Sitting on the bench, with his head down, he seemed composed and focused—a model of serenity amid a rowdy room. His body, clad in a dark singlet over a blue T-shirt, leaned back. For a moment, with his knees bent high up and arms crossed over in the air, he appeared to be stretching in preparation. Then, his fingers wrapped around the barbell. His lungs let out a prolonged howl as he brought the metal close to his chest and pushed it back up on its stand.
It did not last more than a mere 20 seconds. Yet, in that fleeting time, Richard Bretz set his first world record, lifting a little more than 380 pounds off a bench press. It was June 4, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas, when he topped the 65-69-years-old division. Since then, in the span of 18 months, Bretz has claimed four more world records and as many USA National records.
The roster of competitions he has won has steadily expanded, often including international and state series held only a couple of months apart. Last year, he triumphed in the four most coveted weightlifting events—Europa, USA Nationals, World Cup and the World Championship, securing the last two in September.
“I believe this is a first and have found no other lifter who has accomplished winning all four majors in the same year,” Bretz said.
Despite his attainments, Bretz remains humble. When talking about his success, his voice stays soft and fatherly. Its tone rings even gentler burbling from his barrel chest.
A native of Sandusky, a town on the south shore of Lake Erie in Ohio, Bretz has resided in Jacksonville for decades. He used to oversee risk management at the behemoth CSX. Today, his retired life revolves around powerlifting. Mornings, from 9 o’clock until noon, transpire at Florida Extreme Fitness Center, where his workouts drift through stretching, cardio and weightlifting. The lifting follows a strict schedule: once every five days. Stretching, on the other hand, has come to occupy ever-larger chunks of his routine, waking up his muscles for the exercises to come.
Having always been active, Bretz took to powerlifting a decade ago. In 2015, a friend at the gym suggested he should compete. He entertained the proposition and, that same year, took part in several minor tournaments.
From the onset, he shattered world records, but the events lacked the necessary sanctions to recognize them. Bretz’ 240-pound frame released a level of prowess that is remarkable even for younger sportsmen with longer professional training. It is not genetics, Bretz said. It is perseverance that chiseled his brawn.
“It comes from every day doing something to work toward a goal,” he said. “It seems a very, very minor growth on a daily basis but after so many years, it accumulated into strength. Each year I try to lift more than the year before. I have been able to grow my strength each year little by little.”
Bretz’ stamina, however, did not fend off traumas. In 2016, after San Antonio, he was endeavoring in an outdoors competition in Clearwater. The weather—characteristically sweltering—posed a hurdle that led to months of constant pain.
“I’m not a guy who lifts in a hot, humid weather and it was very damp and my back just cramped up on me tremendously,” Bretz said.
Yet, he pressed on and lodged his second world record, while the cheers from the crowd numbed his aches. After the injury, Bretz kept on with his gym sessions, exerting his shoulders to protect his hurting back. He still attended championships and won them. He drafted goals and forged ahead toward their fulfillment.
Bretz’ staunch dedication comes from within, from his apparent desire to prod the frontier of his own psyche and physicality. “It’s a personal thing,” Bretz said. “It’s what you can be or what you can achieve. You are really not playing against competitors—you’re playing against yourself.”
The challenges involve more than just the bench press as well. They encompass a diet that has shifted Bretz’ lifelong predilections. He has cut back on sweets and potato chips. His meals include far fewer carbohydrates, too. He checks the scales closely at least a week before any competition in order to fit into his weight class.
In 2017, Bretz shed some 44 pounds—a feat that allowed him to lift in different categories, which differ by roughly 20 pounds, throughout the year. By September, he was a sliver over 190 pounds. On Sept. 30, his 69th birthday, Bretz achieved his fourth world record.
“That was a real good one,” he said. “I felt great. I felt like I had all my strength.”
There was no time to slow down. The following month, Bretz set his fifth world record and, a week later, his fourth USA record.
On both occasions, Bretz was his usual self—focused on the task and confident in its execution. At the Fort Lauderdale Fitness Expo, where Bretz locked the world record, he donned the same outfit he’d worn when he set his first record, more than a year before, in San Antonio.
A judge, perched on the edge of a chair behind him, shouted commands: “Drop!” “Press! “Rack!” After Bretz eased the barbell, bearing a little more than 314 pounds, on the stand, he sprang up the bench.
The movement, in a subtle manner, evoked the trajectory 2017 has charted for Bretz. It was a year of ascent, albeit with bents of strain, that catapulted him into the history of weightlifting. And Bretz is not done yet. With only a year left to compete in his current age division, he is aiming for novel records. That is, before he transitions into the class of 70 years old and older.
When they called her name, it took her a second to realize it. Then, her jaw dropped, and an astounded “What?” escaped her lips. She repeated it several times before dropping to the floor.
