Gillespie Cherishes Journey to Setting Bench Press Record

By: Damien Sordelett The News of Advance

Bill Gillespie took a moment to himself before his third and final attempt at an all-time world record. He prayed and reflected on a 50-year journey that led him to this point on Jan. 22 inside Mountain Island Fitness in Charlotte, North Carolina.


Retired competitive weight lifter Bill Gillespie wears his record-holding ring at Legendary Strength Gym in Lynchburg on Friday. Gillespie spent the majority of his life chasing the bench press record before finally breaking it in January. 

Gillespie, 62, remembered all the highs and lows of a career not only as a powerlifter but as a strength and conditioning coordinator at the collegiate and professional ranks.

In that moment of reflection, Gillespie was content.

He spent the majority of his life chasing the all-time world record in the equipped bench press. Twenty times he came up short. But this time, as he had retirement on the horizon, something felt different.

“Records are going to get broken, but the 50-year journey and what I learned from it, that can’t be taken away from me,” Gillespie said. “That’s what’s so valuable to me, is the whole process that I was able to go through and learn about myself and about lifting.”

Gillespie, who has spent the majority of his adult life living in Lynchburg, set the all-time world record in the equipped bench press at the 365 Strong New Year Power Bash with a whopping lift of 1,129.9 pounds. It is a mark that lasted for 36 days and was broken by Jimmy Kolb’s 1,320-pound lift on Feb. 27.

That month-long reign, though, will always live with Gillespie. He still owns the all-time world record of a 1,052-pound bench press lift in the drug-tested category.

“I wanted to know I was the best in the world. I was given that blessing to know that I had benched more weight than any man has ever benched, ever,” he reflected. “I got to stand on that mountain top where no man’s ever stood, look around and go, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’

“All I wanted was that one moment. I ended up getting 36 days to stand atop that mountain. It was wonderful, I’m thankful for it. It’s the 50-year journey that’s most precious to me.”

Plates equaling 1,130 pounds sit on a bar where retired competitive weight lifter Bill Gillespie used to train at Legendary Strength Gym in Lynchburg on Friday. Gillespie set a world record during his final lift with a bench press of 1,129.9 pounds at the age of 62.

Gillespie ramped up his chase of the world record after he was not retained on Hugh Freeze’s staff as the strength and conditioning coordinator with the Liberty football program after the 2018 season. He joined the 365 Strong World Powerlifting Federation not only to train but work with younger powerlifters to help with their development.

Gillespie landed his current job with Sorinex, a company that designs strength equipment, in December 2019, and the new position gave him the time to travel the country speaking with professional and collegiate programs. It also provided him time to train, and it allowed him to prepare for the moment he experienced on that late January afternoon.

“It just happened, everything went perfectly correct, and it was miraculous that he did that achievement. He earned it,” said Bill Clary, president of 365 Strong World Powerlifting Federation. “It’s not like it was a given. Bill earned everything he got, and still has earned everything he’s received because he gives so much to other people, other lifters, so much knowledge, so much passing it forward. If there is one human being that walks the planet today that earned what he’s received, that’s Bill Gillespie.”

One of those who has benefited from Gillespie’s training, Spencer Mather, served as the hand-off to Gillespie on his world-record lift.

“I think I was almost as excited as he was. I was going ballistic,” Mather said. “ … It was like a fairy-tale ending.”

Gillespie, a Tacoma, Washington, native, arrived in Lynchburg in 1979 when he enrolled at Liberty as an undergraduate student. He spent four seasons on the track and field team and graduated in 1983 as a four-time All-American and a two-time small college national champion in the shot put. His outdoor shot put throw of 55 feet, 8 ½ inches stood as a school record for 24 years.

Gillespie remained in Lynchburg and served as Dave Williams’ assistant strength and conditioning coach for the football program from 1983 to 1991. He also worked with the track and field team during that time, but his priority was helping develop a winning culture within the football program.

He left Liberty and joined the staff at the University of Washington from 1991 through the 2001 season. The Huskies, in Gillespie’s first season on staff in 1991, shared the national championship with Miami after posting a 12-0 record.

He served on the Seattle Seahawks’ staff from 2003 to 2005 before returning to Liberty.

“I see some of the young men I get around and see that they have so much more potential than I do,” he said. “It’s really fun to invest in that to help them see what they’re capable of doing, and then not just take it to the bench press but help them understand how that can change their lives.”

Gillespie, who returned to Liberty as the director of strength and conditioning for the football program, aimed to transform the way the Flames prepared for games. He maintained the best-conditioned teams didn’t win games in the fourth quarter; it was the teams that knew how to compete the best when the game was on the line.

Liberty won its first Big South Conference championship in 2007, and it went on to win eight more conference championships before transitioning to the Football Bowl Subdivision in the 2018 season.

“Changing the culture at Liberty was extremely difficult,” Gillespie said. “Fortunately we were able to get a lot done, and now Coach Freeze has been able to take it to the next level and seeing great success there. I look at some of the young men that I’ve been able to help out and guys that didn’t realize they were capable of doing what they could do.”

Gillespie credited Williams’ mentorship with how he developed as a leader in the weight room. He said the players who diligently worked under his tutelage are just as special to him, because he was able to see their growth on and off the field.

Those memories were among those that flooded through his mind before he attempted his world-record lift.

“It’s not my record. I couldn’t have done it by myself at all. No way whatsoever I could have done that,” Gillespie said. “I needed spotters, I needed encouragement, I needed guys that could help me, I needed mentors, and every one of these people that invested in my life, it’s their record. They’re the ones that put their time into my life, and as an outflowing of their investment in my life, I was able to see some success.”