CENTRAL FALLS — The past five months or so have been hectic for Jim Bourgault, though he wouldn't have it any other way.
When he's not working as an assistant supervisor in Teknor Apex's Plastics Division, or tending to his wife, Jean, and their three children and two grandchildren, Bourgault is busy weight training in his garage behind his Hunt Street home.
Naturally, he's nicknamed it the “Powerasylum.”
Truth be told, Bourgault – despite being 51 – exists for powerlifting, and has a lot to show for his unrelenting love for the sport. Last June 14, at the U.S. Powerlifting Federation's National Championships in Marietta, Oh., he competed in the 50-54 age category's 275-pound Master's Division and registered a bench press of 551 pounds to win his fifth national crown.
With that lift, the Central Falls native shattered the Master's world record by a whopping 40 pounds. He also competed in the same division's dead lift, and lofted a weight of 601 pounds, good for another world mark (by five pounds) and his sixth U.S. title.
Because of his gold medal-winning performances, he automatically qualified for the World Powerlifting Federation's World Multi Championships at Aldershot, England, held last Nov. 6-14. During that meet, he took the bench press with a heave of 529 pounds, out-lifting dozens of competitors from around the globe, and also captured the dead lift with a max of 570 pounds.
“In the bench press, I was nowhere near my (world) record; I went for 556 pounds, but I was about three inches shy of a complete lockout,” he grinned while relaxing at his kitchen table on Wednesday. “And I know why: I had jet lag in a bad way.
“Jean and I wanted to save some money so we could do more site-seeing after competing, so we didn't fly straightaway like we did last time (when they traveled to Bath, England for the 2010 World event),” he continued. “We flew from Boston to Ontario and then to London … and we were in the air for about 16 hours. I have to admit, I was dead tired.
“We got there on a Friday at midnight, and I had to compete that Sunday; that just wasn't enough time to recuperate. I had never had jet lag before, so it caught me by surprise. I was a little bummed out, but it still was a good trip.”
Bourgault admitted he wasn't the lone “foreigner” to suffer like consequences.
“We had two or three other American guys who were favorites to win, but they bombed out,” he noted. “It was for the same reason: Sheer exhaustion. One of those guys at Nationals – Lance Karabel from Chicago – had a 900-plus-pound squat, which was amazing. He tried to bench 600 pounds, but he missed on all three lifts, so he was out.
“He's a great guy; even after he bombed out, he stayed around and helped coach me. He helped me with my gear – my belt and stuff. He was the American team captain, and that was great. He helped me to the world championships.
“That's what I love about this,” he added. “Yeah, it's a competition, but it's 'Man against Weight,' not so much against each other. Myself and my fellow competitors, we get along really well.”
Bourgault never competed in athletics while attending Central Falls High in the late 1970s; he didn't because, he said, “I was a geek. I just wasn't into it.”
In fact, he used to dabble in weightlifting just to stay in shape, but never truly thought about competing until after his 29th birthday.
“I decided back in 1992 I wanted to go and see the U.S. Powerlifting Federation's Rhode Island Championships in Seekonk (at the old Hearthstone Inn), and I was talking to Ted Issabella, who's from Johnston,” he explained. “He's a legend in powerlifting, but a really nice guy; we talked for a long time, like we had been friends forever.
“He encouraged me to try it,” he added. “I had been doing some bodybuilding and some 'strongman' stuff, but that's it. I was on no real schedule. Ted gave me some pointers on how to train, and some routines. After that, I really buckled down. I followed his advice for about a year. Next thing I knew, I was in my first competition.”
That took place at the same R.I. Championships in 1993, and he finished fourth overall.
“I stunk,” he laughed. “I was bad. I did a 315-pound squat, a 260 bench press and a 460 dead lift. I weighed just 212, so I guess you could say I was pretty svelte back then (he then chuckled some more).
“I see pictures, and I still can't believe it was me. I didn't do very well, but I was hooked; I had caught the bug. I couldn't believe how everyone was cheering for you. It makes you feel like you're a superstar. It gives you such a rush.
“To this day,” he continued, “I still get nervous before a competition, at least until that first lift is over, then I settle down. Other guys have told me they feel the same way, and that – if you don't get that feeling anymore – it's time to hang it up. You're just spinning your wheels, wasting your time.”
Ask Bourgault how many national titles he's won, and he doesn't hesitate.
“Six in the U.S., and four world championships,” he smiled. “Honestly, it blows my mind, but God's been very good to me. I've been able to stay, for the most part, injury-free, which is another gift from God, but I've also had great training partners.”
That's the next chapter of his unique story. About four years ago, former Central Falls High buddy Joe Travers traveled with his son Erik – soon to be a Cumberland High freshman – to Bourgault's place.
Travers asked him for weightlifting advice for them both, and Bourgault immediately welcomed them, stating he would help in any way they wished.
Before he knew it, he was a volunteer powerlifting coach for the CHS football and wrestling programs.
“He trains all these kids, and he refuses to take a dime,” the elder Travers claimed. “I've known him since I was about 15, and he hasn't changed a bit. When we told him we wanted to pay him, he said, 'Don't even think about it. If you try to pay me, then don't bother coming. I don't want money.'
“He also said, 'I want them here because they do more for me than I could ever do for them,'” he added. “My son (Erik) just told me, 'Dad, I wouldn't have been able to do half the stuff I did in wrestling or football without Jimmy. He got me stronger for all of my athletic events.' Erik isn't that big a kid, like 150-160, but Jimmy got him so strong, he can compete with anyone.”
