Few eighth graders hold a national record in any sport, but Temple City’s Amber Grace, a petite middle schooler, can be called the strongest 13-year-old, 100-pound girl in America.
On March 18, Grace participated in a US Powerlifting Association’s (USPA) state competition in Whittier, where she broke California and American records for girls ages 13 to 15, weighing less than 105 pounds, in two of the sport’s three events: squat, deadlift, and bench press.
At the meet:
– Grace bench pressed 77 pounds (in a bench press, the competitor lies flat on their back on a bench, then lowers and raises a barbell above the chest).
– She squatted 165 pounds (the competitor stands with a barbell resting across the shoulders, then squats until the hips descend below the knee, then rises to standing again).
– She deadlifted 192 pounds (a deadlift requires leaning forward to pick a barbell off the ground, then standing up straight, with arms extended downward, before lowering to replace it on the ground).
Grace’s deadlift and squat scores, plus her total score of 434 pounds, set new American records age and weight class for girls. And she did it with style, accessorizing her black “singlet” – the mandatory short one-piece black jumpsuit – with a pink lifting belt and Wonder Woman socks.
Like many star athletes, Grace’s accomplishments began with obstacles. She had tried out for the Oak Avenue Intermediate School’s volleyball, basketball, and cheerleading teams, but was turned down by each – the first two perhaps because of her short stature – she is just shy of 5-feet-tall.
Grace’s parents, Wendy and Chris Grace of Temple City, own the Mission Fitness Center on Mission Street in San Marino and they are both personal trainers. Chris, 44, set state records in powerlifting last year. Amber goes to the gym every day after school to do her homework in the office – and occasionally to play on the equipment – but she had never shown any interest in serious training.
Until last July, after she had been turned down by her school’s athletic teams, Grace watched her father lifting barbells, and something clicked. “I asked my dad if I could do it too and he said, ‘yes!’ It took off from there!” revealed Grace.
She trained for three months, working mostly on posture rather than weight. At her first meet last October, Grace set state records, with a 121-pound squat, a 66-pound bench press, and a 153-pound deadlift. When the meet was over, Grace continued to train with her father and her mom, Wendy Grace, 44, trained alongside her as a first-time competitor.
They trained for about 90 minutes a day, four-to-five days a week. Training is not just about increasing loads. In competition, judges tell contestants when to pick up the barbell, when to move it, when to pause, and when to let go. Obeying those complicated cues and maintaining form and balance are as important as muscle power.
After the triumphant meet on March 18, Grace took a week off. But now she is back at it. “I’m just going to build strength for the next six months,” she says. “Then I’ll probably compete again to set higher American records. When I’m 16, I’ll go for the world records.” Competitors must be 16 to compete in USPA world championships.
Grace says that participating in the sport has given her more self-confidence. “Before powerlifting, everyone made fun of me because of my height; now they wouldn’t dare. Also, a lot of people used to pick on my friends; when that happens, I go talk to them and they stop bothering my friends.”
Her accomplishments also caused her teachers to rethink assumptions. “One of our teachers was looking for a student to carry the heavy dragon’s tail for a Chinese New Year dance,” Grace recalls. “The teacher said, ‘this tail is really heavy, we need a boy to carry it.’” But Grace volunteered. “The teacher said, ‘I need to see who can lift it above their heads.’ When the boys tried, they all complained about it being heavy. I went to lift it and it felt like maybe about 15 to 20 pounds. It was easy! I showed the instructor that just because I’m a girl it doesn’t mean that I’m not strong. Don’t judge a book by its cover!” explained Grace.
On the Monday after the meet, Grace wore the gold medal she had earned to school. Her teachers were thrilled and the vice principal announced her accomplishment on the PA system. “Everyone congratulated me. My math teacher told me he was shocked that someone so tiny could be so strong!”
Her mother, Wendy, also did well at the meet, setting three state records for her age and 120-pound weight class, with a 110- pound bench press, a 215-pound squat, and a 265-pound deadlift.
Chris, who trained both of them, says he could not be more proud, especially of the way Amber stuck to her program, “There were days she didn’t want to lift. That’s only human nature. But she came through. Now that she’s put in the work and accomplished her huge goal, we hope the confidence transitions to other things. Understanding that seven months of hard work pays off is an incredible lesson.”
The Grace’s gym, Mission Fitness Center, trains clients of all shapes and sizes, with a wide variety of fitness goals. To see videos from the competition, go to the Mission Fitness Center’s Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/missionfitnesscenter.sanmarino/?fref=ts. Information about the gym is available at http://missionfitnesscenter.com/index.php.