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Published September 23, 2012, 11:40 PM

99-year-old Bea Ihlenfeld shows the beauty of wellness

FARGO - About three times a week, sometimes before the sun even rises, 99-year-old Bea Ihlenfeld gets out of bed and puts on her swimsuit.

By: Tracy Briggs, INFORUM

FARGO - About three times a week, sometimes before the sun even rises, 99-year-old Bea Ihlenfeld gets out of bed and puts on her swimsuit.

She makes her way slowly down the hallway to the pool area of the retirement community she calls home. By 6:45, when many of us are just getting that first cup of coffee, she’s already swimming laps – a morning ritual that first took root when Woodrow Wilson was President.

“I remember as a very little girl, my dad, who was a real exercise guru, would make my brothers and I jump in cold water first thing every morning. He thought it would be good for our health,” she says.

Whether it was or not, something clicked with Bea. For the next 90 years, Bea would devote her life to wellness – being healthy, fit, and involved – and encouraging and mentoring others to do the same.

Her upbeat attitude and self-motivation is an inspiration to everyone she meets and part of what makes her our Beautiful Woman for September.

Bea says she was “flabbergasted” when she got word that she had been chosen to be a Beautiful Woman.

“I’ve seen all of the girls chosen this year. And what’s fun is I’ve known some of their mothers or even grandmothers. But I never thought I’d be one of them,” she says.

But it’s not just because of her age that Bea finds the honor unusual. Maybe, it’s because she has always seen herself as a tomboy. She grew up in Southern Illinois, the middle child and only daughter of a Lutheran minister father she called “my pal.”

“Dad was a good guy. He gave us a lot of freedom. He encouraged me in every way he could,” she says.

She says her mother might have been a little more frustrated.

“Mother could never tame me to work in the kitchen,” she says.

Instead, young Bea was outside playing any sport she could. She loved swimming in the nearby Wabash River or in the Rock River in Dixon, Ill., where a handsome young lifeguard named Ronald Reagan was attracting attention.

“All the girls fell for him. So the beach was always crowded!” she laughs.

When she wasn’t swimming, she was playing tennis, even volunteering to become the caretaker of the clay courts in town in exchange for playing time.

And it paid off. By the time she enrolled at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., she was an elite player, becoming the school’s first female letter winner after winning the state championship three years in a row.

It was while at Carthage that she would meet the man she would marry. It happened right away.

“My father had just dropped me off, when I noticed some students playing a pickup game of softball. I asked the catcher if I could play and he sent me over to play second base. Well, almost right away I caught a ball and threw the gal out. That caught his attention! That catcher was the guy,” she says.

“The guy” was Fred Ihlenfeld, who was training to be a minister just like Bea’s father.

After marrying, the Ihlenfelds lived in Winona, Minn., then moved to Fargo in 1942 when Fred was called to serve at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in north Fargo. The couple had two daughters, Bea and Kathy.

In addition to being wife and mom, Bea took a job teaching physical education at Fargo Central High. She also coached tennis in the summertime. Both jobs she adored.

She says she always felt lucky that she was able to do what she loved – teaching students to be active just like she’d always been.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than when you work hard at and become better at something,” she says. “I always told my students it’s OK if you don’t excel at this. Just try to get better. I wanted them to get interested in something and follow through.”

Her devotion to her job, along with good friends and family, helped her get through the loss of her husband after just 13 years of marriage. Fred died at the age of 42 from an enlarged heart, the result of a childhood bout with rheumatic fever.

Bea knew when they were dating that it might lead to his early death, but that didn’t sway her from marrying him.

“We love who we love,” she said.

After Fred’s death, Bea continued working and raising her daughters. Her career path eventually led her to a job as a school counselor at Central High and later an administrator at North High in Fargo.

By 1973, Bea decided to retire. She never married again, but says she had some wonderful male friends who would take her hunting, something she had loved to do with Fred and the girls when they were little. She says with pride that she shot her last pheasant at the age of 80.

“I just love the outdoors! I always have,” she says.

And then there was swimming. That wasn’t going anywhere. She swam at the YMCA pool two or three times a week well into her 80s and 90s.

She moved about two years ago to Touchmark at Harwood Groves, a retirement community in South Fargo.

She started using the pool right away, and Touchmark Health and Fitness Director Mark Minette noticed how remarkable she was. He says it was a “no brainer” to nominate her for Beautiful Woman.

“She’s beautiful in so many ways. When Bea comes in the club it’s like the light just goes on,” he says.

And even at the age of 99 the perpetual teacher can’t help but take students under her wing.

“There was a woman who was about 80 who had never learned how to swim, so Bea got in the water with her and showed her what to do. She’s just wonderful – someone to look up to,” says Ellen Tillman a health and fitness center employee.

While Bea enjoys helping people she says it’s also about just being around them. She says that is the key to staying young.

“There’s no excuse to sit around and feel sorry for yourself. All you have to do is look around at the people who have it tougher than you. You can’t hole up. You have to get out there and meet your fellow citizens. Don’t wait for others to come to you. Get involved!”

And she’s living her own advice. In addition to participating in activities at Touchmark, she still meets once a week for a hamburger and fries at the Hi Ho restaurant with her friend of 73 years, Lois Mayer of Fargo.

“She’s just such a wonderful person! We’ve shared so many things, sad and happy. She’s a loyal friend,” says Mayer.

Bea turns 100 in November. These days, as she looks at you with her bright blue eyes and even brighter smile, she’ll offer advice such as: “enjoy life,” “get an education” and even “get a swimsuit and get to the pool!” But true to the coach she once was, and obviously deep down still is, she can’t help but turn into a motivator.

“Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something as you get older. You can do it! I do.”

Tracy Briggs is the digital content development director for Forum Communications.