Gertrude Farrell never thought she would go to college, but now she is working toward an associate of arts degree.

She used to feel self-conscious about playing the violin, but now she plays in the Northern Virginia Community College orchestra.

She never used to compete in athletics, but now she trains daily to retain the gold-medal status she reached last spring.

Farrell, of Falls Church, mother of four and grandmother of five, has found at age 68 that life is loaded with opportunities.

Farrell says in her youth she was too busy helping her family make ends meet by "bunching flowers on my dad's flower ranch" in Falls Church to pursue her personal interests. She also held down a job as a secretary during the day and finished high school at night.

"I began working then and didn't stop until I retired when I was 62," Farrell says. "There was just no opportunities for me to go to college."

Farrell married when she was 23 and spent her middle years raising her family and working as a secretary for the government. Five major operations in her late 50s and early 60s dimmed her hopes for "a retirement that provided spiritual growth in mind, body and spirit."

Farrell retired after her fifth operation. While she was recuperating, she says, "ideas began percolating" in her mind."

"I had seen old people who looked fine but were suffering from hardening of the arteries," Farrell says. "I said, 'I can't let that happen to me.' I was prone to circulatory problems, so I figured I'd better start exercising."

She enrolled in two exercise programs for senior citizens -- Rejuvinate Your Joints at George Mason University and a Fairfax County class called The Golden Retrievers. With the encouragement of those programs, she was soon involved in running, stretching exercises, square dancing, golf and even some soccer.

Last spring Farrell won the mile run in Virginia's Golden Olympics in the 65-69 age bracket.

"Someone cracked that they were going to time me with a sun dial," she laughs, "but I made my best time ever. I have a mile course that I try to run every day. I'm going to compete against this spring."

From that beginning, Farrell has expanded her activities. In 1978, she enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College. Despite some early fears about how she would be received in class, she says college turned out to be "a very happy experience all around. The interchange of ideas with the young people is extremely fascinating."

The courses, particularly astronomy and history, have been "meaty" and difficult. "It was hard getting used to homework and studying. I taped some of my classes, and it took hours to play the tapes back and transcribe them."

When she scored the highest grade in her reading improvement class, Farrell says her morale was boosted. Now, she says, the only course she fears is math. "But I figure if others have done it, I can do it, too."

That same attitude is what motivated her to pick up the violin in 1978 for the first time since she was 18. " was so self-conscious about it when I was younger," she says."Now I figure if I fumble, I fumble."

She "played the jury" recently so her instructor could see her progress, and Farrell came away satisfied. "We think I'm making fast progress," she says.

Farrell says a typical day in her life goes something like this:

Up at 6 a.m. for coffee while a heating pad warms her back. Then it's time for stretching, followed by the mile run that gets her "pepped up".

Then it's inside for violin practice and later, classes, followed by an evening of studying and relaxation. On some evenings and on Sundays, she sings in the choir at the Church of the Nazarene in the District, where she has sung for 42 years.

Farrell says she gets her energy from "ideas and getting involved and then testing and daring."

She says now is the time to get involved in at least three more things she missed in her previous 67 years: a course in Spanish, ice skating and bicycling.