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Elite swimmer and recreation enthusiast Sara Shepherd supervises the senior center in Tualatin.

COURTESY - Sara Shepherd, center, poses with mom Becky Shepherd, left, and sister Mary Shepherd after finishing first in the 100-meter backstroke for her age group in U.S. Masters Swimming nationals at Mt. Hood Community College last summer.Sara Shepherd just keeps swimming.

Shepherd, who ranks as one of the best swimmers in the country in her age bracket, competed for Penn State University's elite swim team in the Big Ten Conference. After graduating in 2005, she went on to work as an aquatic coach at Lafayette College, on the eastern side of her native Pennsylvania. Her career and life have taken some twists and turns since then, but one thing has remained constant.

"I never thought I'd be swimming this much after college, but you know, I just never stopped," said Shepherd, who now lives in Beaverton.

Not quite three years ago, Shepherd jumped into the deep end, figuratively speaking. She decided to pack up her old life in Pennsylvania and move all the way across the country.

"New scenery — wanted to experience something new," Shepherd said, explaining her reasons for the move. "Jobs just weren't working out for me on the East Coast. … I had an opportunity. I had friends who lived out here. I had visited a few times in the past. And it kind of just happened."

It was a bold move. Shepherd now says it was the best one she has ever made.

'I'm glad I kind of fell into place here'

Shepherd initially moved to Astoria in early 2015, but she didn't stay there for long. Last year, after a brief stint working for the Oregon Employment Department, she took a job in Tualatin and relocated to Beaverton.

Within her age bracket, Shepherd has placed nationally in the top 10 in at least one backstroke category since 2010, according to U.S. Masters Swimming. Last year, she ranked as high as second in the nation in the 50- and 100-meter backstroke for women between the ages of 30 and 34.

"I am the fastest in Oregon," Shepherd said. "For Oregon Masters Swimming, I hold the records for the 50, 100 and 200 backstroke for 30 to 34."

Shepherd now swims with the Tualatin Hills Barracudas, based in Beaverton. Normally, the team trains at the Tualatin Hills Aquatic Center, 15707 S.W. Walker Road, but renovations have moved those workouts temporarily to the Sunset Swim Center at 13707 N.W. Science Park Drive.

Shepherd is at the pool by 5 a.m. three or four days every week, she said.

"The group out here is amazing," Shepherd said. "I love the team. I'm glad I kind of fell into place here."

Shepherd's active lifestyle lends itself well to her job.

Hired last year as the program specialist for the Juanita Pohl Center, which serves adults age 55 and older in Tualatin and Durham, Shepherd earned a promotion this year when the center supervisor moved to Ohio and she filled his position.

"I am super-happy that I got to move," Shepherd said. "I just love it out here. There's so much to do. Oregon's a beautiful state. I love being outdoors, so all the rec stuff is right up my alley."

Working at the Juanita Pohl Center is Shepherd's first time exclusively working with seniors. But she's taken to the role with gusto.

"I really feel like I connect with the older adults," Shepherd said. "I just like to give them opportunities and experiences that they might have never gotten to do before. I just love seeing their faces and hearing their feedback. It's just very rewarding for me. It's a good place. I feel like this is kind of my niche, and I've found exactly where I want to be."

Rich Mueller, Tualatin's parks and recreation manager, is Shepherd's direct supervisor.

"She's uniquely qualified, and she's an outstanding staff member," Mueller said. "She has the ability to grow older adult programs and services for the cities of Tualatin and Durham."

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Juanita Pohl Center Supervisor Sara Shepherd visits with seniors wearing Halloween costumes as they play cards at the center.

'There's so much to do out here'

First as the Juanita Pohl Center's program specialist and now as the center supervisor, Shepherd is responsible for coming up with "active aging" programs.

Earlier this year, she took a group of seniors from the Tualatin area to iFly, the indoor skydiving center in Tigard, so they could each take a trip or two in the wind tunnel and experience the sensation of skydiving. She took another group zip-lining at Skamania Lodge. Next summer, she said, she is thinking of organizing a whitewater rafting trip.

"With all the things that Oregon offers, I mean, there's so much to do out here," Shepherd said. "And I love doing the trips with them and just getting them out and enjoying a day, whether we go to lunch or a special tour, or getting them outside and socializing and keeping them active."

Beyond that, Shepherd is working to expand the center's health and fitness programming. She got the idea of holding a "balance fair" from a recent national conference, giving seniors and other attendees information on how to avoid falls, which can cause serious injury in older adults. Pickleball, a sport similar to tennis and badminton and played with paddles, has become extremely popular at the Juanita Pohl Center; groups can often be seen playing on the tennis courts at Tualatin Community Park, where the center is located. Also popular are classes with stretching and other exercises in which participants can use a bar for support.

The Juanita Pohl Center serves a diverse population. Many visitors come just for lunch or for a specific activity, like bingo. Some don't spend much or any time at the center itself but enjoy some of its field trips. Some remain physically fit and active as they age. Others have lost strength and mobility, perhaps using a cane, walker or wheelchair to get around.

Because of that diversity, Shepherd said, she and other staff always have to keep in mind people's different needs.

"I feel very comfortable," Shepherd said of her role as center supervisor. "I think I relate well to a lot of different people. And I really enjoy working with this group of people."

The Juanita Pohl Center describes itself as an "active aging center" rather than a "senior center."

"We want to kind of get away from the 'senior center' stigma," Shepherd said. "We want to be more active, more engaging, out in the Portland metro area, doing all kinds of stuff."

'We want to try to be one of the most active places'

Shepherd is part of the City of Tualatin's effort to update its parks and recreation master plan, a document first drafted in the early 1980s and not significantly overhauled since then.

"Her primary role in the master plan, or her primary involvement, is really in public engagement — to ensure that we have the older adult input and involvement in the plan so that we can bring their input forward, their ideas forward, their needs and desires for the parks and recreation system in the future, to ensure that that's included in the plan," said Mueller.

Programming that caters to Tualatin's seniors, such as that which the Juanita Pohl Center provides, is an integral piece of the parks and recreation system in Tualatin, Mueller said.

"I think everything's important in the parks and recreation system," he remarked. "We're taking a look at facilities, programs. I mean, it's a total comprehensive plan, and older adults' programs, services and facilities will be an important component … of the plan."

Public feedback is being collected now and will be presented at a public meeting on Dec. 5, when the master planning project's advisory committee meets at the Tualatin Police Department.

"We did a focus group with our advisory committee about a month or so ago to see what their main thoughts and ideas were with (the) older adult population," Shepherd said.

She added, "We want to try to be one of the most active places. And I think for the size of Tualatin and the size of the Juanita Pohl Center, we do pretty good for ourselves here with all the programs we offer, the variety that we offer — and we're getting all kind of ages in here."TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sara Shepherd is the new supervisor at the Juanita Pohl Center.

By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times
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