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A recurring series on WGLT's Sound Ideas about the central Illinois athletes who do incredible things, even after the game is over.

Beyond Sports: What an ISU student overcame to break 3 state records in powerlifting

Illinois State University student Grace Berger training for competitions.
Illinois State University student Grace Berger training for competitions.

A physical education major at Illinois State University who lifts weights.

This edition of Beyond Sports doesn't seem much out of the ordinary — except that she just broke three state records with the United States Powerlifting Association.

Grace Berger, a LaGrange native, is an avid patron of Gonzo’s Barbell gym in Bloomington. She is there most of the week to train herself and others. She said every day presents a new challenge.

“Everyone deserves a place where they feel safe and supported. Going to the gym is what clears my head. I always joke that it is what keeps me sane,” said Berger.

Berger's story was anything from a straight line from gym class to statewide recognition.

ISU student Grace Berger lifts weights to break state records.
ISU student Grace Berger lifts weights to break state records.

Berger said she felt unmotivated by gym class as a child, and health problems in her early teens pushed her to make a change in her life.

“In eighth grade I started exercising more but my body over-metabolized. I was misdiagnosed with an eating disorder. Weightlifting was the one thing I could do where I did not get nervous and I could see that physical motivator,” said Berger.

Now, Berger said that eating properly is a massive part of doing what she loves. Berger stressed the importance of regulated caloric intake before and after lifting weights.

Berger said the diet of a competitor entirely depends on what they are trying to do. She said losing weight is a good thing but has to be done safely, which is possible with the dietician at Gonzo’s Barbell. Berger dispelled the myth of carbohydrates being detrimental as they are the best way for a human body to gain energy.

Berger said strength training for a competition begins two months before the competition.

“When pursuing strength training, you go through different phases. You have a high pressure phase where you are growing the mass of the muscles. Then you have strength training where you are making the muscle as efficient as possible,” said Berger.

Special motivation

The powerlifting competition in which Berger set the three state records happened Oct. 23-24 at Surge to New Levels Gym in Carol Stream. (Berger said powerlifting differs from other lifting competitions in that it specifically focuses on squat, deadlift and bench.)

While Berger said she has a calm nature as a lifter, she said she had a major motivator behind her at the October competition.

“My very first coach that taught me how to lift passed away due to suicide in February. This competition was dedicated to her as a culmination of everything I had overcome since I began lifting. There were a lot of battles in my head, just proving to myself I was capable of pushing past those limits. I went there to set some records. I went and I set those records,” said Berger.

Among the obstacles, Berger said she injured her shoulder while training and suffered an allergic reaction a month before the competition.

“There were days where I could not do some movements because I did not have the ability to. A lot of my lifts were determined by how my body responded to that," she said.

Before Berger competed, the state record for 19-year-olds was 209 pounds in squat, 242.5 pounds in deadlift and 99 pounds in benching. Grace Berger now holds all of those records by squatting 253 pounds, deadlifting 243 pounds, and benching 142 pounds.

Berger said she has always felt comfortable in the weightlifting community, but still feels motivated for women to have a seat at the table in powerlifting.

“I think being a strong woman and putting myself in a male-dominated field makes me feel more empowered. I always encourage any woman to seek out strength training,” said Berger.

Berger said she looks forward to teaching others how to weight train with her degree in physical education from ISU.

Jack Graue is a student reporter at WGLT. He joined WGLT in summer 2021. He is also a student in the School of Communication at Illinois State University.