The best story in Benson might not be the annual Burdock Festival & Family Day or even the Wheel Inn with its delectable fare that attracts diners from all over the area. No, the best story in Benson is a 57-year-old grandmother who swims in Sunset Lake pretty much through the winter. She calls her sport “snow swimming.” But to really appreciate her story you must go back a few decades to when she was diagnosed with a degenerative back condition and was told she would be in a wheelchair by the time she was 40. A 24-year-old with a young child and eighth months pregnant, Sandra Dee Owens cried. It all looked hopeless. She had no health insurance and was told she needed back surgery. “I couldn’t afford back surgery. I couldn’t even afford to talk to a doctor about back surgery,” Owens said. “I had a nervous breakdown.” She applied for disability and was turned down. She called it “The best thing to happen to me.” “I had a little pity party,” Owens said, then she got down on the floor and started moving around. She got on one of her children’s bicycles and rode as far as she could. “I came to a crossroads. I had to figure it out on my own. I took ownership of my own health,” Owens said. “I kept at it.” She just kept moving. She has done century rides, 100- mile bicycle sojourns. “It took me about eight years to get my health back,” she said. “I did it by being outfitted with the tools to be well.” She does backcountry skiing and that includes traversing the Catamount Trail the length of Vermont. She is one-third of the way through. “Snow season is my favorite season,” Owens said. Sunset Lake, because it is so deep, is one of the last lakes to freeze over. She began swimming in it in the winter, doing her daily swim in the predawn hours. It is one of her favorite physical outlets. “It is very mind blowing,” Owens said. “It is a mind blowing experience to swim this time of year.” She swims out far from the shore in the summer, but swims along the shore in the winter so that she can get out in an emergency. She would not recommend it to everyone, noting “the risk of hypothermia is very, very high.” But she could not stand the idea of swimming in an indoor facility because of the chlorine. She covers her body, the attire including ski leggings, for the rigors of winter swimming in the lake. She keeps a log and posts her experiences of Facebook. She does not expect others to plunge into a lake in December and start swimming, but she hopes that when somebody is debating whether to go to the gym, her story will inspire them to resist what she calls those gremlins on their shoulder telling them to stay home. “I have gotten very good at brushing off those gremlins,” Owens said. She knows she made the right decision so long ago at “the crossroads” when she heard the diagnosis that had her headed for a wheelchair. The decision began with simply aborting the pity party and getting down on the floor to begin stretching and moving around. “I said, ‘I’m going to fix this myself,’” Owens said. She, of course, has shared the story with friends. She and another area woman, Karyn Stannard, have been messaging back and forth about their workout experiences. But she felt it was a story more people needed to hear. “I need to tell it to a big audience,” Owens said, hinting that some of it could find its way into a book someday. She attributes some of this will to keep moving in the face of a gloomy prognosis to being a sixth-generation Vermonter. “It’s in my DNA,” Owens said. Each birthday she sets a goal for the next year in three different categories: Work, Play, Pray. It was through that the goal of skiing the length of the Catamount Trail “bubbled up” she said. The latest chapter spawned by her Work, Pray, Play method is that she has begun to speak to groups about her approach to wellness. She will be traveling to Iceland, France and Switzerland to speak in July and next month will be a guest speaker at the Ladies Nordic Ski Event at Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton. That event is hosted by the Catamount Trail Association. Part of her talk will be focusing on how she overcame her fear of navigation to launch her goal of skiing the length of Vermont. She also does a double-gap ride each year, negotiating two of the arduous climbs on her bicycle over places like Brandon Gap, Middlebury Gap or Lincoln Gap. Her life is not all running, back country skiing and swimming. She is also Sandra Dee Owens, jewelry designer. It is a business she began with her husband 36 years ago. “The first 25 years I did a lot of craft shows,” she said. Now, the business is done via the Internet. “I take it to a very high level. It’s higher end,” Owens said of her jewelry. Hand-crafted artisan jewelry is something that began by playing around with tools her husband Bill had at home and figuring out how to create something that would appeal to people for occasions like weddings, engagements and other milestones of life. She sort of just figured it all out herself, much the way she did with her own health crisis more than 30 years ago. Follow Tom on Twitter @ RHSportsGuy tom.haley

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