RACINE — Like any good sports story, Gretchen Herrmann’s performance on May 18, when she set a world record for her division, took home a gold medal and gave the U.S. team the points it needed to win gold, started a bit rocky.
Herrmann, who set the American Masters 3 record for the bench press in January, flew into Tokyo with her sister and sister’s husband on May 15 for the International Powerlifting Federation’s World Bench Press Championships.
They arrived on Thursday in Japan’s time zone, and by the time they got to the hotel and checked in, it was late, giving her only a day to recover from jet lag.
On Saturday, Herrmann was up against Eva Speth from Germany, who has been lifting for decades and held the Masters 3 world record at that time for bench press at 92.5 kilograms. Herrmann said her plan was to beat Speth’s record and walk away the new record-holder.
During competitions, judges give contenders three commands: “start” is when they lower the bar onto their chest; “press” is when they lift the bar; and “rack” is when they put it back onto the rack.
For her first lift of 80 kg, Herrmann just lowered and lifted the bar the same way she would at the gym, not hearing the judge’s instructions. She called it a “rookie mistake.”
Team U.S.A. coach Steve Petrencak had some words with her after that lift.
“He said, ‘I see you can press 80, but could you go back out there and listen?’ “ Herrmann recalled.
For her second lift, she did 80 kg again and this time the lift was a little wobbly. Meanwhile, Speth had lifted 90 kg the first time and 92.5, the world record, for her second. For her final lift, Speth beat her previous record by lifting 93 kilos.
For her final lift, Herrmann decided she would lift 93.5 kilos. Petrencak asked her if she was sure she could.
“That’s when I think I won,” said Herrmann. “When I told him I absolutely could.”
And she did.
“Oh my goodness!” the announcer shouted after Herrmann’s clean, easy lift. “What did I just see? I can’t believe this!”
“They had no expectations for me at all,” said Herrmann. “It felt really good. It was more about, it was a clean lift and I did what I knew I could do.”
Herrmann got a little emotional during the medal ceremony as she stood on the podium singing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Herrmann was never athletic growing up, so it was a moment she would have never imagined for herself.
“It felt overwhelming,” she said. “Hearing the national anthem and knowing it was playing because of me.”
After her final lift, she learned that because she had won gold, the U.S. Masters 3 team had enough points to take home the gold. If she had won silver, the team would’ve gone home with silver.
She Facetimed with her coach, Ernie Zuberbuehler, who was at a watch party with other supporters right after the lift. Since she flew back into town on Wednesday, she said she’s heard from people far and wide cheering her on, even state Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers.
“I am just enjoying it now,” she said. “I am overwhelmed, still.”
But that doesn’t mean she’s taking it easy. Heavily jet-lagged, she still made it to her training session on Friday afternoon. In addition to bench presses, she’s planning on adding deadlifts to future competitions, which involves lifting the bar from the ground to hip height.
The next national competition is in Sioux Falls, S.D., in late August, where she plans to try and beat her own record.
This story has been altered from its original version to reflect the correct commands in a bench press tournament.