Cases in point: Travers the younger captained both his Cumberland varsity football and grappling squads. In the former, he helped bring the Clippers to an undefeated league season and its first Super Bowl win (a 49-0 blowout of Woonsocket) in December; and, on the mat, he placed second at the R.I. Championships in Providence in the 152-pound weight class.
Travers lost to Exeter/West Greenwich senior Christian LaBrie at the meet in February, but he nevertheless aided in Cumberland's fifth-place team finish. (It took the state crown his junior campaign).
“Like I said, I've known Jim a long time, and he's so selfless,” Joe Travers stated. “That's just the way he operates.”
Ask Bourgault why he chooses to mentor those Clippers, and his answer is hardly surprising.
“We lift together, and I love it,” he offered. “They spot me all the time, and give me encouragement. They push me more than I could ever get from a regular gym. There's no ego thing attached to this; there's no showing off in front of younger kids. We just stress technique and speed.
“When Joe and Erik came to me, I was excited about helping out. I played sandlot football with Joe when we were teen-agers, and he knew I had gotten into lifting. He wanted his sons and his friends to learn the right way. He didn't want Erik to get hurt. I told both of them, 'If the kids listen and do what they're told, and let me set the pace, I guarantee they'll get bigger, stronger and faster.
“Erik was about 106 (pounds) when he came to me as a freshman, but – at the end of his first year – he weighed 132. Right now, he's at 157, and he's put on some muscle. He's a strong kid, just unbelievable.
“He's the strongest kid psychologically I've ever come across,” he added. “He just pushes so far beyond his limits. I remember once he was dead-lifting 500 pounds, and it took him about eight seconds to complete the lift. I kept telling him to put it down; he refused and kept pulling. When he got to the top of the lift and locked it, he threw up.
“Instead of a sad face, all I saw was him jumping for joy. He had completed his goal, did what he wanted to do. He dead-lifted over three times his body weight, and – if you can do that – it's national caliber.”
It took Erik perhaps a week to get some of his CHS teammates to join the program, and about a year to enlist a few friends who played football and grappled at North Providence High. The big, bulky coach gladly accepted them into his regimen, and they too have excelled.
“They're great listeners and learners,” Bourgault said. “I'm doing this for fun. I get free training partners, and they're keeping me young. The most gratifying thing is I get a chance to make a difference in someone's life – in this case, young athletes. I believe, when the book closes on me, I'll have one good mark in it, and God will say I did OK.
“I thought the kids did great at the state (wrestling) meet,” he continued. “I wasn't surprised at all by Erik or Jon Maccini, (Travers' fellow co-captain who lost to LaBrie's twin brother, Andrew, in the 145-pound final). They're so skilled, and they put in the time necessary to excel. They just ran into the LaBrie brothers; if not for them, they easily would've been state champs.
“I also thought Cody Beaudette wrestled really well, (as) he's a strong, strong kid; Kylie Creamer, this is his first year training with me, and he's come a long way. Kylie's here with the same kid who beat him at 106, Andrew Lourenco (of North Providence).
“They're good friends and really good kids, as is Nick Tribelli, who really surprised me. (Head coach) Steve Gordon told me Nick came out of nowhere at states, and was very confident and aggressive in his matches.
“Honestly, I care more about them improving than me. The reason: They're still young, and they're still trying to peak. Me? I'm an old man; I'm fighting time (more laughs). If you asked the kids what they think, they'll say they're trying to push me more than I push them because they want ME to succeed. To me, this is a dream.”
His tutelage isn't gained just by local student-athletes. His blue eyes beam when he talks about his youngest daughter, Brianna, another training partner.
“In her first competition, she set four new world records for her age group,” he indicated of the American Powerlifting Association's New England Record Breakers meet in Peabody, Mass. “She was only 11 (a few years ago), and she bench-pressed 70 pounds, her body weight, squatted 110 and dead-lifted 140.
“I still train her, and she loves it.”
His eldest child, James Jr. (29), powerlifts “off and on,” while Amanda (27) is busy caring for her two youngsters, Amiaya and Antonio.
“James was actually my coach at the Nationals in Ohio, and he helped me set those two world marks,” Bourgault noted. “He talked me into going for it, psyching me up. He reminded me of all the time I put in the garage. You know, I was a little nervous, but he settled me down. He's the one responsible for me blowing them away.
“Actually, Amanda's husband, Tony Silva, is a great powerlifter,” he added. “He has a lot of state records, and he only weights about 132. He's done a 460 squat, a 319 bench and 519 dead lift, and that's amazing. He's only done this for two years, and he's crushed other established lifters.
“He could've been a national and world champion if he stuck with it; I think he'll get back to it when he's older and his kids are, too.”
He hesitated, then grinned, “Kind of like me.”
For now, Bourgault will take off the rest of this year, excepting part-time training, before preparing for the 2014 Nationals, then the World Championships, slated for November in Verone, France.
“I want to get healthier, get back to doing more cardio and losing some weight,” he stated. “This will give my body a chance to recharge, and my mind a chance to become more motivated. I want to take a break. That will help me get hungry again for competition.
“I will say this: Jeannie and I never had a honeymoon right after we got married,” he giggled. “Because of powerlifting, we're getting more honeymoons than we ever thought possible. I guess we're making up for lost time.”
A wink of his eye explained it all.