Five years ago Alma Kimura was a successful lawyer. She played tennis every Thursday and was a part of a book club.
Then one of her tennis partners suggested she try another sport. Alma, 58 at the time, figured it would be good for her health. So she gave powerlifting a try.
Kimura remembers the first time she came to Seattle Strength and Power, a powerlifting gym downtown. She was taken aback because the door didn’t even have a sign on it. She walked down a dark, narrow concrete stairway into a dingy basement.
“There were rusty pipes in the ceiling, paint peeling off the walls,” she said.
Powerlifting is a form of competitive weightlifting where contestants squat, bench press, and deadlift.
When people first come to the gym, they usually start by squatting the bar. That’s where you put a bar loaded with weights across your shoulders and squat down with it.
Kimura, who is 4'10", lacked the flexibility to squat. "It probably took the first week or two before I could get down low enough so I could start,” she recalled.
Next, she progressed to squatting with 20 lb. dumbbells, then with a broomstick over her shoulders, until she was finally able to squat the bar. It weighed 45 pounds, a little more than a truck tire.
Kimura started lifting for her health, but the relationships she built at the gym were what kept her going.
“Whenever somebody is doing a heavy lift, everyone stops and watches that person and encourages the person,” she said. “It's just an unbelievable atmosphere.”
Todd Christensen, the owner and coach of the gym, said he tries to make sure it's not just a space for workouts, but for building a community.
“We have fun," he said. "We have nicknames and tease each other, because we are like a big family.”
With the support of that family and encouragement from Christensen, Kimura entered her first competition, the Washington State Championship, competing in the 72 kilogram weight class (around 159 pounds) and 50-59 year old age class.
Most people set a low expectation for their first meet. Not Kimura.
When it was her turn to squat she got up out of her seat. Her coach tightened her lifting belt. She put chalk on her hands. Then she heard, “Alma Kimura, the bar is ready.”
She walked up to the squat bar.
“When I go up to the bar I just zone everything out,” she said.
She put her hands where they needed to go. She stepped back with the bar.
She heard the command: “Squat.”
Kimura did the squat and set an American record at 242 pounds, just seven months after she struggled to squat at all.
VIDEO: Watch Alma Kimura break an American Record
“I was just so happy,” she said. “I went up to my coach and I gave him a huge hug.”
Kimura’s fairytale moment was interrupted when the judges interjected and said the bar had been loaded with the wrong weight. She had to try it again, this time with the pressure of increased expectations.
Against all odds, Kimura persevered and came away with the record.
Several months later, she won silver at a national competition, this time in the 60-69 age class, qualifying her for the International Powerlifting Federation World Masters Championship. That’s the dream of every lifter.
Despite her successes, Kimura still had doubts. “Maybe I can set some American records,” she remembered thinking. “But it never even was part of my vocabulary to think that I could become a world champion.”
Here she was, at age 60, competing for the world championship two years after she had started. She figured she had no chance at winning. Her competitors had higher numbers and more experience.
Then, the woman favored to win missed her first two bench press attempts. If she missed her third, Kimura would have a chance.
“I turned to watch this woman do her third bench, and I saw that she missed it," Kimura said. "At that point I thought, ‘Oh my god, I might get this!’ And that’s when it hit me that maybe I could be the word champion.”
She was right. Kimura won the most prestigious championship in powerlifting. But she still doubted whether or not she deserved it.
“Yes, I got the world championship,” she said. “But I only got it because this other woman bombed out.”
She still had to prove to herself that she deserved the championship. So Kimura spent the next year working hard to qualify for the World Masters Championship again. Which she did.
This time, she not only got the championship but also two world records in her class. She set a record squat of 253 pounds. (That’s like putting a baby elephant on your shoulders and squatting it.) Later she deadlifted 314 pounds. (That’s the equivalent of picking up a refrigerator.)
Now, at the age of 63, Kimura is a three-time world champion. But the sport didn't just give her titles. It also gave her more tenacity.
“My success in powerlifting has helped me gain even more self confidence in my professional career and life,” she said.
Best of all, she's an inspiration for many people, myself included. I lift at the same gym as her.
She taught me how to move beyond limitations other people assume about me, beyond my self doubts. She succeeded in a world dominated by men and young people. Her belief in herself motivates me.
And she even cheered me on as I won my first lifting competition.
This story was created with production support from Ann Kane and edited by Carol Smith. Music: “Favorite Secrets” by Waylon Thornton and “Something Elated” by Broke For Free. The RadioActive theme song is by Patrick Liu and Abay Estifanos.