Veteran aquatics supervisor endeared herself to hundreds of children with disabilities

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sharron Patapoff, shown here in her natural work environment at the Beaverton Swim Center on Southwest Third Street, is retiring as the center's supervisor just before the facility shuts down for renovations.Mia Coad remembers the first time she brought Mason, her young, developmentally disabled son, to the Beaverton Swim Center.

“He was screaming and kicking,” she recalled. “I was so embarrassed. I was going to pull him out of the water.”

Enter Sharron Patapoff, the center’s longtime supervisor.

“She said, ‘It’s harder on you than anybody else. Go outside and come back in. Believe me, in a year from today, he won’t want to get out of the water,’ ” Coad said. “She was encouraging me not to give up. In a good six months, he did that. He was like a little fish.”

At the 2011 Summer Special Olympics Games in Athens, Greece, Coad took home two gold medals for his swimming prowess.

Coad’s transition from fear to comfort in the water are more the rule than the exception at the center, where Patapoff has directed lessons and programs for the past 30 years. Known for her warmth, irrepressibly upbeat personality, passion and caring for the children and parents with whom she works, the 67-year-old also has a practical side.

That pragmatism — along with the love of her own family — is driving her decision to retire, after serving as the swim center’s supervisor since 1983, at the end of this week.

With the pool at 12850 S.W. Third St. set to close on Monday for three months of seismic upgrades and improvements, what better time, she thought, than to step down and get reacquainted with family and leisure-oriented pursuits.

“I knew this closure was happening, and I knew it would be closed three or four months,” she said while taking a shade break on the swim center lawn last week. “Because of that, I was thinking that it would be a really opportunistic time to retire.”

Patapoff, who founded the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District’s Specialized Aquatics program, will be sent off in style this weekend, as friends, co-workers and swim center patrons gather for a retirement pool party on Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. The event, which is open to the public, includes free swimming for all guests who bring non-perishable food donations to benefit the Oregon Food Bank.

Although she admitted some initial ambivalence, writing down the pros and cons of staying versus stepping down — factoring in her 4-year-old grandson, Dexter, and 18-month-old Daphne with her love of the swim center community — helped solidify her decision.

“It just seemed like the perfect time,” she says. “I’m an older grandmother. I don’t want to run out of time.”

Her newfound freedom will also clear the way for hobbies, exercise, volunteerism and whims that her current schedule doesn’t comfortably accommodate.

“There are a lot of things I want to do. Something as simple as taking a class. Zumba lessons. Golf. To be able to read without falling asleep at night. I just want it to be fun. And I’m young enough to be able to do what I’m thinking about in my head. I want to be fit enough to do all those things.”

One stroke at a time

A resident of the Aloha-Reedville area since 1979, Patapoff got her earliest pool time around age 7, while growing up in Lebanon, southeast of Albany. Working as a lifeguard at the local neighborhood pool, Patapoff developed her strokes through high school and at the University of Oregon, where she majored in education.

While still lifeguarding, she was a classroom teacher for five years, moving to various locales before settling in the Portland area. While updating her Water Safety Instructor training certification, Patapoff was approached by Peg Ogilbee, the park district’s former aquatics supervisor, about a job at THPRD’s Aloha Swim Center.

“She asked me at the end of class if I was interested in a job,” Patapoff recalled. “I said, ‘No, not really. I have two children at home.’ She said, ‘How about a couple nights a week?’”

Her part-time commitment quickly escalated.

“I’ve literally taught in every pool,” she noted.

Prepared to return to teaching in the fall of 1983, a job opening that summer changed her career course. Encouraged by Diana Waterstreet, superintendent of the Tualatin Hills Aquatic Center, Patapoff went for a program where she could work with children with disabilities as well as able-bodied youngsters.

“I said, ‘Wow, Diana, I don’t have a lot of skills,’” she recalled. “She said, ‘I think you’ll be great.’

“I just learned on the job. Beaverton was just open at night and weekends. It wasn’t until the early ‘90s that it went to a daylong pool. Then things just really grew.”

About 110 children come through the aquatics programs each season. While down syndrome and spina bifida used to be the more common disabilities, autism and Asperger syndrome now characterize about 75 percent of children in the specialized aquatics program.

“It’s a very high percentage in Oregon,” she said. “It’s pretty evident in this program that that’s a huge change. (Swimming) is a great sport for children with autism. It’s quiet, and they’re by themselves.”

She credits her young staff members, in their teens and early 20s, with keeping the program as vibrant as it is.

“Working with those kids, they have such creative ideas,” she said. “It wouldn’t be the same program if it were run by all adults. This staff of mine has the opportunity to work with these individuals, and that experience is priceless.”

A time to sing

Although Patapoff’s successor, Brian Powers, is more than able of taking over the center’s programs, Waterstreet, her longtime colleague, said Patapoff is not the kind of employee to be replaced.

“It’s going to be a different park district without her,” Waterstreet said. “She brings that levity and a smile every place she goes.”

Gwen Foley, a longtime volunteer with the specialized aquatics program and Special Olympics, said Patapoff asked her to help out with the program about 30 years ago, “and now she can’t get rid of me.”

“She’s just a neat person to work with,” Foley said of Patapoff. “She always has a positive attitude about everything. She’s always up. She’s going to be missed in that program.”

Noting Patapoff’s propensity for singing “Happy Birthday” to staff members or anybody she finds out is deserving, Foley isn’t convinced her old friend found the exact fit for her skills.

“There’s some different version she likes to sing. You never quite know when, or what it’s going to be,” she said. “I think she missed her calling as an entertainer.”

Patapoff, who plans to sing, and possibly dance, at her retirement send-off starting at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, is proudest of the programs’ quality and parental support.

“The high quality of the lesson programs and the fact that I have an incredible staff are probably the things I will miss the most,” she said. “We’ve worked really hard to create the programs, and people like to attend them. I’m very fortunate that way.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sharron Patapoff, supervisor at the Beaverton Swim Center, hugs her grandson, Dexter, 4, after his swim lessons at the center. Patapoff is about to retire after 30 years in her supervisory role.

Last day goes to the dogs

Sharron Patapoff will spend her last official day on the job at the Beaverton Swim Center in service to the Doggie Paddle, a dogs-only swim held from 1 to 4 p.m.

The event will mark the last activity at the center at 2850 S.W. Third St., before it temporarily closes for seismic upgrades and other improvements funded by the 2008, voter-approved $100 million bond measure.

"After the first Doggie Paddle in February at our Aloha Swim Center, we had so many people asking when we were doing it again," said Sharon Hoffmeister, Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District's superintendent of aquatics. "We are glad we have another opportunity to offer a fun and unique event for our four-legged friends."

Cost is $5 per dog in advance or $8 on the day of the event.

All dogs are welcome, large and small. Check-in begins 15 minutes before each scheduled swim session, at 1, 2 and 3 p.m.

Owners are asked to bring towels to dry their dogs and disposable pet waste bags to quickly clean up any messes. Water toys are permitted. No other pets or humans will be allowed in the pool, though owners will be allowed on deck to play with their dogs.

Patrons are also encouraged to bring donations of high-quality dog/puppy food, Frontline products, soft dog treats and Kong toys to benefit the Bonnie L. Hays Small Animal Shelter.

To register and for more information, call 503-629-6312 or visit

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