2019 IPF Bench Press World Championships - Tokyo, Japan

I spent my Wednesday two weeks ago at the IPF Bench World Championship in Tokyo, Japan; it was one of nearly 8 days of world-class bench press competition, both raw and equipped. I would’ve loved to have seen more, but it only worked out that I could attend one day. I chose this day specifically for the competitors I knew – Wesley (Jim) Kipp from New York (of Northeast Iron Beast) and Toshihiko Noda from Japan.

The lifting I got to see was the Masters Men’s and Women’s equipped bench press. I saw many world records set, and even got a few on tape; I was also privileged to help warm up three of the USA Equipped men’s competitors: James Golembieski, Jim Kipp, and Mike Ferrantelli. There was some incidental contact with a few others as well, including one particularly scattered (but very strong) Japanese masters bencher… those sneaky bench blocks like to hide in plain sight.

The day began at 5am – I had about 3 ½ hours of travel ahead of me from my home in Tsurugashima (a suburb of Tokyo) to Narita (home of the primary international airport in Tokyo) in order to arrive before lifting began at 9am. I caught the bus outside my apartment at 5:30, and 3 trains, two buses, and a short walk later I arrived at the Marroad International Hotel just northwest of the airport. I wanted to make sure I arrived in time to see Toshihiko compete, a lifter I met at the Powerhouse gym in Chofu; I’ll give more details on that spot in a future article.

(If you’re curious, here’s their website: http://www.powerlifting.co.jp/index.html)

I shuffled into the hotel’s main ballroom, coffee #2 in hand, and was greeted with this vista:


I saw two platforms, spotters setting up the racks for the first lifters, at the front of a massive room that could easily seat a couple hundred spectators. The sound techs were barking commands in Japanese; other coffee-toting spectators were filing in and carrying on groggy conversations in no less than 6 different languages, and the distinct ringing of iron and grunts of effort were easily audible from the warm up room just opposite the platforms. To me, the din of this particular morning was a truly beautiful set of sounds. Here in Japan, powerlifting (strength sport in general, really) isn’t quite as popular as it is in the U.S. That doesn’t say much, as Powerlifting isn’t really mainstream in the U.S., but I was only able to find two powerlifting gyms in Japan (at least, via powerliftingwatch) before I arrived, and Powerhouse was one of those two. I’ve since heard of a couple more, but, suffice it to say, there aren’t many. For me, someone who lived my life before Japan around powerlifting, and probably breathed more chalk than oxygen for a couple years, the music of steel clanging on iron sounded like a sonata.

I’d messaged Jim Kipp when I arrived, and he let me know that he was in the warm-up area. Once I got that message, I saved a seat with my backpack, and set off to the warm up room. I had neither a coach nor an athlete badge, so I didn’t figure I’d be allowed back, but to my surprise I had no issues. When I found Jim, he was working with James Golembieski, getting him warmed up for the 74kg masters 1 (M1) equipped bench. I found out later that Jim and Jim were training partners and had begun training together for Worlds shortly after I moved to Japan. After a brief greeting, I hopped in to help load and offer any other assistance I could. Every so often I would go out into the viewing area to see Toshihiko’s attempt, as he was lifting in the 59kg M1 equipped a flight ahead of Jim G.

Toshihiko opened with 205kg, which was already 15kg higher than the final lift of the 59kg equipped open winner:

He then attempted the world record 216.5kg:

And for his third he then attempted to break his own world record at a whopping 220kg:


He completely crushed it. This performance earned him the top placing (by a whopping 55kg), and the first of many playthroughs of the Japanese National Anthem began as he stood atop the platform, hands clasped in front, gold glinting on his chest.


At this point Jim G. had finished his warm ups and was simply waiting for his flight to begin, so I made my way to Toshihiko and congratulated him for his performance. My Japanese is limited, and his English is limited, so we had a friend of his serve as an interpreter for a brief conversation, and then got a picture together.

After seeing Toshihiko’s performance, I was pumped. I’d been fully sucked into the energy of the competition, and it was just getting started. I found my seat still reserved by my backpack (one of the perks of living in Japan – no one touches your things, ever) and sat down next to one of the men I’d met in the warm up area just a few minutes before. We sat very close to platform 1, which hosted the higher masters classes in this session. Despite the lower weights – the view did not disappoint. I heard the words “Challenging the world record” more times than I can remember, and caught a few of these attempts on tape. I’ll compile those into a highlight reel on our YouTube channel in the next week or so.

One such attempt though, in particular, stood out: an elderly Japanese man in a black singlet with cherry blossoms adorning the sides walked onto the stage with a cane, gently laid it down behind the bench, positioned himself under the bar and absolutely crushed his lift. He then calmly stood up, picked up his cane, and walked offstage again. It was amazing to watch. Check it out:

Unfortunately, I didn’t catch a good angle of any of Jim Golembieski’s attempts, but was able to see him hit his opener of 155kg, and miss the next two attempts at 175kg. The second was a close miss, but the third was a non-starter for the now-exhausted Jim G. He finished in 6th place overall.

