Powerlifting helps two Columbia women stay active

Saturday, July 9, 2011 | 9:17 p.m. CDT; updated 4:22 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 11, 2011
Kate Walker does a dead lift during her training session at Optimus: The Center For Health.

COLUMBIA — Like many active older people, Shelly Frazier and Kate Walker have had to deal with knee problems. The way they have managed their ailments isn't that common though.

Both Frazier and Walker competed June 25 in the World Powerlifting Drug Free Singles Events in Muskegon, Mich. The sport has become a big part of how they stay active.


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Frazier, 40, is a dedicated runner who is planning to run in the Boston Marathon for the second time in 2012, after rehabbing from knee and shoulder surgeries in 2009. She weighs just less than 118 pounds, but she can bench press 132 pounds.

At 62 years old, Walker has been competing in powerlifting for the past four and a half years. She started taking dance lessons at age 5 and continued performing until she was 40 when osteoarthritis in her knees became too painful to manage. She weighs 154 pounds and can deadlift 248 pounds.

Shelly Frazier

It is not wise to tell Frazier that she can't do something. Her trainer won't, and her doctor won't. They both know better by now. Telling her not to is like challenging her.

Frazier permanently damaged her right knee during a half marathon in 2009 in St. Louis. But she didn't slow down. She ran her first marathon in New Orleans in February 2010 after being told that she would be having knee surgery in April. She qualified for the Boston Marathon and was determined to rehab her knee and shoulder in time.

"Everyone said, 'There is no way you are going to run Boston,'" said Frazier, an assistant clinical physician at University Hospital. "'There is no way you are running this race.' And so I really didn’t get to start training for Boston again until about like seven weeks before."

Frazier relied on cross-training, such as biking and swimming. Another way she cross-trained was through powerlifting. Because of her knee problems, however, she can only compete in the bench press event. She switches her focus between running and powerlifting, but right now, running is her main focus.

"I use my legs for running; I use my legs for biking, and I am trying to lift with just my upper body, so I have a balance there," Frazier said. "I think if I did a full powerlifting competition where I squat and use my legs, I would probably end back where I was in 2009."

To try and limit pain in her knees, she goes to Peak Performance in Columbia for physical therapy. She goes there a few times a week but not necessarily for the advice typical patients come in seeking. Unlike other patients, she knows what she chooses to do is the cause of her problems. Todd Ankenman, who works as a physical therapist and athletic trainer at Peak Performance, tries to help make the pain more liveable.

"Two years ago she should have been done," Ankenman said. "She shouldn’t be able to do the things she can do, but she does them. Fact of the matter is, I’ve stopped betting against her. I’ve stopped trying to figure out when she will probably break all the way down."

Frazier promised Ankenman that she would just run the one marathon. She wanted to test her limits before it was too late for her, and she was unable to run. Ankenman said he understood her desire to do one marathon but told her not to make a habit of it. Once she learned that she could run again in Boston, that became all that was on her mind.

Fourteen months after her knee surgery, she ran the Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 39 minutes and 39 seconds, which was fast enough to re-qualify her for the race in 2012. She also plans on running a 50-kilometer run on Aug. 27. She attended the funeral of her father, Freddie Frazier, recently and realized that he has been her influence in her athletic challenges and will be running this next race, her longest distance to date, in honor of him.

"I have accomplished pretty much every goal that I wanted," Shelly Frazier said. "The only thing I haven’t done, is that I actually haven’t gotten a world record in bench press. I got gold, but I didn’t get the world record, so I am still shooting for that."

Kate Walker

Like many 5-year-old girls, Kate Walker wanted to be a ballerina when she grew up. Now, at 62 years old, she holds world powerlifting records for women in her age and weight divisions.

At first glance, it is hard for those who work at the General Services building at MU to tell the woman wearing a black and white dress and closed-toe shoes is a powerlifter. Except, for when she sits at her desk, where she is surrounded by shiny powerlifting trophies.

When Walker was 40, she spent a few days on crutches after her knee swelled so badly that she was forced to stop her dance performances. Some of the types of dancing she did over the years included tap, ballet and even some hula.

"I can’t really go to dances and watch them because I still tear up," Walker said. "You have to understand, I was that kid, 5-years-old, whose dream was to be a dancer."

Walker has osteoarthritis in her right knee, which used to swell so badly that she couldn't take a step without feeling the pain. It forced her to stop dancing; she had to give up going on hikes with her husband, and she gradually became depressed. She craved for something else to do.

Not only did powerlifting do this for her, but it also helped her strengthen the muscles in her knee and gain back her mobility.

"I decided to go ahead and go to see if someone could make me stronger," Walker said. "The doctor said I needed to strengthen my legs and everything around my knee, so I said what the heck, I’ll try it."

This led her to Optimus: The Center for Health and director Tom LaFontaine, who became her personal trainer and coach. She never thought seriously of weightlifting, but at this point, she felt she had nothing to lose.

LaFontaine was coaching Olympic style weightlifting and Walker wanted to try. But he got her working on powerlifting, which consists of bench press, squat and deadlift. It is less complicated and less risky for Walker at her age and condition.

"She is really a testimony to what you can do with arthritic knees," LaFontaine said. "She has been a competitive person; she was pretty competitive, and she wanted to try something."

Not only has Walker gained her mobility back, but her self worth too.

"I am not going to run around and pick up people’s couches, but I am a different woman now," Walker said. "I still felt like I lacked some physical confidence in myself. Ever since I got involved with powerlifting, I really feel like it has elevated me to the next level. It’s empowering that you’re strong."

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