Ray Hickman of Joseph proved himself to be the strongest man in the world in his weight class last weekend in Reno, Nev.
"I'm still in shock," admitted Hickman, 31, an electrician by trade, who bench pressed 429.9 pounds on his way to a world championship in the 165-lb. division at the Thermalink World Bench Press and Deadlift Championships. The event is put on by the World Association of Benchers and Deadlifters.
In the bench press, practiced by millions of people in gyms throughout the world, the lifter holds the barbell at arms length while lying flat on their back on a bench. The bar is then lowered until it stops on the chest and is then pushed or "pressed" back up again.
Hickman qualified for the 2002 world event for the first time by winning at the West Coast Championships in February Sacramento with a 404 lb. lift. After that accomplishment, beating the Oregon record of 418.7 lbs. became his goal. "I've been training to beat the state record, that's what I was shooting for. I'd been chasing it for a long time."
The bench presser surpassed the state record, set by Shane Bell of Portland in 1996, with his second lift, pressing 419.8 lbs. During the contest, each competitor had three chances. "I still had another lift, and all of a sudden a light came on and I thought, 'I could win this," said Hickman.
The Joseph man was competing against nine others who had qualified in the men's Open Division in the 165 weight class from all over the United States, with such states as Hawaii, Florida and South Carolina represented. One lifter was from Finland. Other divisions are for specific age groups, as well as weights, but open competition is for all ages. Hickman estimated that he was in the middle age-wise of the nine in his class.
The South Carolina contestant thought he had the title won after he pressed 425 pounds during his first turn. So during his second lift, he tried to beat the world record, which is 456-lbs. It was because of his rival's failed attempt that Hickman saw his opportunity to win. By the rules of the contest the S.C. lifter had committed himself to trying to lift no less that his second attempt during his third try. After Hickman had successfully pressed the 429. weight, he still had to wait to see if the second try at the world record by his rival was successful. The South Carolina man failed, and Hickman found himself a world bench press champion, cheered on by many relatives from Northern California as well as a small contingent from Wallowa County.
"It's taking awhile to soak in," said Hickman, who admitted that he was just a little overwhelmed when he arrived in Reno for the Nov. 14-18 event with his wife, Tracie. He was also accompanied by two of the Joseph men he trains with, Paul Curran and Greg Brink; and artist Ramon Parmenter, owner of the private Joseph facility in which Hickman and his training partners lift weights every morning.
He said in bigger cities, lifters are sponsored by gyms or related businesses, and teams of them were in Reno, all wearing matching sweats and acting at home in the huge Peppermill Convention Center. "And then there was us."
However, Hickman said he knew he would be competitive, and expected to place at least in the top five. "My adrenaline was pretty high. I know that played into the scene," he said.
He added that about 50 percent of the contest is mental, and the pressure can either hurt or help a lifter. Just because someone lifts a certain weight at his home gym, doesn't mean he'll be able to do it in competition. "And there's three judges, watching your every move," said the champion bench presser.
One problem manifested itself when Hickman weighed in over the 165 lb. maximum the night before his competition, and spent the next couple hours running and visiting the sauna to try to shed the extra pounds. When he stepped on the scale again, it read 165.0. "I lost 2.4 pounds in two hours," he said, adding with a laugh, "Then we went to a smorgasbord and I put it all back on."
At 5' 6" inches tall, the powerfully-built Hickman said that he lifts for weight, not for size, but he felt he's been bulking up a little too much recently. Hickman says he tries to eat a healthy diet, and also takes nutrition supplements, such as protein drinks, amino acids and multivitamins.
Hickman said the quick weight loss regime in Reno reminded him of his days as an All-American wrestler at Placer High School in the town of Auburn, Calif., where his parents still live. He wrestled at the 119 weight and as a junior earned the state high school wrestling championship for California.
He earned a wrestling scholarship to Boise State University, but quit school after his junior year because he was tired of being a poor student and stayed with a summer job working on a rock crusher for an asphalt company.
It was while training for high school and college wrestling that Hickman began lifting weights and found out "I was very strong for my size." He started going to lifting competitions around the region about seven years ago.
Hickman and his wife, Tracie, and their baby son, Brock, moved to Wallowa County in 1997 so he could enter an electrical apprenticeship program with Enterprise Electric, where he still works.
For a couple of years Hickman helped coach varsity wrestling at Joseph High School, and for the past two years has been with a coach with the Pee Wee Wrestling program, which includes his own son, now 6.
Hickman's sport, called power lifting, is considered by many as the ultimate strength sport. In addition to bench press, there are two other events, the squat and deadlift. While he also trains in and has competed in the other events in the past, he considers the bench press his best event.
Power lifting is distinct from weight lifting, which is a technical event made up of two lifts, the snatch and the clean-and-jerk, where the weight is lifted above the head.
Hickman said that he enjoys bench pressing because it keeps him in shape and as a goal-oriented person it always gives him something to strive for.
Now that he beat Oregon's record, Hickman said he will probably start training for the world record. "And there's only been three people in history who have lifted three times their body weight," he mused.