“Dig deep!” Patsy Helgren yells from the deck of the pool at GB3 in Clovis. She hits a tambourine against the palm of her hand as she counts repetitions for the three dozen gym-goers in her Monday morning water aerobics class.
The students, many of them silver-haired, hang onto the pool’s wall and flutter their feet to the beat of Helgren’s instrument. Their faces harden in determination as their muscles endure through 100 reps.
“Work harder!” calls Helgren, as she counts out another 100 reps before giving attendees a break and encouraging them to check their pulse.
A majority of the people in the pool are seniors, but Helgren has them beat — she turns 80 today.
“I think this is what 80 should feel like,” Helgren replies when asked if she feels her age. “I think if you sit, you deteriorate. I think if you keep moving and you’re around people and have an optimistic outlook at life, your life should be enjoyable.”
She is certainly an inspiration to those who take her weekly water aerobics class and her three-days-a-week Pilates class at GB3.
“We all admire Patsy so much. She’s a strength and an inspiration to all of us who attend her classes,” said Naomi Follett, who has been in Helgren’s Pilates class off and on since 2007. “She looks like she’s 60; she could even pass for 50. She’s just a specimen of good health.”
Helgren’s daughter, Rhonda Waters, said her mother is a role model for a lot of people. They both go to the same gym and other members will often approach Waters to tell her how much they love her mom.
“Her motto has always been ‘Keep moving, no matter how old you are or how achy,’ ” Waters said. “I work at a doctor’s office and I see people come in younger than her and they’ve got a walker and they’ve got health issues. I look at my mom and I think, ‘You’re so amazing!’ ”
Helgren said she has always tried to maintain an active lifestyle. She worked part-time in various jobs — even driving a bus for Clovis Unified School District — while raising six children.
“I never liked to be in an office; I never liked to be sitting. I picked things that were active,” she said.
Helgren gave birth to her youngest child when she was 40. That’s when she decided to take up exercise classes at Clovis Adult School to get in shape. She switched to a local dance studio because she loved choreography, and learned that she wouldn’t have to pay as much if she started teaching part of the class.
That led to a 36-year-and-running career as a fitness instructor at various gyms, including George Brown’s Clovis Athletic Club, Bally’s and now GB3.
The years of dance aerobics took a toll, however.
“I’ve had one knee replacement and the other is bone-on-bone,” Helgren said. “I dropped down to just one water aerobics class a week because I’m not in the water, I’m on the deck.”
Several of her students have also had hip or knee replacements, Helgren said, and the low-impact water aerobics class is easier on their joints but still a good workout for their muscles.
She has taught stretching, strengthening and body alignment on a mat at her 7 a.m. Pilates class three days a week since the Clovis GB3 location opened in 2004.
Her classes are usually full, but Helgren makes it a point to seek out new faces in the crowd — and remember their names.
“I know the reason people keep coming back is because of her,” Follett said. “She has such a pleasant, kindhearted, interesting way about her. She makes the class enjoyable.”
It’s also educational.
“She’s a dedicated-to-health type of instructor, Follett said. “She brings in something health-related each week. Recently she sent us all home with a paper that names the areas of our body and continually quizzes us throughout class asking what part of the body are we working on.”
Follett said she is inspired by Helgren’s devotion to promoting health.
“Even when she goes on vacation, it’s to go to exercise conventions, where she learns new things and comes to share them with us,” she said.
The octogenarian is also dedicated to her students.
“If she knows if someone is out ill or having surgery she’ll ask the class to sign get well cards so she can send them,” Follett said. “She’s very thoughtful and genuine.”
Since most of Helgren’s students are in their 60s or older, she also collects their phone numbers and email addresses so she can check in on them if they unexpectedly skip a class.
“You just fall in love with these people,” Helgren said. “Gym people are doers. They get up in the morning, they get dressed, they come. These little ladies get up and put their swimsuits on. Summer, winter — it doesn’t matter. It’s really neat.”
When she’s not leading classes at GB3, Helgren can be found working in yard or hosting Tuesday evening Bible studies in her home.
“I’m a Christian. I go to First Baptist Church in Clovis with one of my sons,” she said.
Helgren grew up in Mariposa but moved to Clovis in 1961.
“When I moved here the population was 4,000,” she said. “It’s changed a lot. We used to know everybody in town.”
Helgren has 16 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren — and another on the way — to keep up with as well.
“We have a happy home,” Helgren said. Her husband, Don, will be 78 in September. He is just as active as his wife.
“He played street hockey on Saturday with our sons and some other guys. We’re an active family,” she said.
To celebrate her grandson’s 7th birthday a couple of weeks ago, the family played baseball together at Red Bank Elementary school.
As an early birthday present, Helgren and her husband watched the Michael Jackson Tribute Show at The Stratosphere in Las Vegas.
“She came back to class with a Michael Jackson T-shirt on,” Follett said. “She’s is so hip!”
Whether it’s Pilates or water aerobics, the class is never silent.
“She loves loud music,” Follett said. “We can barely hear ourselves.”
Helgren doesn’t deny it.
“You know how you like your music loud in the car? I like it loud in Pilates, too. Someone will say ‘Turn it down!’ And I’ll say, ‘You party poopers!’ ”