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May 1996

Betty Perkins-Carpenter
Olympic Coach and Fitness Entrepreneur

 

by Kim Ruiz BALCERZAK

Rochester native Betty Perkins-Carpenter would make a novel spokesperson for the Nike Corporation.

This diminutive former Olympic diving coach and fitness pioneer with the “Just Do It (TM)” attitude, embodies all that is right about being 50PLUS.

Betty is internationally renowned in the sports and fitness arena through her accomplished swimming and diving career, and her physical education work with children and seniors.

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Betty with her prestigious Fred A. Cady Diving Coach Award, one of the highest and most coveted honors in amateur diving.

Betty and “Chips” Carpenter.

A very young 65, Betty has successfully developed and run four corporations that incorporate her love of fitness - Perkins Swim Club, Fit-By-Five, Child Fitness Productions and Senior Fitness, Inc. She has also authored two books on senior fitness - “The Fun of Fitness” and “How To Prevent Falls.”

These activities, combined with her affiliate work on childrens’ and seniors’ fitness with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, keep this mother of two and grandmother of two on her toes. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Just how did the former little Betty Kalmn become one of the nation’s leading fitness experts?

“I was born into it,” she said. “They used to tell me that my playpen was on the pool deck. My mother and three brothers were known as ‘Rochester’s First Family of Champions.’ They held just about every city championship in swimming and diving for years.”

Betty participated in her first competition at age 5. From that point on aquatics took center stage.

She learned and worked beside her mother, often coaching younger children. She even started Rochester’s first synchronized swim team at Benjamin Franklin High School, where she was undefeated in diving.

After graduating high school at 16, Betty attended Cortland Normal School (now the State University College at Cortland) and pursued a degree in physical education. Because of her coaching experience, she taught swimming and diving at the college.

During her freshman year, Air Force recruiters made her an offer too good to refuse.

“They offered to pay for my schooling,” she said. “My Mom and Dad didn’t want me to go into the Air Force because, back then nice girls didn’t go into the military. So I got my Uncle Oscar, who was commander of the Navy Blimps at the Pentagon in Washington, to sign for me.”

That was a turning point in her life. She dove for the Air Force aquatic team, winning the Inter-Service Competition. She also established physical activity programs for the young children of Air Force-based personnel.

Betty met her first husband, Floyd Perkins, in the Air Force. When their service duties ended, the young Perkins family moved back to Rochester. Daughter Cheryl was born in 1952, followed by son Scott in 1954. The family also included three foster babies.

Something was still missing. Betty began teaching swimming and diving at the local YMCA.

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Betty and fellow 1990 Healthy American Fitness Leaders at an awards ceremony in Tampa, Florida.

As interest in her classes grew, she spotted talented children in need of close, one-on-one coaching to develop their skills. It became clear that another arena for instruction was needed.

In 1959, Betty embarked on her first business venture and prelude to the renowned Perkins Swim Club - a backyard pool club. It was far from smooth sailing.

After borrowing $4,000 to build the pool, town officials agreed to give her a commercial venture variance if she won neighborhood support. She gained that support by promising neighbors private swim time.

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Betty (right) with daughter Cheryl and granddaughter Jennifer.

As she prepared to break ground, she found herself between a rock and a hard place.

“Nobody told me that there was a rock ledge through Penfield,” Betty said. “The dozers came to dig the pool and about three feet down, they hit solid rock. We had to dynamite. When we blasted, most of my neighbors’ windows were broken and I had to borrow even more money to fix them.”

The pool club became an instant success with over 200 children enrolled and another 100 on a waiting list by the end of the second summer.

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Granddaughter Julie.

Granddaughter Jennifer.

Her teams were competing and winning local, district, state and Canadian-American championships.

Because of the pool’s popularity, Betty purchased a bubble air dome, making the pool a year-round club. At about 4 a.m. one morning, the bubble’s guide wire snapped, turning it into a giant balloon that kept filling up with air until it finally exploded.

Betty would not be deterred. She purchased a thicker bubble that was known as the ‘Circus Tent of Penfield’ because of its red and white stripes. Luck was not on her side.

“Believe it or not, a mini-twister went through Penfield and hit my bubble,” Betty said. It exploded into a million pieces and sounded like an atomic bomb. Red and white stripes were flying all over Penfield. We needed a permanent structure. That’s when I decided to construct my own building.”

And so, the Perkins Swim Club was born. Despite a lack of finances or strong business track record, Betty wheeled and dealed her way into the new swim club.

She had a professional model built, persuaded residents to invest in the club, purchased a tract of land and broke ground.

On July 20, 1964, the Perkins Swim Club opened for business. An outdoor pool was added in 1968.

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From left, Chips and Betty Carpenter with
daughter-in-law Virna and son Scott.

