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April 11, 2013 Volume 34, No. 26

University pathologist pumps big iron to make it into record books

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GETTING STRONGER Dr. Shelly Frazier, shown here at Optimus: The Center for Health in Columbia, bench-pressed a world record for her age, gender and weight class at the World Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation in Boston in October 2012. Photo by Rob Hill.


Scientist took up weightlifting to improve her joint movement

When Shelly Frazier peers into a microscope, analyzing slides and diagnosing biopsies as director of surgical pathology for MU Health Care, it’s not obvious that she’s a triathlete. Or a marathoner. Or an ultra marathoner. Or, remarkably, a world-record powerlifter.  

But Dr. Frazier, 42, is all of the above. 

From a young age, Frazier was involved in sports, beginning with soccer and T-ball in the first grade. 

“When I was going through high school, women were just starting to have validity in sports,” Frazier said. “It still wasn’t common for women to be lifting weights, but I started dabbling in it for sports performance. I was an outlier.”

In college, Frazier was encouraged by coaches to keep up with weight training. But instead she reduced lifting and foucused on running.

“It’s time where I can clear my head and get away from everything,” said Frazier, who has completed two marathons and the 2010 50k North Face Endurance Challenge in Kansas City, Mo. “There’s nothing I have to deal with when I’m running.” 

Five years ago, Frazier underwent a metabolic exercise test at Optimus: The Center for Health, 200 E. Southampton Drive. The test motivated her to undergo weight training with Tom LaFontaine, an exercise physiologist at Optimus and an adjunct instructor in the nutrition and exercise physiology department at MU. 

“[LaFontaine] believed that weightlifting was the way to go if you want to stay healthy and keep your joints healthy,” Frazier said. “And I have a lot of joint problems.” 

Frazier had been dealing with knee pain since high school, shoulder pain since college, and about a year ago underwent surgery to transplant a tendon from her large toe to her Achilles at the heel. 

“It’s a chicken and the egg thing: Do I have all the joint problems because I do all this stuff? Or can I still walk because I am doing this stuff?” said Frazier, citing her sports-related injuries and her family’s history of arthritis. “Keeping the muscles around my joints [strong] helps me continue doing the things I love to do.”

Frazier was on board when, in February 2012, LaFontaine; his wife, Linda; Pat Okker, an MU English professor; and Louise Miller, an MU teaching professor of nursing, started the fitness group Older Women on Weights (OWOW). 

“As you get older, maintaining bone strength is a big deal,” Frazier said. “As a physician, I see [weight training] as a preventative medicine.” 

In October 2012, Frazier, who also suffers from full thickness cartilage loss in her knee, bench pressed a world-record setting 70.5 kg (155 pounds) for her age, gender and weight class (up to 122 pounds) at the World Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation (WDFPF) world championship in Boston. Frazier, who weighs only 115 pounds, also holds bench press, deadlift and squat records in the American Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation.

“Shelly’s performances are truly remarkable in light of her history of injuries,” LaFontaine said. “She is the prime example of what is possible in terms of physical function and performance.”

Frazier is training for the Boston Marathon April 15, which she said will be her last. In June, she will compete in the WDFPF single event world championship in Belgium. 

“I think most people who have the injuries I have wouldn’t be able to do nearly as much as I am able to do,” said Frazier, referencing her weight training as preventive medicine for future injuries. “It would be so wonderful to have joints that could keep up, but you have to keep yourself healthy and use what you’ve got.”

UPDATE: Frazier finished the Boston Marathon on April 15 minutes before the explosions. Read about her experience of it here.

— Kelsey Allen