She may look tiny, but Corban University sophomore Jessica Okimura now holds a big title.
On Nov. 21, the 104-pound accounting, finance and marketing major wrote her name in the history books by breaking the world record three times in bench press for her age and weight during the World Cup Bench Press and Dead Lift Championships in Las Vegas. During the competition, she was able to successfully bench press 176.2 pounds on her third lift, shattering the original 123-pound world record in the women’s age 18-19, 114-pound category.
“I knew the world record was 123 and I opened with 132,” Okimura said. “I knew I could do that easily. Her second lift was 154 pounds and her third hit the 176.2-pound marker. Because she was able to break a world record, she was awarded a fourth lift and attempted 205 pounds without success. She said she has benched up to 245 pounds during training.
The World Cup Bench Press and Dead Lift Championships are invitation only. While many weightlifters train exhaustively with professional coaches their entire lives to reach that level of competition, Okimura is relatively new to the sport and has mainly trained on her own.
It started her junior year when Okimura, a self-proclaimed “girly girl” started wrestling for her high school in Honolulu. While a female wrestler may be a novelty in many places, she said it has become more popular with young women in her home state. That year, she was named the state’s top wrestler in her gender and weight category.
During her senior year of high school, Okimura was introduced to weight training after her father bought a weight set for her brother. After weight training independently, a teacher encouraged her to compete. During summer 2009, she competed in bench press against two other women, lifting 135 pounds and earning another state title.
“It was kind of cool, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it,” she said. Her freshman year at Corban, Okimura trained enough to keep in shape, but not for competition. In June 2010, she decided to compete in another Hawaiian competition.
“I bombed it,” she said with a laugh. “It was a big venue and it was rough.” Following that loss, she started training with Team Hawaii and on July 28, was able to lift 154.2 pounds to break the state record and earn a spot in the World Cup.
“I was really excited because I qualified for the world championship,” Okimura said. “At first I wasn’t going to do it because I didn’t have a team to train with.” In September, she met with Eric Straw, an associate professor of information systems at Corban, who introduced her to Shannon Simmons, an associate professor of human performance.
The pair weren’t able to establish a training regimen, but the conversation led Okimura to Team Oregon based in Gresham, Ore. In October she made the decision to compete in the World Cup competition with Team Hawaii.
“Every Saturday I would train with Team Oregon,” she said. “It was a hard workout. We did a lot of single lifts and high repetition.” During the week, she ran and worked the weights in Corban’s C.E. Jeffers Sports Center.
Team Oregon Coach Terry Luehrs has trained 76 different world record holders said he made calls to fellow trainers in Hawaii to see if Okimura was a legitimate competitor. He was encouraged by the feedback and once he met her, he described Okimura as “amazing.”
“When I have somebody who has that kind of ability, all I can say is wow,” he said. “I knew I had to train her. I tweaked her technique and fully expect she’ll be the most dominant 114 (weight class) around.”
Okimura arrived in Las Vegas on the night of Nov. 20 and after a restless night of sleep, she performed her lifts throughout the day during the competition. After learning her third lift would stand as the world record, Okimura was elated.
“It was exciting and even more so because I did it almost entirely on my own,” she said. “I wasn’t jumping up and down excited, but I was really happy.”
Had her portion of the competition occurred on Nov. 19, the championship’s opening day, Luehrs said Okimura likely would have done even better.
“When you’ve got the larger crowds and they’re all cheering, it really makes a difference,” he said. “I have no doubt she would have pushed 205 and probably more. “
Okimura returned to Corban that night without much fanfare although a group of college friends greeted her with a sign. She said she will continue training and compete in smaller events throughout the Pacific Northwest. She’s also considering Olympic training and competition. When she turns 20, she will enter a new age bracket and a new level of competition. It’s a challenge she is looking forward to.
“It’s a lot more competitive, but I’m competitive myself,” Okimura declared. Looking toward the future, she not only hopes to shatter more records, but to encourage other young women to step outside the box of traditional women’s sports.
“Anything is possible,” she said. “I like that I don’t look like I can lift. Most people are shocked and don’t expect it, especially when they learn that I’m girly and work at a fashion boutique at home.”