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From serving the USA fencing team to WU athletes: Professor profile on Peter Harmer

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Bridget Bodor


Professor Peter Harmer of the Exercise and Health Science department outlined how clinical work and academics can overlap in describing his over 40 years of experience in sports medicine and education. After graduating with a diploma in teaching in Australia, Professor Harmer moved to Oregon to complete his undergraduate and Masters degrees and became a certified athletic trainer (AT). After working as an AT in Australia for two years, he returned to Oregon to get his Ph.D. and develop the sports medicine program for University of Oregon (UO) club sports. Harmer said that he “had to establish a sports medicine program at UO for all of the students engaged in club sports competition” because it wasn't offered to those athletes, while also completing his Ph.D. After developing this program, an AT and educator position opened up at WU which he applied to and was selected.

Harmer’s work at Willamette intersects both clinical and academic work. One of his first tasks was separating the department of Athletics from the department of Physical Education, and changing the latter to the department of Exercise and Health Science. He spent many hours dedicated to student athletes and their health, while completing advising meetings and other academic commitments. Harmer said it “it was really hard” and that “these two responsibilites [were supposed to] make one full time job, but the truth is they really [didn’t].” When talking about why he continued with clinical work while teaching, he said, “the things that were happening in the field, that I was doing clinically, were things I could bring to the classroom.” He said that one of the greatest things about the overlap was that he could use it to bring his mistakes and his successes into the classroom, and that “if it's done properly, that's the way it should be”.

After stepping away from clinical work at WU to focus on education, Harmer’s field work continued with USA Fencing. After volunteering at fencing competitions for years, he became the sports medicine provider for the US National Fencing team, and served as their AT for 18 world championships. He was also asked to start the sports medicine program for US fencing national competitions. One of the things he did when he started the program was highlight the integration of all aspects of sports medicine, stating that “it's not just providing care, it’s education, it’s research in professional development,” and that all those things should interact to provide proper care for these athletes. The U.S. national championships are the largest fencing competitions in the world, and having proper AT coverage and care is a matter of “respect for the participants and is an aspect of the professionalism of an organization,” he stated.

Although his field work with USA Fencing ended, his research continues. He has conducted the two largest studies on risk of fencing injuries, and is currently doing research on a “political problem that exists in international sport” in which some countries are choosing not to participate against other countries for political reasons. Harmer said that these groups get away with this by using medical implications as an excuse, and he's writing a paper demonstrating the falsity of this. He said: “You can't prove in any particular situation that it's not true. But you can show a pattern over a period of time that clearly demonstrates that their excuses are not true.”

His primary research today focuses on fall prevention in older adults, and emphasizes the importance of physical activity. Harmer said that one of the most important things about the department of Exercise and Health Science is the idea that “being physically active isn't just about being an athlete or a gym rat, it's about helping people to improve their quality of life across the lifespan… It's not just about understanding athletes, but looking at human movement and function overall. This is where my career has gone.”

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