Dr. Zumwalt exercises with her children—daughter Demi and son Miko.
Courtesy of Mimi Zumwalt, MD

AAOS Now

Published 6/1/2014
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Jennie McKee

Mimi Zumwalt, MD: Athletic Powerhouse

Sports medicine specialist competes at an elite level, inspires others

Texas orthopaedic surgeon Mimi Zumwalt, MD, is just as adept at flipping a 75-lb tire, scaling a 10-ft wall, and bench pressing more than her body weight as she is at treating orthopaedic injuries and counseling patients about the benefits of physical fitness. Throughout her life, the sports medicine specialist has excelled as a tennis player, bodybuilder, power lifter, and competitor in extreme fitness competitions, setting records and earning titles, medals, and awards.

“I help others achieve a state of ultimate wellness by meshing my role as an orthopaedic surgeon with my passion for fitness,” said Dr. Zumwalt, associate professor in the department of orthopaedic surgery and rehabilitation at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, and head of the Texas Tech Physicians Sports Medicine Division. “I always try to lead by example.”

A natural athlete
Dr. Zumwalt’s future was anything but certain in 1973, when she and her mother fled war-torn Viet Nam with the help of her foster father, an American soldier. She was just 11 years old when she arrived in the United States. (See “From Viet Nam to America.”)

“I am fortunate to have lived the American dream from the ground up,” said Dr. Zumwalt, who credits her foster father with sparking her interest in sports by introducing her to tennis.

“I was ranked as the number one women’s championship tennis player in Arkansas in the early 1980s, which enabled me to earn a scholarship to college,” she said.

Dr. Zumwalt eventually gave up competitive tennis to focus on studying medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, but she began working out to increase her upper body strength and relieve stress. After joining the U.S. Army in the early 1990s, she served in Operation Desert Storm, and later completed a residency in orthopaedic surgery at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, followed by a sports medicine fellowship at Lake Tahoe (Nev.) Sports Medicine Group.

“I began competing in bodybuilding during the late 1990s, but I decided not to continue because the sport is too subjective and the diet is too strict,” said Dr. Zumwalt. “I then turned toward power lifting, which is judged more objectively.”

Although she achieved great success as a power lifter, setting a National Bench Press Record for her weight class (110 lb or lighter) and age group (40 years or older) by benching approximately 145 lb, Dr. Zumwalt was eager to compete in a fast-paced athletic endeavor that would challenge her on many levels.

“When I was in the Army, I jumped out of airplanes and rappelled out of helicopters,” said Dr. Zumwalt. “I missed that kind of endorphin rush.”

Dr. Zumwalt found what she was seeking in 2002 when she competed in her first Tri-Fitness Challenge, an extreme fitness competition that tests strength, speed, endurance, and much more.

A fierce competitor
The Tri-Fitness Challenge, which is held twice a year, consists of several events, including a physically demanding obstacle course. The course requires competitors to scale a 10' wall, run a rope grid, negotiate an incline and decline as well as 15' tall monkey bars, maneuver across a 15-ft balance beam, climb a 15' cargo net, jump over three hurdles, and navigate other obstacles before sprinting to the finish line.

Dr. Zumwalt exercises with her children—daughter Demi and son Miko.
Courtesy of Mimi Zumwalt, MD
Dr. Zumwalt performs her 2-minute fitness routine at the Tri-Fitness Challenge.
Courtesy of Mimi Zumwalt, MD

The fitness skills event requires athletes to bench press 60 percent of their body weight for 50 repetitions. (Dr. Zumwalt set a world record by completing 70 repetitions during one Tri-Fitness Challenge.) Athletes must also jump onto a 20" tall box 50 times within a time limit and complete 10 timed shuttle runs.

The competition includes three other events: a 2-minute fitness routine, during which the athlete dances, tumbles, or performs gymnastics set to music; “True Grit,” which requires athletes to perform kettle bell swings, carry 35-lb weights, flip a 75-lb tire, and jump a weighted 10-lb rope; and, for female athletes, a swimsuit walk on stage.

“The Tri-Fitness Challenge has become my preferred competition, because it promotes camaraderie among the athletes and combines agility, speed, strength, power, muscular endurance, and athleticism,” said Dr. Zumwalt, who is not just a competitor, but also serves as the event physician, responding to injuries that may occur as athletes negotiate each of the grueling events.

Dr. Zumwalt was recently inducted into the Tri-Fitness Challenge Hall of Fame for competing in the most shows of any athlete—almost 25 competitions in the past decade. She also earned the “Over 50” World Champion title by participating in all five events and beating out dozens of other competitors.

A dedicated instructor and mentor
Dr. Zumwalt makes a point of sharing her love of fitness with others. Twice a week, she teaches boot camp-style group exercise classes, consisting of high intensity interval training. In her “spare time,” she works as a personal trainer, teaching clients—some of whom are also her patients—how to properly lift weights and perform resistance training to maximize strength gains and minimize the risk of injury.

“I counsel others about the benefits of exercise and perioperative physical therapy,” she said. “I encourage everyone to improve their lifestyles through diet and exercise, to help avoid the need for surgery. Decreasing any extra load on the joints, along with doing rehabilitation exercises to strengthen bones and muscles, will support and protect their joints from potential trauma.”

Dr. Zumwalt, who credits her athletic endeavors with helping her gain the confidence to succeed in a primarily male-dominated surgical field, makes a point of helping others excel as well.

“I feel truly blessed to give back,” she said. “I strive to mentor young students, especially females from disadvantaged backgrounds, to let them know that they can overcome any obstacle to achieve their goals. It takes perseverance, ferocity, dedication, discipline—and, most of all, a true desire to maximize one’s potential—to make a difference in this world.”

Jennie McKee is a senior science writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at mckee@aaos.org

From Viet Nam to America
“It was two years before Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) fell to the communists,” remembered Dr. Zumwalt. “I was evacuated from Viet Nam as a half-orphan, as my biological father never returned from fighting in the civil war. My mother, along with my foster father—an American soldier who fought in the Viet Nam War—were instrumental in bringing me to the United States.”

Dr. Zumwalt, who learned the importance of self-reliance and determination from her mother, quickly mastered English and became determined to pursue a career in medicine.

“Growing up, I saw people with crippling diseases and war injuries, which gave me the desire to succeed as a physician and surgeon, and to eventually return to my native country on a medical mission,” she said.