Reader Athlete: Sandra Dee Owens Age: 58 Lives In: Benson, Vt. Family: Husband Bill Owens, daughters Shannon Sirjane, Tamzen Brosnan Sport: Snow swimming
Sandra Dee Owens, a grandmother of four, spends almost every day adventuring outdoors, despite—and because of—her severe scoliosis. Last summer, she rode both Appalachian Gap and Lincoln Gap in one day, and this winter, she will continue her goal to complete the Catamount Trail on skinny skis. In between, Owens swims in Sunset Lake, even when it’s partially frozen over. Owens’ self-published book, called Should, can be found at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt. and at sandradeeowens.com/should-1/
How did you start snow swimming?
I live a mile and a half from Sunset Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in the state. During the summer of 2017, I started swimming in it every morning, before the sun came up. But in mid-October, it was too cold. It shortened my swim. I had already been planning to go to Castleton College and spend the winter learning how to swim laps. But I got out of the lake that morning, thought about the chlorine and the indoors, and my spirit sank. So I came home and went rifling through my closet. I pulled out my spandex ski leggings, I found a short-sleeve surf shirt. Dressed in those two items, I waded in and immediately thought, ‘Yes! This is it!’ I couldn’t believe how much they protected my skin and gave me a few more minutes in the water.
What makes you want to jump into a frozen lake?
I am just on fire with this. It’s given me a “tweeny” sport. I’m also skiing the length of Vermont on the Catamount Trail over multiple winters. Sometimes it’s January before there’s enough snow to get up there. I’m a backyard adventurer, so I just go with whatever Mother Nature gives out for the day. I’m not waiting for a season, a temperature, or anything like that. I’m just riding her tail.
How late into the season do you swim?
Last year, the last day I went was Dec. 24. There was a 10-foot ice shelf, about a half-inch thick, coming right from the beach. I fist-punched my way through the channel and swam parallel to the ice shelf, along the shore. I was able to stay in 11 minutes.
How do you stay safe while winter swimming?
I live in the most amazing place to play outdoors safely, as long as I’m strategic. We don’t have natural predators; what we have is weather. By December, I was wearing neoprene gloves, neoprene socks, a three-millimeter wetsuit, goggles and earplugs. Cold water in your ears is no fun. One day I forgot my goggles, and when I opened my eyes, it was instant brain-freeze. Snow swimming requires joyous enthusiasm and courage. The courage part was not listening to other people tell me that I shouldn’t do this. I knew I was okay.
You’ve struggled with scoliosis. How does your condition impact your level of activity, and vice versa?
This is a 30-year journey for me. I had some dark, dark times. After I had my kids, starting at age 21, I started experiencing chronic back problems. I wound up in the emergency room two or three times with a back that locked up. I would reach over to pick up a shirt and turn into stone. My husband had to pick me up and stick me in the back of the station wagon because I couldn’t afford an ambulance.
When I was 24, it got really bad. I wasn’t able to drive, and I wasn’t able to stand and talk to people. I felt like I was 80. I didn’t have health insurance, but I had to go to the doctor. He told me I would be in a wheelchair by the time I was 40.
One day, standing in my driveway, I saw one of my kids’ little Strawberry Shortcake bikes. I walked over to it, and with my foot, I kicked up the bike and got it underneath my legs. I coasted down the driveway, and then another mile down my road until I reached an intersection where the pavement flattened out. The intersection was a tremendous mental and physical symbol for me—I was feeling this tremendous anxiety, because the farther I went away from home, the harder it was going to be to get back. But I thought, ‘I can’t live like this. I’m not even 30.’ So, very slowly, very painfully, I willed myself to peddle that little thing. I made it another mile away, and then I had to get off and walk home.
A year later, I did my first century ride.
How is your back now?
My spine is just as twisted and messed up as it ever was, because it’s never going to untwist itself. The most recent problem I had was about five years ago. I had an accident on my bike, and I started having a lot of issues with the nerves in my legs, and thought I might have a herniated disk.
I didn’t want to go see a specialist, but I let a girlfriend talk me into it. I’m in his office, and I see all these posters of Olympic athletes that they treat, so I’m like, ‘If they can help them, they can help ‘lil ol’ me.’ He comes in, and he just looks dejected. I asked if I had a herniated disk, and he goes, ‘I wish you had a herniated disk, because then I could help you. You don’t have a herniated disk because you don’t have any disks. Your spine is bone on bone. You just need a new back.’
I was so heartbroken. I came home, I looked out the window, and I was like, ‘You know what? I have been here before.’ I put my sneakers on, and I went outside. In six months, I developed a way of running on my toes that didn’t impact my spine. I don’t have that problem anymore, and I’ve never gone back to another chiropractor. The solution always seems to be very simple: A pair of sneakers and my own backyard.