Coming on strong

Shauna Russell grimaces while lifting a Chevrolet Trax at last summer’s Rainier Classic event in Seattle, Washington. PHOTO COURTESY JOHNNY PREHN

She’s been one of the strongest wāhine in the islands for years now, and yet when Shauna Russell was introduced to powerlifting a little more than two decades ago, she was rather unimpressed by the iron-pumping activity. At the time, all the Maui High School student appeared interested in was completing a set of lifts in class and making a beeline for the door.

Russell and staff keep patients’ bodies feeling powerful at Big Island Physical Therapy. PHOTO COURTESY SHAUNA RUSSELL

But there was someone present who was both impressed and intrigued by her potential. That someone was the high school football coach, who showed Russell how to perform the back squat in class one day and then watched in amazement as, plate by plate and weight by weight, she began to exceed all expectations.

As Russell recalls, “He kept putting on weights and saying, ‘I just want you to try this … now try this,’ and he was tripping out! I was looking up at the time and thinking, ‘OK, so now what?’ I just wanted to get out and go home.”

Russell hoists and carries a heavy sandbag as part of last summer’s Rainier Classic competition. PHOTO COURTESY JOHNNY PREHN

Russell did eventually go home, but thankfully, she kept coming back for more. With each additional session, she learned to complete other weightlifting exercises, such as the deadlift and the bench press. The lukewarm reaction she once had for powerlifting had suddenly disappeared and in its place was a growing fascination with the sport. Soon, she was encouraged to test her brawn at an upcoming high school meet.

Initially, her only objection to entering the contest was in wearing a wrestling singlet.

“I said, ‘Oh, hell no! There’s no way I’m wearing that thing!’” recalls Russell, chuckling at the memory of her protest to coaches.

Shauna Russell, at right, and her staff often use powerlifting techniques and machines, such as the leg press, to strengthen patients’ bodies. PHOTO COURTESY SHAUNA RUSSELL

However, she eventually agreed to don the singlet and show off her considerable feats of strength at her first-ever meet. Not surprisingly, she’s been showing off with muscular performances ever since.

“That’s what I like to do: lift weights,” says Russell, whose powerlifting background has given way to Strongman events in recent years.

Powerlifting, she explains, focuses on three main lifts: bench press, deadlift and back squat. In contrast, Strongman competitions are geared toward testing an athlete’s strength, power, endurance and mobility through a series of “more dynamic” events. Competitors score points by hoisting various implements, including logs, kegs, loaded dumbbells and sandbags. They even pull heavy vehicles.

Naturally, Russell is comfortable with either form of powerlifting.

“I like the fact that it’s always all on you. No matter the outcome, you’re the only person you can depend on in order to get better and to lift the weight,” she says.

Russell wasn’t in Pennsylvania last week competing at the Strongman Corporation Nationals — but she should have been. She qualified for the annual event following her second-place finish in the Amateur Women’s Open division at last summer’s Rainier Classic in Seattle, Washington. However, because she felt that her technique needed refinement, she chose to sit out this year’s nationals.

“I’m competitive and I always want to win. Is second place a good place for me to finish? No, it’s not,” says Russell, who’s ended up as the bridesmaid at Rainier for the past two years. “This last time at Rainier, I feel like I lost that … I don’t feel like I was beaten. I just made mistakes that were unnecessary, like not warming up properly.

“I have my heart set on winning it,” she adds about next summer’s Rainier Classic.

Then, peering into the future, Russell pledges, “That’s when I’ll make a serious run at (nationals).”

In the meantime, she promises to be “all about building on what I have and getting more particular in dialing in my technique and conditioning.”
Russell’s next competition will be at February’s all-women Strongman event, hosted by Imua Iron in Kailua-Kona. A top three finish all but guarantees her another invite to the 2024 national competition.

So just how strong is Russell?

“I can squat 415 pounds and my deadlift is like 385,” she shares. “I don’t like to deadlift, but you can’t do Strongman without it.”

Even her so-called weakest event, the bench press, produces a maximum lift of 185 pounds. That number doesn’t impress her much, though.

“It’s really kind of puny,” mutters Russell through nervous laughter, as if there’s something wrong with only being able to essentially bench press an average-sized NFL cornerback. “But I’m working on it.”

She’s also hoping to make improvements in the confidence department. Admittedly shy by nature, Russell will often modify her physical appearance at meets in order to channel a different persona and power through the competition.

“I’m very much a behind-the-scenes kind of person. I realize that competing in front of people is part of the game, and I accept that, but that doesn’t mean I like it,” she says. “So, I’ll braid my hair in different colors just so that I can be a different person. Then, I don’t have to think about being in front of all those people.”

Despite this “weakness” when operating in the spotlight, Russell is completely at ease when engaging with her growing fan base. In fact, she frequently finds herself encouraging her admirers — especially those who lack confidence — that they’re capable of amazing and powerful things as well.

“I use powerlifting as a way to let them know that, ‘Hey, you can do this, too!’ I mean, I didn’t even know what the heck I was doing when I first started,” she says. “There are so many strong women, strong people here on the Big Island, but also everywhere in Hawai‘i, that can do other things. I love powerlifting; I go to every powerlifting competition here just because I love strength sports in general.

“But everyone is different. Some people might want to try something else, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

While possible titles at Rainier and the nationals remain in her future, there’s one honor she already holds. “Dr. Russell,” as she is known, has been a physical therapist on Maui, Moloka‘i and Hawai‘i island for more than a decade. By launching her Pakolea Rehab business in 2009 and acquiring Big Island Physical Therapy seven years later, Russell has been able to help heal and strengthen countless patients, all of whom have sought her expertise and guidance in manual therapy and neuro reeducation over the years.

At Pakolea (“physical therapy” in Hawaiian), Russell employs nine individuals — three physical therapists, two physical therapist assistants and four support staffers. Despite the number of employees, she insists that more help is needed.

“I always tell people that I can run a hundred clinics if you only promise me that I wouldn’t have to worry about staffing,” says Russell, who previously did physical therapy work at The John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. “The biggest thing is (Hawai‘i Pacific University) has started their doctorate and physical therapy program. Hopefully, we’ll have more Hawai‘i-grown PTs so that there are more of our people treating our community.

“It’s nice for patients to be able to relate to people from their community as their clinicians,” she continues. “That’s one of my missions with this company, to help promote this profession to our younger people.”

As much as the native of Kīhei, Maui, loves her day job, she insists her passion remains powerlifting. She may not have immediately embraced the sport when it was introduced to her so many years ago, but she’s glad that she ultimately got on “this ride.” It’s why she doesn’t like wasting a moment of training in her pursuit of “going as high as I can possibly go.”

Beyond conquering the next Rainier and finally participating in the Strongman nationals, her dream would be to participate in the Arnold Strongman Classic, held annually in Columbus, Ohio, and widely regarded as the pinnacle of Strongman competition in the world.

“That would be crazy to compete in the Arnold,” says Russell in closing. “But regardless, I’ll always love this sport. It’s never boring.”