The main workout room at the Princeton Club on the east side of Madison early this spring Saturday morning is humming with joggers pounding treadmills and bikers pedaling. In the far corner beyond the cardio machines, walls of mirrors reflect men and women lifting, pressing and pulling weights.
A 51-year-old man with a white handlebar mustache and a gray Arizona T-shirt tucked around his big, round belly stretches before his workout. He normally meets buddies here Saturday mornings - except for a two-week stretch in mid-April, when he competed in the bench press at the International Powerlifting Federation World Championships in New Zealand.
Stretched out, Jim Ray is ready to bench. Moving massive amounts of weight has been the highlight of his week for the last seven years, besides picking up his boys from grade school. Bench pressing has become an obsession for the lifelong Madisonian, a mental and physical battle with the iron to add another plate, break another record and win a gold medal.
135 and 225 pounds
For warmup, many of Ray's fellow Princeton Club patrons start with just the 45-pound bar, but Ray slides 45-pound plates on either side as well, for a lift of 135 pounds. He lies on the bench. Start. He lifts the bar from the rack, and lowers it to his chest. Press. He pushes the bar up until his arms are stretched vertically. Hold. Rack. He settles the bar in the metal hook above his head. Easy.
* * *
Seven years ago, Ray didn't work out at all - and hadn't since 1977, he said. But Bowflex commercials inspired him to become stronger. In 2002, he bought one from a co-worker at the University of Wisconsin Division of Information Technology, where Ray has worked for 25 years. The Bowflex Babysitting Club was born. Ray's friends came over three times a week to work out with the Bowflex, keeping an eye on his son Tony, who was just a baby at the time.
The BBC disbanded when Ray started going to the Princeton Club on a trial membership - a gift from his wife, who wanted him to lose weight. The first day at Princeton, he headed straight to the free weight area. He lay down on the bench - which was not an incline bench, like the Bowflex - and did a pyramid of 10 lifts at a lighter weight, five heavier, and then attempted three at 250 pounds. He didn't make the last one.
"I was doing three sets of 10 on the Bowflex and I thought I was pretty good. So I went home that night really depressed that I wasn't quite as strong as I thought I was," Ray said.
Ray went back to the Princeton Club to make the 250, and then he was hooked. Lifting sessions three times a week boosted his strength 25 pounds each month. Young guys asked him what steroids he was taking, but Ray wasn't even taking supplements. His determination and his 5-foot-11, 350-pound frame - with wide shoulders, a big chest, and short arms and legs - made him a natural on the bench.
315 and 405 pounds
Narrowing the field
Ray continues his workout at the Princeton Club, adding 45-pound plates on the bar to press 315, then 405. Two of his workout buddies clasp their hands under the ends of the bar in case it falls, while another stands behind to guide it to the rack. Start. Press. Hold. Rack.
* * * The first time Ray benched 405 pounds was one of the highlights of his career.
"That's when I knew I was special," he said. "Most guys can't bench that."
When Ray started bench pressing he had no interest in competing. He just wanted to push himself. When he reached 350, he asked a guy at the Princeton Club who formerly competed what weight he needed to press to do well at a powerlifting meet, and was told 400 pounds. That became Ray's next goal.
For six weeks Ray worked to reach 405, or eight 45-pound plates on the bar. Week after week he did sets and reps of lower weights, working up to the upper 300s, but going home frustrated. It seemed he had reached a plateau.
Then nine months after he started working out, Ray did it. Start. Press. Hold. Rack. It was a mental breakthrough, giving him confidence to believe that if he worked hard enough and long enough, his body could push through.
Wearing an exoskeleton
"There's the new animal, right there," Ray says as he pulls black polyester from his gym bag. Before he tries to press 495, he squeezes into what he says is a reward for the World Championships. It's a Super Katana bench press shirt.
All three workout buddies crowd around Ray, pulling and straining the stretchy polyester fabric to fit over his upper body. When it's in place, Ray's arms stick straight out in front of him.
Here's how the shirt works: As gravity brings the bar to the chest, the shirt tightens. The energy helps get the bar off the chest, but the lifter has to keep the bar under control and lock out the lift.
* * * Ray is a member of USA Powerlifting, one of a dozen or so powerlifting federations in the U.S. These federations divide groups of powerlifters who want to compete within certain rules. Some federations allow steroids, some allow poor form and some allow shirts that are so tight they help men bench 1,000 pounds.
