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Coach Betsy Patterson, ‘The epitome of strength,’ dies at 53

Betsy Patterson, center, died Friday, 10 years after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Here she stands with  with four Sandia High swimmers during the 2012 season. (Courtesy of the Patterson family)
Betsy Patterson, center, died Friday, 10 years after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Here she stands with with four Sandia High swimmers during the 2012 season. (Courtesy of the Patterson family)
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There was no intimidating Coach Betsy.

Teaching thousands of children to swim – be it an eventual state champion or a wheelchair-bound special needs child – didn’t faze her.

It never crossed her mind that getting in the face of a 6-foot-4 world champion mixed-martial artist Jon “Bones” Jones was a bad idea.

And the cancer she held at bay for the better part of the past decade sure as hell didn’t stop her from living her life the only way she knew how and sharing her passion with the youth of Albuquerque.

 Patterson is shown with four Sandia High swimmers during the 2012 season.Betsy Patterson wears her "supercoach" uniform at a swim meet.  (Courtesy Of The Patterson Family)

Betsy Patterson wears her “supercoach” uniform at a swim meet. (Courtesy of the Patterson family)

Hazel Elizabeth “Betsy” Hall Patterson, 53, who spent the past quarter century coaching swimming at the club level and at Sandia High School, died Friday, 10 years after first diagnosed with breast cancer.

A memorial service will be held for Patterson at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Sandia Presbyterian Church, 10704 Paseo del Norte NE.

“She was the epitome of strength,” said Chris Baker, a former pupil who is now the head coach at Sandia and also a club coach with Charger Aquatics, where he worked with Patterson.

“She was never scared. She wanted to show that anybody can do anything. She certainly wasn’t defeated by cancer.”

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, Patterson was told by her doctor she could still exercise while going through treatment. So she did.

“After she had gone through a very rigorous chemotherapy regiment, she would still ride her bike to radiation every day – do a 20-30 mile round trip bike ride to have radiation done,” said Ashley Burns, Patterson’s oldest child.

“They didn’t know her. That’s just who she was. Everything was done in the extreme.”

The cancer was seemingly gone for almost eight years until 2013, when doctors found it again in her liver. She underwent a liver resection surgery in April. But by then, the cancer had spread elsewhere.

Patterson fought off the cancer long enough to see a family business swim school open in May, leave her hospital bed for a few hours the previous Sunday to be with her husband and three children and attend her daughter’s wedding, and to knit several blankets for her first grandchild, who is due in November.

Patterson’s mother passed away Thursday, the night before Patterson died.

An accomplished swimmer herself, Patterson and her husband, Charles, moved to Albuquerque in 1985. It wasn’t long after that she turned a lifetime of swimming into a budding coaching career.

By the time Ashley was in high school, the two were starting to coach hundreds of children each summer in the family’s backyard pool — a labor of love that blossomed this spring into the opening of the Fish Factory Swim School in northeast Albuquerque.

“It was always kind of our dream to build a swimming pool and make this into a reality,” Burns said.

Through it all, Patterson was also coaching the Sandia High School team and swimmers of all ages with the Duke City and Charger Aquatics club teams. But it wasn’t just about producing championship swimmers, though she did plenty of that through the years.

Patterson also embraced the challenge of teaching swimmers who would never stand atop a podium.

In 2004, Greg and Dana Fotieo brought their 4-year-old autistic son, Ryan, to Patterson after seeing her success coaching their daughter, Kirsten.

“He was very resistant those first visits with her,” Greg Fotieo said. “It wasn’t something he wanted to be doing, that’s for sure. But she spent the time with him to teach him. (Now 14), he’s still swimming today, so I think it’s safe to say he enjoys it and that’s because of her and the time she took with him.”

Ryan is hardly alone. Patterson frequently worked with kids with a variety of special needs, from autism to shaken baby syndrome to cerebral palsy.

“She felt like the water was the great equalizer for kids who couldn’t be on soccer teams or basketball teams or couldn’t play in team sports,” Burns said. “They could still get in the pool, and they could swim and enjoy themselves.”

Patterson also worked through the years with local military personnel who would often seek her assistance when enlisting or even before being deployed.

But her goodwill came with a catch. She’d speak her mind whenever she felt the need.

So when she saw a group of large, muscular men come into Sandia pool a few years ago to work out with rather subpar technique, she wasn’t about to sit by and bite her tongue.

“She wasn’t, like, rude about telling them what they were doing wrong, but she walked up to them and said, ‘Look, we’re going to fix this, this and this,’ ” Burns said. “It turned out to be (UFC champion) Jon Jones and a bunch of other fighters. I’m not sure what they thought at first.”

Jones grew to love his time with Patterson, admitting he broke down in tears Friday when he learned of her death.

“Coach Betsy is honestly one of the strongest women I knew,” said Jones, who said he is dedicating his next fight camp to her and will honor her beyond that by making sure his daughters learn to swim. “She never allowed me to settle in the pool.”

Jones didn’t know how to swim when he met Patterson and thought his time at the pool would be merely a low-impact way to keep his cardio up between fights.

Patterson had other ideas, often getting in the pool herself and beating Jones and other Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA gym fighters in races.

“In April we were going to the pool and Jon was doing a camp (preparing for Glover Teixeira at UFC 172),” Burns said. “When she thought they weren’t working hard enough, she would get in (the pool) and beat them, and then they would get mad and try to go faster. She was doing all kinds of stuff a 52-year-old cancer patient shouldn’t be doing.”

Jones admitted he never beat Patterson in a race, even when wearing flippers. Patterson, he added, motivated him as much as any coach he’s had.

“I could be swimming for a whole hour, and she’d see one lap that was ugly and she’d make me do it over. She was tough on me. She really was,” Jones said. “That’s what made her great. She held everyone to a high standard. I’m going to miss her, man. I really am. She was just a great person.”

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