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February 14, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Jackie Miller's husband's name is Lynn. An earlier version of this story had the named misspelled.
Photographs by Greg Kendall-Ball
Pat Okker says she was not an athletic person in high school because athletic opportunities for girls were limited. Now, at 53, Okker gets to experience what it means to be on a team.
If someone would have walked up to Okker last year and told her that she would be running a marathon in a year, she would have laughed in disbelief. Today, she is an avid runner and powerlifter. Her first marathon is in 10 days in New Orleans.
When the powerlifting program began, Okker, a member at Optimus for several years, joined right away. She said she immediately began to learn about herself, her limits and how to push past them.
“It made me realize that I was an athlete — I am an athlete,” Okker says. “At the time, I was 52 years old. I never, ever imagined myself as an athlete.”
Since beginning powerlifting, Okker has lost more than 40 pounds. Although she is proud of that achievement, she counts it as secondary to her newfound love of competition and long-distance running. She is currently training for the marathon, and she credits powerlifting as the spark for her ambition to run.
“I do like to compete,” Okker says. “I never would have set ambitious goals if it hadn’t been for powerlifting.”
These goals, Okker says, come as much from her own inspiration as from the support of the other OWOW members. “I never had experience in terms of being on a team, and I didn’t realize how much you get from other people,” she says. “This team is unique in the sense that it matters not where you are in comparison to others but where you are.”
As Okker walks toward the weight room to complete yet another lift, she certainly seems proud of all that she has accomplished thus far.
Photographs by Greg Kendall-Ball
Shelly Frazier, 42, is not new to the world of athletics, but she says her OWOW friends have taught her that athletic ability can come at any time of life.
Frazier works as a pathologist at University Hospital and has powerlifted for four years. She has watched women become healthy and active through the powerlifting program at Optimus.“As a physician, I think it’s tremendously important for them to keep their bones strong, to keep up their strength and to be independent people,” she says. “Looking ahead, I want to be that person when I’m that age.”
As the 2013 Women’s Intersport Network Columbia Sportswoman of the Year, Frazier holds two bench press records in World Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation competitions, and she holds a bench press, a deadlift and a squat record in the American Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation.
Although there is practically no cartilage left in her right knee, Frazier still remains active. She attributes this ability to lifting weights. Powerlifting allows her to stay strong while she trains for The Boston Marathon in April, her final marathon.
“As I’m getting older, I believe very firmly that strength is the most important part of physical fitness that you need to maintain,” she says.
Frazier’s favorite part of workouts with the OWOWs is when she stands against the wall and watches them push past their limitations.
Despite their serious goals and ambitions, smiles are frequent among the powerlifting pals. “For these guys, part of it’s the social thing,” she says. “We have a good time because we’re working out. We also have a really good time because we’re there goofing around.”
Photographs by Greg Kendall-Ball
World champion powerlifter Kate Walker says she wants to be a motivational speaker when she grows up. At the age of 63, she still has time to add to her list of achievements, which already includes five world powerlifting records.
A graduate from Stephens College and a dancer for most of her life, Walker suffered from osteoarthritis, the result of dancing injuries, in her 40s. To regain her strength, she began to lift weights with LaFontaine. With the help of weightlifting, glucosamine and fish oil supplements, Walker says the pain from her osteoarthritis has reduced.
Walker finds her age to be an advantage rather than a hindrance because there aren’t a lot of older women who powerlift. She says her first Show-Me State Games in 2006 was when she discovered that powerlifting was more than just a physical activity.
“There were a few guys there from the MU Strength Team, and they made me feel awesome,” she says. “I started thinking, ‘Wow this is kind of cool; this is making me feel empowered and giving me a sense of self-confidence.’”
Walker says she learns more about herself as an athlete when she lifts alone. It is then that she remembers why she is grateful for the chance to be competitive again.
“When I lift, I close my eyes, and I pay attention to myself,” she says, drifting off to a familiar memory. “Then I get out there, and I lift.”
For years, the word “exercise” was known as the “e-word” in Sharon Millikan’s household. The 65-year-old says that until last year, trips to the gym felt like a chore.
During her trips to Optimus, though, Millikan says she became curious when she saw Frazier and Walker lifting weights. One day, her curiosity was satisfied when the two seasoned lifters asked her to join them for a practice lift. She realized the “e-word” could be fun and rewarding, so she joined OWOW.
“I never thought that one of the better parts of my life would be the gym, but it is,” she says. “The lifting is hard, as you’re trying to go beyond what you’ve done. I guess there’s this inner satisfaction when you can finally do it.”
Millikan says since she began to lift last year, her back pain of several years subsided. She feared what her doctor would say when she told him she had joined a powerlifting team but was surprised when he told her it was one of the best things she could do to strengthen her back and alleviate the pain.
“I was kind of hoping I could use it as an excuse because any excuse for me not to do exercise is good,” she says with a joking wink.
Despite her initial reservations about exercise, she says what motivates her to go to the gym is the people she has met there through powerlifting.
“I cannot tell you how much I enjoy this group of people,” Millikan says. “There’s no real pressure. We don’t compete against each other. We are just there motivating each other to do better with each lift.”
Millikan says her family became inspired with her new love of powerlifting and celebrated the two medals she took home last year.
“I came home and my daughter had made a banner for the fireplace that said ‘Congratulations’ because this is just so not me,” she says.
Millikan wore those medals that entire day, even to visit her son at work. After all, she’s a powerlifter now.
For Jackie Miller and her husband, Lynn, powerlifting is a family affair. About a year ago, Miller says her husband of 42 years asked her if she would set a goal with him to become serious about lifting weights. Almost a year later, the Millers are both involved in OWOW.
Since joining OWOW, Miller says she considers herself to be among the ranks of supportive, motivational friends.
“It’s just been wonderful to get to know these people in a different environment but to have common goals,” the 64-year-old says.
One of Miller’s goals is to increase her bone density. She says she looks forward to seeing her progress after her first year of lifting weights.
As far as her other goals, Miller says she has challenged herself to achieve lifts that seemed unlikely at the beginning of her endeavor. She says her husband has been her biggest source of support.