After these flights concluded, it was lunchtime, so I met Mike Ferrantelli, Jim Kipp and his wife Luciana, as well as Jim Golembieski at the upstairs restaurant for a quick lunch. After lunch we headed down, and following a short break for weigh-ins, started helping Jim Kipp warm up for his attempts at 3:30pm.


At this point, Mike’s wife Kelly joined us, and we all worked together to get Jim ready to lift.


Following a few solid warm up reps, Jim crushed his opener, then quickly changed shirts to prepare for attempts 2 and 3.

I left the warm up area just before each attempt to film and wound up just in front of the platform next to Jim’s wife, Luciana. She was all smiles in the warmup area and ardent fervor in front of the platform as she shouted encouragement: “Belly up, chest up!”, “Stay tight!”, “Drive!” – it was positively infectious.

After his third attempt close miss, we packed up and headed out of the warm up area. Jim popped open a bottle of whiskey, and we all shared a little in celebration of Jim, Jim, and Mike all making it to the Worlds stage. After we’d all had a bit, I was introduced to the US national coach, Dana Rosenzweig, who took the time to thank me for helping out and chat briefly before moving on to continue supervising the other US athletes.

It was a disappointing performance for Jim -- certainly not the day he was hoping for -- but a solid showing nonetheless with a scored lift of 200kg, a narrow 7.5kg from bronze in the 83kg masters 2 (M2) class. He told me he plans to take some time off after this, focus on getting healthy and stronger, and compete on the world stage again in 2021.


After Jim finished, I took a few minutes to watch more lifting, specifically the women’s masters equipped. I briefly saw Jennifer Thompson on the platform and recorded one particularly strong 84kg+ woman, Brenda Van der Meulen from the Netherlands, who opened with 190kg, and finished with 197.5kg, waiving her third – as there was no one who could catch up. Her closest competitor was 30kg behind her. The masters women were no less competitive than the men, and it was amazing to watch. Matching the awe-inspiring lifts on the platform, though, was the diversity of the audience. I heard English, French, German, Icelandic, Japanese, Mongolian, Norwegian, Russian, and many more languages, I’m sure, all united in one room for a common purpose. Seeing the world come together is an inspiring experience, one I hope to repeat in 2020 at the Olympics in Tokyo.


After a short while of soaking in the atmosphere and watching the masters women lift, it wasn’t long before Mike’s flight at 7. Mike would be lifting in the 105kg weight class, also M2.

After a few very solid warmups, he got into his shirt and moved extremely well – until a slip on the bench tweaked his lower back. He’d just put his shirt on and taken 200kg to a 1.5 board, when he slid a solid four inches pressing the weight back up. We didn’t think much of it at the time, and Kelly dealt with the discomfort quickly by massage and e-stim, but it very likely affected his positioning.

Kelly, as it turns out, might very well be the MVP for both Jim and Mike – she was a solid anchor that helped keep both men focused, Mike in particular. She got both of them in and out of their bench shirts quickly, with practiced precision. She called it “dancing”. She knew exactly what to say, when to say it, and offered more than just moral support in what could’ve been a much more stressful situation. I hope that I was able to offer even just 1% of the support she did – and I learned more than a few tips and tricks for handling athletes just by watching.

During the course of the warmup I also learned a little of Mike’s backstory -- how he and his father competed together on the worlds stage -- the only father and son duo to ever compete on the same stage at that level. Later, I also learned how just three years prior to this competition, Mike had been in a near-fatal motorcycle accident that nearly crippled him and put a severe damper on future training. He came back from those injuries and has returned to the worlds stage, though with a little less of a right bicep than before. Looking at him, you wouldn’t know it. Mike opened with 235kg, and narrowly missed 242.5kg and 245kg, the first of which secured his place on the podium with a bronze medal.


Unfortunately, my time at worlds ended before Mike stepped on the stage to take his third attempt, so I had to find out the results as I traveled home. In order to catch the various transports home, I had to leave on a rigid timetable.

As I traveled home, I reflected on the day I’d had, the lifts I’d seen, the people I’d met, and it only served to reinforce just how lucky I feel to be part of this community. Powerlifting is a sport of support; even competitors from opposing countries shared bars and gear in the warm up room, and offered shouts of encouragement as their fellow lifters took the platform. As the national anthem of the top place country in each flight played from the speakers, the audience stood respectfully and shared the moment as the top lifters basked in the glow of the stage lights with the glint of gold, silver, and bronze adorning their chests. Japan may have dominated this day of lifting, but every lifter from every country came away from the competition with something that can never be taken from them – they competed with the best of the best, and their names are counted in that number.

I’m glad I got to take some small part in it.

John Hughes