One day three years ago, Larry Whetzel went to the Maryland Special Olympics organization with an unusual request.
After competing in weightlifting events in the 165-pound class all over the world for 10 years, Whetzel was easing out of competition and training others. He had already trained two women to national titles, and now he was especially intrigued by the idea of working with a disabled weightlifter.
"I asked the Maryland Special Olympics people if they had any athletes who wanted to be trained to compete in powerlifting," said Whetzel, 34, a Maryland State policeman.
That inquiry led Whetzel to Jimmy Dietrich, who has Down's syndrome, a chromosome abnormality that causes mental retardation. Dietrich, 31, had worked with weights since he was 8 and competed in the Maryland Special Olympics for almost 20 years.
"I had seen handicapped people in commercials showing their progress in various events, but I had never seen one lifting," Whetzel said. "I wanted to see how far Jimmy could go."
Dietrich has exceeded Whetzel's expectations. Now exclusively in open competition, Dietrich will compete for the U.S. Powerlifting Federation's Team USA in international tournaments at the World's Fair in Seville, Spain, and in Morocco from Aug. 12-19.
Dietrich, the only handicapped person from Maryland who competes in open meets, is in the 148-pound weight class in the 30-35 age group. In local events, he invariably finishes in the top three.
"In the Maryland Special Olympics last year, Jimmy blew the competition away, even in the heavyweight division," Whetzel said.
Dietrich's most dramatic improvement was during his first three months under Whetzel's tutelage in 1989. His dead lift rose from 150 to 275, bench press from 90 to 150 and squat from 100 to 225. His best lifts since then are 300, 165 and 250, respectively.
"Those first three months, Jimmy did weights I didn't think were possible for him," Whetzel said. "It was mostly determination on his part. And the fact I don't take no for an answer."
Hearing that, Dietrich said with a smile, "He makes me mad. More powerful."
Dietrich, who is looking for a job -- he was laid off after three years as a dishwasher at a retirement home in Sparks -- works out three or four times a week. His father, Frank, drives him from their home in Perry Hall to Whetzel's house in Dundalk for training sessions of two or three hours.
"Jimmy has good days and bad days lifting," Whetzel said. "Just like any athlete."