She is elfin-like in stature, yet her genius for significant work in the art of physical fitness is prodigious. 

Mary Essert of Conway is an aquatic professional of national renown, a published author, workshop leader and teacher and a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. It all translates to woman of boundless energy. 

While she basks in the many honors and awards she has garnered since 1939, this 78-year-old bundle of vitality is completely taken by her newest kudos — an award from the Governor’s Council on Fitness Leadership created to recognize individuals whose innovative efforts have advanced the health and fitness levels of Arkansans.

From Kellie Coleman, community fitness coordinator at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science, comes this appraisal of Essert: "Her expertise is an asset for the state of Arkansas as she hosts continuing education for fitness leaders and develops videos and publications to help special populations.  She has guided aquatic programs for people with post polio, fibromyalgia, breast cancer, arthritis and lymphedemia.’’

Her mantra is an engaging affirmation that proclaims: "Take care of your body and live the dance of the water." 

Essert is filled with a grateful sense of appreciation for the Governor’s award that comes after some 60 years, of teaching swimming, water fitness and rehabilitation skills, working with scores of seniors in wellness programs., She says with conviction that "I hope to continue for  many more."

She notes that "Seniors are concerned with independence and quality of life. The definition changes as we age or find illness or chronic conditions in our lives. However, our choice to use the tool of exercise to stay active and strong is always ours. We look at one day at a time and do our best that day. My 107-year-old friend who motivated me to start a fitness business adds her say…  ‘Life is so daily.’"

 And after surviving two bouts of cancer, she shifted her focus to specialize aquatics for individuals with arthritis, fibromyalgia, and a host of other ailments. And her expertise brought her notice as a consultant for organizations developing aquatic programs and manufacturers of aquatic equipment.

She assumes that being a native of Conway and a graduate of Hendrix College helped shape her life and gave her a heads up in carving out a career in physical fitness. But along the way, Essert became a victim of afflictions that put a crimp in her work. The specter of cancer and its awe-inspiring effects caused no end of travail for her in 1981. It was breast cancer and since that time she has worked to ameliorate its trauma with exercise projects for that cancer population. 

Then in 2007 a second cancer experience with a high grade sarcoma in her left arm and another in her lung made her "more determined to assist cancer survivors in their exercise and wellness programs."

She has no qualms about discussing her own illnesses. 

"I chose water for my own exercise," she explains. "I have worked in the pool daily through two bouts of chemotherapy for some 16 months and 35 sessions of radiation. Water, for me, is a panacea, a place where body, mind and spirit thrive. I’ve described myself as an Alka Selzer … add water and one bubble," she smiled impishly.  

Her vita points out that she is a certified Red Cross water safety trainer, bolds certification from the Aquatic Exercise Association and is a trainer for the Arthritis Foundation and a fitness instructor and personal trainer at the Conway Regional Health and Fitness Center.

When she captured the International Swimming Hall of Fame Award a couple of years ago, she felt that it capped all the honors she had received — until the Governor’s award. "It’s wonderful to be honored by your own people in your own state," says this petite woman who once was described as having the "metabolism of a humming bird."  

She is listed in Who’s Who in Aquatic Leadership and has a number of other awards she earned over the years.  A dozen or more publications in the field carry her name including her "Breast Cancer Water Book."

Essert says she was honored to be described by the governor’s office as a "luminary in the fight against physical inactivity and obesity" in Arkansas.