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98-year-old credits swimming keeping her in shape 4-30-07

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) - Not many people can say they've done some sort of physical activity almost every day for more than 30 years.

But 98-year-old Tracy Akins of Fort Smith credits swimming on a regular basis during that span for her longevity and good health.

Akins, a widow, recalls taking swimming lessons when she was a child growing up in Fulton, Mo., but says she never swam much until she moved to this area in 1975.

“I'm not an expert swimmer, but I've been doing it enough to keep myself in shape,” Akins said. “And I enjoy it.”

She's up bright and early every morning and does sidestrokes five days a week in the pool at Marvin Altman Fitness Center, where she's been going for the past four years. She mixes in a little walking in the water as well, moving from one end of the lap pool to the other and back again - several times.

Before she started swimming at Marvin Altman, she swam every weekday at the indoor pool at the former Fort Smith Girls Club near downtown.

The swimming has kept her body in good condition. She only complains of a little arthritis and walks with the assistance of a cane now. She was diagnosed with macular degeneration about four years ago.

“It helps with my balance and (mounting) curbs and everything, especially with my eyesight,” Akins said.

She also feels eating healthy foods from the meals that she cooks has attributed to her long life.

“I eat pretty good,” Akins added. “And I'm not a worrier. I think that helps.”

While she may not worry much now, Akins grew up in a time surrounded with worry.

Born in 1909, she remembers both World Wars and fondly recalls the time spent with her grandfather, N.D. Thurmond, who taught her to read and how to work crossword puzzles.

“He played games with the kids,” she said, recalling the times growing up in the Fulton home where five generations of her family lived. “He helped me with the first (crossword puzzle) I worked. He taught me to read before I started to school.”

Akins said life for children these days is vastly different from when she grew up.

“There's too much technology and too many things for the kids to have to put up with,” she said. “We didn't have drugs, and we didn't carry guns to school. If you got caught chewing gum in school, that was a crime.”

After high school, she received an associate's degree in education from William Woods College in Fulton and taught school one year before she quit.

“I didn't like it,” Akins said of her first job. “I taught in a country school where there were so many grades. Some of the kids were about as old as I was.

“It just wasn't my bag,” she added.

She took a business course and worked at Sears Roebuck in Kansas City, Mo., for five years before she married Walter Akins in 1935 and moved to Alaska.

While in Alaska, she worked at a salmon cannery for a summer job and as a collator at a newspaper office in the printing department for a winter job.

“There was an Alaska Sportsman magazine published there. I helped put it together,” she said.

She then worked 13 years at a lumber mill in Ketchikan, as the timber industry grew in what was then still a territory. Akins said she enjoyed her time in Alaska, as it was a change from the terrain she was accustomed to in Missouri.

“We lived in a little, one-room log cabin one winter and trapped mink,” she said.

She also remembers a small fishing village, where she tutored two little boys, and an Indian village, where she watched as totem poles were created and attended an Indian potlatch, a feast in which totem poles are erected and gifts are given.

The Akinses, who never had any children, spent a few years in Arizona and tried to retire to Missouri, but felt they were too young to retire.

“I said, 'Let's try Arkansas,”' Akins recalled, noting that her cousin had retired in Fort Smith. She and her husband moved to
Mountainburg and after her husband died in 1973, Akins moved to Fort Smith, where her cousin and her daughter could help care for her. “I moved to Fort Smith and joined Central Presbyterian Church and took bridge lessons,” said Akins. “I've been going to church and playing bridge ever since.”

The cousin's daughter, Marilyn Simpson of Fort Smith, acts as Akins' eyes and her transportation, since the macular degeneration has caused her eyesight to deteriorate.

Akins said she willingly gave up her car keys in 1996.

“I had a little accident and decided it was time to quit,” she said, adding that she wound up in a yard instead of a street after making a turn.

She spent many years traveling, visiting Europe three times, the Holy Land, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Washington, D.C. She took a Caribbean cruise and returned to Alaska by cruise ship.

“I've had a good life, I think,” said Akins, who recently put her life story on paper to share with family and friends.