A score of students assemble inside the Cabot Center for a Northeastern Powerlifting Team practice three times a week. Among those lifting, grunting, and cheering walks in the team’s president Henry Hsu on any given practice.
On a recent Sunday afternoon practice, Hsu directed his attention to his “rack team,” a smaller group which the team categorizes into by height to work out. Other teammates on the men’s and women’s team alike sought his attention soon after that.
“Henry can you wrap me?”
“Henry can you help me out quickly?”
Hsu smiled and agreed to help most teammates, but always made his way back to his work out group.
“Time flies, it feels like just a year,” said the now four-year veteran of the team in a recent interview.
Hsu joined the university’s powerlifting team in 2013 when he was approached in the Marino Center by then-member of the team Alexander Baval, who observed him squat. Hsu said he had noticed someone watching him work out.
“[I thought] this is kind of creepy, I should leave,” he said. “But then he stopped me and said ‘Hey, I think you’d be great for the powerlifting team.’ Next thing you know I was at tryouts.”
Since then, Hsu said he has grown obsessed with the sport and the discipline and precision to living that is required to see self-improvement. In 2015, Hsu was an All-American powerlifter in his 163-pound weight class. He said he wants a top-three finish at collegiate nationals this season. The USAPL Collegiate Nationals will be in April 2017 in San Antonio.
“It’s like a test — you don’t have one every day,” he said. “You practice through whatever mode you find best, like helping others or flash cards. That is like lifting: your sleep has to be right, your nutrition has to be right, all of these things.”
This obsession originated in high school when Hsu was a wrestler, but now he applies it to powerlifting as well as daily life and education. He uses his passion to fuel his motivation in the presence of real weights, or of metaphorical weights — such as trying to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree of Science in Health Sciences in the upcoming spring and then getting into graduate school, he said.
“There is nothing you can really compare [the feeling of lifting weights] to; it’s a test of how much you can handle in life, and when you succeed, it’s rewarding,” he said. “You might not feel like doing a hobby 24/7, but if you push yourself and realize there is no end result and you are doing it for the journey and what you can learn from it, your reward is basically the work you put into it.”
Baval, the student who suggested powerlifting to Hsu and invited him to a practice, said that Hsu has had a strong work ethic.
“He’s just really a great guy. Very humble, friendly and open — definitely a great leader,” Baval said. “It seems like the team really thrived under him. I’m glad I got him involved even though it was a small thing in my day when I was like ‘Hey, you should join the powerlifting team.’”
Although Hsu is the president of the powerlifting team, he maintains a close relationship resembling brotherhood while also keeping it professional, said teammate Yuuki Sato.
“Most of the time he is serious. He understands when we are joking around,” Sato said, a fifth-year senior electrical engineering major. “We are still close, but it is hard for me to look at him as a normal person that joined the team at the same time [as I did]. And now he’s president, he’s just an awesome guy.”
Since joining the team, Hsu said his role has changed — his directed attention in the sport has shifted from himself to his teammates as administrative responsibilities increased.
“It used to be mostly about me. I was looking to be a champion in powerlifting, or to work with others to get a high grade in a class or whatever,” he said. “But with success, now it’s about making an impact on others. That is rewarding.”
The powerlifting team practices three times a week — Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, at different times each practice to accommodate schedules. Individuals lift on their own time on top of that, and tend to their dietary needs; a crucial aspect to improvement, according to Hsu.
Hsu helps glue the team together through all those components, according to head coach Larry Thomas.
“He is all put together with organizational skills,” Thomas said. “Being a student-run program, he does a really good job of being the figure that makes sure that everyone stays in line, and himself as well.”
Thomas first met Hsu in November of 2015, but he said Hsu has not changed in a year. Thomas and Hsu are in constant communication throughout the week about individual athletes’ progression and administrative business about practice and competitions.
“I kind of give him a voice when he needs to communicate with the team,” Thomas said. “I take his vision and make sure it is magnified across the board.”
At a recent practice Hsu made time for everyone on his team — one second he yelled at a teammate “C’mon be aggressive!” as he spotted one half of the weight bar while his teammate prepped to squat.
Those surrounding the squat rack congratulated their teammate after he finished his squat and put the bar back on the rack. Underneath the celebration, Hsu asked his teammate, “How did that feel?” and helped him take off elastic wrapping on his knees.
Hsu held several powerlifting records in Massachusetts, including an individual squat of 232.50 kilograms, bench press of 150 kilograms, and a deadlift of 227.5 kilograms — all of which he set at the 2015 United States of America Powerlifting (USAPL) Collegiate Nationals, according to state records from Jan. 2016. In April of this year, he outdid his personal best lifts at collegiate nationals again and at an earlier open lift, according to the 2016 USAPL results.
But on the recent Sunday, Hsu focused his attention from passing on his expertise to younger rookies to walking around the weight room encouraging others. He didn’t do as many sets as his rack mates did, but still got in a work out.
After he finished his last squatting set, his teammates high fived him and showered him with compliments.
“Okay, can you guys set up for bench now?” he refocused the attention on what was next.
“Not too bad,” he said as he caught his breath off to the side of the rack.
In the weight room, be it with his teammates or on his own time, Hsu said he is training to get stronger.
“I tend to shoot for the stars and they are really ambitious; I don’t think I’ve reached any of them,” he said, giving way to a quick laugh.
“I think you have to be goal-orientated to achieve what you want … I still have things to reach for, it is not washed out. It is a balance of finding what I want to do and what I want to sacrifice to get what I want academically and in the sport.”