GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A detective with the Grand Rapids Police Department is back home after competing in the World Police and Fire Games in Rotterdam, and he didn’t return empty-handed.

Detective James Vakertzis won a gold medal in this year’s competition.

“It’s not just about me, it’s about the city of Grand Rapids,” he said.

The competitive powerlifter began competing in the World Police and Fire Games in 2019 when it was held in China where he won second place.

“Second place first time was exhilarating. It was wonderful,” he said. “Most people who go ever there their first time don’t usually medal because the competition is on a world level. You lift with some of the world-class athletes that aren’t considered pros but you lift with some really strong people.”

After winning a silver medal in the 2019 competition, Vakertzis was determined to win a gold medal once the games resumed after the pandemic.

Though the excitement of an epic return for the gold quickly diminished when his 19-year-old daughter, Sophia, died in a car crash last September. He didn’t plan on competing but he said his daughter was one of his greatest supporters and even coached him during training.

Detective Vakertzis showing his gold medal and tattoo of his daughter, Sophia, who died in a car crash. “Sophia was with us,” he said.
(Photo courtesy of Detective Vakertzis)

Earlier this year, he decided to return to the international stage for himself, his daughter and his city. He began intense training and strict dieting to lose weight and prepare for the competition.

“This time it was a lot more important,” he said.

Vakertzis couldn’t do it by himself. The community helped lift another heavy weight Vakertzis had to carry: trying to figure out how he would get there. Businesses and individuals chipped in and donated money for the trip to cover expenses such as airfare, transportation, meals, lodging, the cost to use a gym and more.

“The support gave me more desire to win,” he said.

The competition was held from July 22 through July 31. He competed against 20 other first responders across the country in the bench and deadlift, though there were thousands of people that were for the competition.

Vakertzis benched 403 pounds, topping his goal in that category and winning the gold medal.

He was just shy of being named the overall strongest lifter in Rotterdam but fell short in the deadlift competition.

“The guy that beat me in China was there, and I beat him this year even though we couldn’t lift against one another. He was in a different age class so I’m a little bit redeemed,” he said. “We all won the gold and no one can ever take that way from us or the city because it’s in the books.”

Next year’s competition will be held in Winnipeg, Canada. Vakertzis plans to win more medals and beat a world record of lifting more than 700 pounds.