December 01, 2023

‘She’s an institution all by herself’

For 32 years, Sarah Patterson has walked up the same flight of stairs to get to the same classroom.

But that is about to change.

Patterson is a few weeks away from retiring as a teacher. What’s next, the long-time NCMP Aquagirl coach is not yet sure.

“I don’t know. And I love that I don’t know,” Patterson said. “I just want to take a break. I will probably eventually have a flexible part-time job. I won’t close the door on anything.

“I love to write. If I can bring that to a new area, that would be fun. Maybe I will just watch the Today show all morning and take a nap in the afternoon. That would be OK, too.”

While her time as a teacher is coming to an end, Patterson also has decided to give up her coaching posts at the school.

Moving forward, it will be hard to mention the NCMP Aquagirl brand without mentioning Patterson’s name.

She built the brand from the ground up. Her first team won no more than one dual. She also had a team of 54 swimmers in the early 2000s.

“It’s been a great ride. The highs have been some of the best in my life,” Patterson said. “The sport has watched me grow up and I’ve gone through some personal ups and downs, too.”

Patterson came to the state of Iowa to swim collegiately at Iowa State University. When she accepted the job in Newton, she thought she may spend five years at most in the community.

“I thought maybe I’d be in this small town for a few years. And here we are all these years later,” Patterson said. “I liked the town, I liked the size of the town and once I became the head coach I felt super loyal and I wanted to build something here. You can’t really build something in two years or even five years.”

Patterson has built maybe the most consistent program in the school. And with it being only one class, she has had to navigate coaching against programs like West Des Moines Valley, Dowling Catholic, Ankeny and Waukee while most other athletic programs at the school have made the drop to Class 3A.

It hasn’t stopped the Aquagirls from competing in the state meet every year and even coming home with top-15 finishes consistently each season.

“You don’t join swimming in Newton just to be a great swimmer,” Newton High School Principal Bill Peters said. “She’ll get you there. But you join it because you want to be around a person who is going to make you better. She’s that person.

“When you think of positivity, excitement, caring and excellent teaching skills, she embodies all of that. She can push you in a positive manner. That ability to connect with kids and adults is absolute gold.”

Peters knows first-hand what kind of teacher and coach Patterson is. His daughter Dani swam for her a few years back.

“She’s an institution all by herself,” Peters said. “There are certain educators and coaches who you talk about for years to come and the effect they had on the people around them.

“She meets the kids where they are and moves them forward from there. She’ll get kids to do a lot more than they ever thought they could. That’s the sign of a master.”

Part of Patterson’s decision to step away from teaching and coaching is because she simply wants to slow down. She’s just ready to move on from the grind.

“I spend most Sundays grading papers. That’s why the 32 years took a lot out of me,” Patterson said. “I just don’t want to spend 4-6 hours every Sunday grading papers anymore.

“It feels like two full-time jobs some days. I had 30 years with the program. It’s time for the next person. I have never been to a high school reunion. I have missed a lot of things. I have missed weddings. It’s hard to be gone.”

Chris Forsythe spent 21 years as Patterson’s top assistant coach. That position transitioned to Jenny Jensen over the course of the last nine years.

Bob LeBlanc and Hannah Scotton have been volunteer assistants under Patterson and Laura Cellucci was the program’s diving coach for years, too.

Every great head coach will tell you they are nothing without good assistant coaches. Patterson is no different.

“I can’t say enough good things about that group,” Patterson said. “Chris and I grew up together. We were in our 20s as coaches. Jenny was a former swimmer and student of mine. The loyalty they had to the program was fantastic. They’d balance me out if I got too competitive. Jenny balanced out my competitive side and Chris balanced out my crazy side.

“I have had so many great managers over the years, too. They are great kids that got nothing in return.”

Patterson swam for two years at Iowa State University. She was a high school state champion and record holder, too.

Swimming is different than other sports. And that might be what Patterson likes the most about it.

“My highs and lows as an athlete in swimming, I have always been able to bring those to the coaching table,” Patterson said. “I love how you have to work hard in swimming. We will get our butts kicked if we don’t work hard. It yields so many life lessons. Swimming is a grind. If you can do it, you can almost do anything.”

Patterson had to give up coaching for at least her first year of “retirement,” but she didn’t rule out someday returning to the grind.

The plan for now though is to not really have a plan.

“I don’t think I know what I will miss until I miss it. I know I will miss the relationships with my athletes and the athletes’ families,” Patterson said. “I’m not ruling out coaching again. Maybe not head coach, but maybe it’s middle school track because they need somebody. Something not as demanding that is still coaching.”

Contact Troy Hyde at