Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

When Patti Scott-Baier moved to Sonora, there weren't a lot of options for structured swimming.

The swimmer and fitness enthusiast had moved from Modesto by way of Davis and, at the time, had to drive three days a week to the Valley to work out in a pool.

"I even put a lap pool in the backyard," Scott-Baier, 60, said. "But I couldn't swim in the winter."

Now, she's in charge of one of the biggest adult competitive swim programs in Northern California with participants in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. And while her competitive swimming has slowed down, she now directs that energy toward helping others succeed in the water.

"If I could get everyone in the community to swim, I would do that," she said.

The Tuolumne County Aquatic Masters program is for swimmers over 18 who train for regional and national competitions. They train in four competitive strokes - freestyle, back, breast and butterfly.

Many of the 350 to 400 swimmers from the area are active seniors.

Scott-Baier actually arrived at the local Masters though coaching youth, as she was asked to head up a youth class for a for a short stretch. She had been in a Masters program in Davis, and worked with youth there as well.

"It was fun to do something that my kids were doing at the time," said Scott-Baier, who has three children. "I said I would coach three months."

That was about 15 years ago.

Raised in Davis, Scott-Baier learned to swim in a neighbor's pool as a youth and started swimming competitively at age 7 with a brother.

She continued swimming through high school, though the school did not have a team. She often practiced with local college swimmers.

Her senior year, she participated in nationals for freestyle stroke, something she said was a big deal for her at the time.

"It was a goal," Scott-Baier said.

She continued swimming in college on her own time, starting at UC Davis and finishing at Sacramento State University with a nursing degree. While in her 20s, she started running and has since been in multiple marathons - including the high-profile Boston Marathon - and triathlons.

She initially studied exercise and physiology in college with the hope of teaching or coaching, but changed her mind.

"Nobody wanted to do P.E. in high school," she said.

Instead, Scott-Baier worked as a nurse in cardiac rehabilitation and ICU before moving to Sonora with her husband, Rick, and the kids. The experience in nursing, she said, has helped her with her work in sports and fitness, giving her a science and health care background with focus on cardiac work.

When she started with the Masters program in Sonora, it had about 20 people, she said. When Sonora Sport and Fitness center installed a new pool area in 2003, they had about 100, she said.

"It just grew from there," she said.

Scott-Baier described coaching as a challenge where one must balance the need to be consistent with all swimmers, treating them with the same amount of respect and attention, while at the same time understanding the different needs of each individual.

Treat people the same, she says, while understanding that everyone is different.

The rewards are there, she says. A competitive person, Scott-Baier said she has cut back on competitive swimming because it's practically impossible to compete effectively and coach effectively at the same meets. That energy now goes toward helping others succeed, whether it's improving on a time or watching them make their first pool length on a challenging stroke.

"You get a lot of satisfaction working with someone as they improve," she said. "If you give knowledge or a skill to someone else, maybe it's better than doing it yourself."

Many of them come to the pool with no background in competitive sports. Some have very little or no swimming background, but are looking for a low-impact way to increase health and fitness.

The pool can be intimidating, especially for those folks, she said. One of the biggest things to learn is to breathe properly while in the water, though there are other issues shared by many new adult swimmers.

"Put on a swimsuit, whether you're a woman or a man, everyone has body issues," she said. "But everyone looks pretty much the same once we get in."

Today, Scott-Baier hopes to get back to running more consistently, as injury issues kept her off the road for a while, and possibly compete in another triathlon.

One of her goals right now is to run a race with her adult children, who - not surprisingly - grew up with active lives and now run, swim or both. She is also a soon-to-be grandmother, with a due date in March.

Scott-Baier recalls running a fun run with them years ago at a triathlon event, having a "really good time." Health and education she said, were always important aspects of their lives.

"If I can be in a run with them, that would be fun," she said.