USAPL, Ray said, is like the Orthodox Judaism of powerlifting. At competitions three judges will stand around the bench, watching carefully for any violation. The lifter must have his or her butt and head on the bench, feet flat on the floor and steady arms that don't wobble or dip the bar back to the chest. The lifter waits for the judges' commands: start, press, hold, rack. The lift counts if two out of three judges don't see a violation.
"Even for a second, if there's any daylight (between body and bench), they're going to disqualify the lift," Ray said. "That's why we wear singlets. Not a pretty sight on me."
After competitions, the winners take the same drug testing used for the Olympics and the Tour de France. And although denim, double- and triple-ply polyester shirts will give bench pressers superhuman powers, USAPL allows only single-ply.
Ray says that "raw" lifters - those who don't wear shirts - refer to the shirt as an exoskeleton. He was a self-proclaimed "raw zealot" but came to accept the technology, and compares the innovation to the suits that have revolutionized swimming.
"Sometimes I do feel like a beetle on my back," he said before flopping down on the bench with his arms in the air.
Start. Press. Hold. Rack. 495.
After Ray hit 405 for the first time, he was still benching raw. As he grew stronger, his competition at powerlifting meets dwindled. Then, at the 2008 AAU State Championship at Summerfest in Milwaukee, he became the only man 50 years or older to bench at least 500 pounds raw in a drug-tested competition, putting up 505. Ray realized if he wore a bench shirt, which would help him bench an extra 100 pounds, he could break the world record.
585 and 605 pounds
As Ray's workout buddies pull the 45-pound plates from the bar and slide on 100-pound plates, the young guys at the gym turn their gaze from the mirror to the man with the big belly.
"Look, the bar is actually bending," workout buddy Rick Vanfossen says. He slides behind the bench to spot Ray for his next set. The bar doesn't have to touch all the way to his chest to count as a lift; a workout buddy holds a fixed stack of five 2-inch thick pieces of wood between Ray's chest and the bar to mark the lowest point the bar must descend. Start. Press. Hold. Rack. Ray benches 585.
* * *
In 2007, Ray qualified for the USAPL National Championships in Denver, competing in the 50-54 age group. Earlier that year, he benched 601 at a meet in Neenah. That exceeded the national record, although without national judges present it wasn't official.
Prior to the Denver competition, Ray had surveyed photos and videos online of the rest of the field, and believed he could hang with the big boys. He proved it by benching 601 pounds again in Denver - and this time he was officially credited with breaking the world and national records held by the legendary Frank Beeler, as IPF judges were present.
"I jumped about three inches in the air," Ray said in self-deprecating fashion.
As national champion, Ray qualified for the International Powerlifting Federation World Masters Championships in Slovakia the following spring; the IPF age groups are broken down by 10-year spans, so Ray competed in the 50-59 category.
He opened with 579, a weight he now realizes was too heavy. Bench pressers attempt three lifts that can be different weights, but the weight can't decrease. Ray finished second.
He went home and worked harder, figuring that the next World Championships was his last chance to win gold. Guys he knew could bench more weight would soon be old enough to join his division.
At the National Championships in 2008 in Charlotte, N.C., Ray missed all three of his attempts. It seemed the door to a gold medal had closed.
But a few of the men who had qualified couldn't afford the trip to New Zealand to compete in the World Championships, so the U.S. coach invited Ray.
"I thought it would be a shot at redemption," Ray said.
This time Ray was cautious. To keep him rested, his coaches forbade him from helping other lifters get ready. He started low, at 518. Start. Press. Hold. Rack. Then 545.
He attempted to break his own world record with a 602-pound attempt. Start. Press. Hold. Rack. Gold.
After drug tests, he was called his family. His sons, 10-year-old Tracy and 7-year-old Tony, were waiting by the phone to hear from their dad before going to bed.
Tony, who has autism, sang "We Are the Champions," Queen's triumphant anthem. Ray could hear his wife, Lisa, crying softly in the background.
"I knew how hard he had trained," she said. "For him to go back and win the gold this year was very emotional."
Now that her husband has reached his goal, Lisa Ray wants Jim to use the Princeton Club membership the way she intended - to lose weight.
* * *
As Ray leaves the Princeton Club, he walks past the humming treadmills, bicycles and elliptical machines. He still plans on lifting heavy once a week with his workout buddies, like he did today. But he'll be devoting more time to cardio, giving up the body mass that made him so successful on the bench.
"I have no excuse now. I've been to the top," Ray says. "I have a 10-year-old boy and a 7-year-old boy, and I need to be lighter so I can chase them."