“I couldn’t even stand at that point,” Rachel Danese said. “I was so excited and the girl who was the first-runner-up said, ‘OK, I really need you to get off the floor now. You just won the pageant.’”
Danese, a 23-year-old Jacksonville native, had just triumphed as Miss Plus America 2017. It was her second shot at the pageant, which began in 2003 as a conduit of expression and celebration of women with above-average waistlines.
Back in 2016, Danese ranked fifth. An accomplishment by any measure, it was not enough for Danese. She knew she could do better. The day after the pageant, she began to prepare for the next installment. Part of Danese’s determination stems from the root of her self-perceived underperformance.
She has polycystic ovarian syndrome, a hormonal disorder that often prompts menstrual fluctuations, obesity and acne. At the time of the 2016 pageant, the ailment had flared up. She felt weak and sick. She could barely wake up in time for rehearsals in the days leading up to the night of the coronation.
“My heart was in it, but I couldn’t give it 100 percent because I didn’t feel very well,” Danese said.
It all started when Danese glided out of her teenage years. Flaunting a full figure ever since eighth grade, she suddenly gained an uncharacteristic amount of weight. It triggered an alarm that something was wrong. A trip to the doctor’s office revealed the cause. Today, Danese appears to have made peace with her condition. She stays active, watches her diet and presses on.
“I just have to deal with it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s painful but there are more important things and happier things in life.”
Beauty pageants are among these propitious activities Danese has wanted to be part of for the longest time. Yet, raised in a Catholic family and educated at Catholic schools, she felt excluded from that kind of vanity. When her high school held a contest, she did not qualify. Her grades, albeit sound, were not good enough.
But only months afterward, she attended her inaugural Duval County Forestry Pageant. It’s a statewide competition that engages winners in working with children and teaching wildfire vigilance. Back then, she didn’t prevail, but in the years to come, she kept participating, sharpening her skills for the bigger and brighter stages, like Miss Plus America.
Danese stumbled upon that pageant by happenstance, surfing the internet. “I always did skinny-girl pageants and I knew I would never win them,” she said. “So I just wanted to do something I will be accepted in, and so I typed in ‘plus-size pageants in Florida’ and it was the first thing that came up. That was what started it all.”
From the moment she discovered Miss Plus America, to her appearance in 2016, to the night the rhinestone crown twinkled on her head in 2017, however, lies a period filled with hectic preparation. There were the clothes that needed to be designed and sewed. Danese sketched the silhouettes—of gowns and dress pants—herself. She aimed for clean lines and a sophisticated aesthetic.
There were the walk rehearsals that tidied her gait; the interviews that quizzed her on current events and sought her opinion on controversial matters. Stress became an inadvertent part of her routine that culminated with a 19-hour drive to Addison, Texas, where the pageant was being held.
It was all worth it, though. “I love pageantry so much because I see how happy it makes my fellow queens and I see what it does for people’s confidence,” Danese said. “I remember studying pageantry and I wasn’t sure about myself. But having met the people I’ve met and learning from their experiences and hearing other people, and how good they are to me—[I believe] the pageant community is wonderful.”
An epitome of pulchritude and self-assurance on the catwalk, behind the scenes Danese made friends and had fun. She knew that the other women were not her challengers. She competed against herself, putting forward her personal best. Her good looks shone throughout the event, but her smarts were pushed to the fore during the interview, the point in any pageant competition that trips up many.
The question was whether Danese believed race and gender should be eliminated from job and college applications. “I said ‘yes’,” she said, “because I feel that my gender and my race should not make me more right for the job than anybody else. I think that we should all have equal opportunities, whether you are black or white or Asian or big or small or female or male. We all have the same opportunities and we all have the same brains and we have capabilities to be successful.”
For Danese, accomplishments have just started to pile up. She has ascended to the position of co-manager in a mere year of working at Avenue, a plus-size store in Mandarin. Now, she is organizing the first Miss Jacksonville Plus America pageant, and giving back to the community. She’s also relaunching her YouTube channel that was an amalgam of videos about body positivity and recipes.
But, perhaps above anything else, Danese is upending the canons of beauty. She is not only connecting with other women with polycystic ovarian syndrome through her “Beauty is not flawless” platform, she is embracing uniqueness.
“We are taught our whole lives that there is only one type of beautiful,” she said. “But what I have come to learn is that everybody is beautiful, and it’s not just in a hippie-dippie way, ‘We are all beautiful. We are all great people.’ No. Everybody looks different, so how is there only one type of beautiful when we’re not all walking around looking the same?”
Beauty, of course, is not solely physical. It’s also an intellectual trait, entwined with such notions as integrity and tenacity. Danese possesses both kinds. The tune she sang during the optional talent category—“Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked—seems a perfect description of her.
She said, “My favorite line in the song is, ‘I am through accepting limits because someone said they are so/and some things I cannot change but until I try I will never know.’”