ensure I don’t let this chance slip out of my hands. Another deep breathe into my stomach to increase pressure within my core, and then, with all my might, I pull. Pushing my feet through the floor, I give the bar everything I have left.
For a second, the weights don’t budge.
But, I stay committed to the pull. Soon after, the weight breaks the floor with speed. The bar decelerates at the midpoint of my thighs, but thanks to some heavily applied baby powder, the weight slides up my legs to a full lockout. With bloodshot eyes and red face, and 601 pounds pulling the skin of my hands to the floor, I stare into the head judge’s eyes. After what seemed to be an eternity, he yells “DOWN” while lowering his hand.
I quickly lower the weight to the floor and look to my left. Three white lights flash. I throw my hands up and turn around just before my coach, Elish, attacks me with an airborne-bromantic embrace on the platform.
Easily the greatest moment of my life, I have never felt that much excitement and fulfillment at one time. What makes it immensely better is that I got to share it with people I truly care about, and I hope that I can share in their moments of success as well.
Keep your eyes on Rutgers Powerlifting this year!
Photograph by Sydney Schwartz