Making a Splash
By Lena Anthony
Volume 146, Number 3, May/June 2012, Page 6
Mary Kelly Vowell is proud of the fact that, at 86 years old, she doesn’t take any medication. She knows that good genes have a lot to do with it, but she also gives some of the credit to being an avid swimmer.
Mrs. Vowell started swimming for health reasons in the 1980s. “My ankles and feet were swelling, and my doctor told me I had a choice to make,” says the member of James Buckley Chapter, Martin, Tenn. “I could either walk more, prop my feet up for a couple of hours each day or start wearing elastic hose. I didn’t like any of those options.”
So she jumped in the pool. She worked her way up to 18 laps (½ mile), alternating between the breaststroke, sidestroke and backstroke. “After a while, I noticed that my feet and ankles weren’t swelling,” she says. “That’s when I decided I would swim for as long as I’m able to, because my health is so much better when I’m swimming.”
The longtime DAR member swims three days a week. She usually spends about 90 minutes in the morning traversing the Olympic-sized pool on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Martin, and occasionally she returns in the afternoon. Sometimes she swims just for fun—or if she’s feeling lonely (her husband, Morris, died in 2002). Other times it’s about getting faster and stronger in preparation for her next competition.
In It to Win It
Mrs. Vowell started competing in the biennial Senior Games in 1999, entering the 50-yard and 100-yard breaststroke events. “I didn’t get any ribbons or medals, but I didn’t finish last either,” she recalls.
She’s gotten even faster since that first race. At last year’s National Senior Games in Houston, Mrs. Vowell won a medal in all six races she entered, even bringing home her first gold, in the 50-yard freestyle. “You never expect to win, but when you do it’s just about the most exciting thing that could ever happen,” she says.
She credits a lot of her success to her volunteer swim coach, Frank Leach, and also to the support of her family, including sons David, Donald and Richard, and her daughter, Carolyn.
Mrs. Vowell learned to swim when she was 11. Her father worked on the construction of Natchez Trace State Park, one of the projects funded by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and he moved the family to Lexington, Tenn., for the summer so they could be together. A pool had just been built, and Mrs. Vowell and her brother would go there after dinner most evenings. “That summer I learned to dog paddle,” she says.
Back home in Union City, Tenn., Mrs. Vowell sometimes swam with friends at a nearby pool where the water came from an icehouse. “It was really cold, but we had a good time,” she says.
Later when Mrs. Vowell was a teenager and spent a summer in Southern California, she and her family swam in the same lagoon where many of the “Tarzan” movies were filmed. “I was surrounded by water when I was little,” she says. “Every chance I got, I would get in.”
A Sports Addict
A 40-year DAR member, Mrs. Vowell twice served as regent of Reelfoot Chapter, Union City, Tenn. She became interested in the DAR when she started driving her mother to her chapter meetings in the mid-1960s. “I really enjoyed the programs and the fellowship,” she recalls.
In addition to spending time with her family, swimming and DAR activities, the self-proclaimed sports addict enjoys cheering on her alma mater, the University of Tennessee at Martin Skyhawks: “Football, basketball, soccer, baseball, softball—you name it and I’m there.”