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Grass Valley woman beats frigid water to promote healthy lifestyle

Patricia Smith led a completely different lifestyle in the years before 2010.

As an army veteran and an energetic athlete, Smith constantly challenged herself to what some would consider daunting physical tasks.

To prepare for the 2003 Barbara Schmidt Millar Celebration of Life Triathlon, which featured a swim-bike-run format, she dedicated an average of two hours per day to each exercise.



She was also a weight lifter, often bench-pressing 200 pounds without blinking an eye.

“… I feel that a week spent focusing on health and the challenge of swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco will give me that much-needed encouragement to move ahead in life. I need to rediscover that ‘hard’ does not mean ‘impossible.’”Patricia Smith

Then the now 56-year-old Native American and Grass Valley resident was diagnosed with diabetes.




“It’s really depressing, but you find out it’s not the end of the world, and you have to go out and live the best you can every single day,” said Smith.

And now, five years after testing positive as a type 2 diabetic, she embraced yet another challenge. This time, Smith swam 1.5 miles from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco Monday as a first-time participant in the 13th annual PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week.

“I have lost a certain amount of faith in my ability to accomplish the goals I have,” Smith said before the swim. “I feel that a week spent focusing on health and the challenge of swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco will give me that much-needed encouragement to move ahead in life. I need to rediscover that ‘hard’ does not mean ‘impossible.’”

With this philosophy, Smith and two friends from Chapa-De Indian Health Program joined a group of 13 Native Americans, aged 18 to 59, in an eight-day program that focused on using authentic traditions to encourage healthy eating and fitness. Their project started Oct. 11 and culminated in a swimathon Monday.

The Alcatraz Swim Program is an effort carried out by the nonprofit PATHSTAR to encourage active lifestyle and nutritious diet within Native American communities.

According to the American Diabetes Association, the age-adjusted prevalence of diabetes for Native Americans is 16.1 percent, the highest among all U.S. racial and ethnic groups.

“Indians are affected by diabetes by a far higher rate than the regular population,” said Smith. “But it’s a growing problem in all populations. People say it’s a lifestyle thing, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer there. There’s something else there.”

Smith’s Native American roots are from her father, who is part Sioux and part Hoopa. Along with her heritage, Smith said she also likely obtained the diabetes genetic load from her father, who’s been a diabetic for 20 years.

“He handled his diabetes in a completely different way than me,” said Smith. “When I tried to handle it his way, it didn’t work.”

The older Smith tackled his illness with a combination of medication, diet and exercise. Patricia Smith said she tried using some of her father’s methods in an attempt to get off medication, but they were to no avail.

But she was not ready to give up. Her determination became a part of the driving force to participate, she said.

“I just realize how much work it really is, how consistent it really is, you have to make it a part of your life,” added Smith.

As part of the program, Smith and others also engaged in a week-long learning process of eating healthy. She said every participating group would be expected to bring back to the community something they learned at the program.

Smith said she and her teammates at Chapa-De, a nonprofit community medical health center for Native Americans, are hoping to implement a hydroponics program for homes in Grass Valley.

“I think encouraging people to live as healthy a life as they can is a good message,” said Smith, “Figuring out a way to get healthy food into people’s life as cheaply as possible is what we are trying to do.”

To contact Staff Writer Teresa Yinmeng Liu, call 530-477-4236, or email tliu@theunion.com.


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