Throughout their history, Betty and the Swim Club produced winning teams and individual champions. From 1964 to 1972, Perkins divers were the only undefeated teams in their class in the Eastern United States.


Wendy Wyland, one of the Club’s divers who individually trained with Betty, qualified for the Olympic Trials, was the 1983 National Diving Champion and a 1984 Olympic Bronze Medalist.

Betty was also becoming recognized as a champion-rearing coach. As her teams progressed to the international level, Betty was climbing up the ranks of diving coaches, judges and referees.

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Betty Perkins-Carpenter pins an award on a spectator at a senior fitness event.

Her diving career reads like a Who’s Who in Sports. Among the groups she has served with are the U.S. Olympic Committee, National and Junior Olympic Diving Committee and National AAU Competitive Diving Committee.

In 1976, the American Divers and Coaches Association gave her it’s highest honor, the Fred A. Cady Diving Coach Award.

She was an assistant to the referee at the Olympics in Munich, aided in starting up the Empire State Games and founded the Can-Am-Mex Diving Competition in 1974.

In 1976, Betty coached the Turkish diving team in the Montreal Olympics, marking her place in history as the only American woman to ever coach a men’s and women’s Olympic Diving team.

Her star diver, a girl with dual American-Turkish citizenship who had been training with Betty, was asked to dive for the Turkish team. Betty opted to coach the Turkish team instead of leading a U.S. squad in European competitions for the eighth time.

On one of her overseas diving excursions, Betty developed a child fitness pre-school idea, now known as Fit-By-Five.

In 1969, she was in Italy with the U.S. swimming and diving team, when she learned about a Soviet study that compared the success of students in an academic pre-school with those in a gymnastic pre-school.

The students in the physically-oriented program excelled in studies of all disciplines and had more self-esteem, confidence and discipline than their counterparts.

Betty returned to the U.S., excited with the idea.

“I landed in New York and called my mother, because she had over 20 years’ experience in physical education,” Betty said. “I asked her if she thought I could do this, and she said ‘Betty Lou, you’ve flipped.’ I came back more fired up than ever.”

Betty created “Little Athlete’s Day Camp” in a field adjacent to the Swim Club. The program was very successful. Betty returned to the bank to borrow money - without a hitch this time - and added a second floor to the Swim Club. Fit-By-Five was a reality.

Throughout the years, she and her cadre of skilled physical education teachers, developed lessons that incorporated such academic skills as counting and recognizing shapes and colors through physical movement.

Fit-By-Five was a hit. in 1984, franchises sprung up nationwide. Betty has even lectured on its techniques in Czechoslovakia, Japan and Ireland.

Today, Betty focuses on licensing the program. To date, there are schools in Alabama, Michigan, Ohio, California and Massachusetts. Negotiations are in the works with Korea and Greece.

“My dream is to get this program into the inner city someday,” Betty said. “So many children have blossomed because there are no failures in Fit-By-Five. There’s no peer pressure. Children know they can try again and again.”

Betty started her third business, Child Fitness Productions, in 1984. This venture produced informational materials on child development.

Since 1987, it has expanded into Senior Fitness Productions, Inc.

Through this business, Betty teaches senior fitness classes and provides consultation on issues affecting senior citizens.

Her books on senior fitness and preventing falls, published under this venture, are used by medical professionals around the world.

“In my 35 years of working with seniors, I have never seen them in such a quest for knowledge,” Betty said. “They don’t take their doctor’s world as final. They’re very much aware of alternative medicine and prevention. They’re getting what I like to call an ‘I can do it’ attitude.”

“Exercise has a lot of connotations for seniors, because gym classes weren’t much fun when they were young - they were horrible. If you talk about exercise in terms of wellness and prevention, you get their attention.”

Somehow, in the midst of running her businesses, coaching, diving and raising her family, Betty found time to complete her education.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education administration from Empire State College, a master’s degree in child care administration from Nova University in Florida, and a certificate in gerontology from St. John Fisher College, where she is an adjunct instructor.

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Betty assists a senior on the
balance beam.

At 65, Betty has no intentions of retiring.

Though her first marriage ended in divorce 18 years ago, she found love again three years later with Marcellus “Chips” Carpenter, a Coast Guard and Case-Hoyt retiree. He also served as the business manager for the Rochester Red Wings baseball club affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.

She also has an agent who has signed her with St. Martin’s Press, and is exploring the possibility of making videos based on her books.

What does the future hold for this energetic dynamo?

“I’d love to go to medical school,” she said. “But with Fit-By-Five expanding to other states and the work involved in licensing the pre-schools, there’s just not much time. I do get to work a lot with doctors on my balance system and in research pertaining to seniors.”

What advice does she have for her fellow seniors?

“Keep moving ... what you can, as much as you can,” Betty said. “Yes, it’s going to hurt, but disuse invites decay.”

“Seniors deal with a lot of loss and stress in their lives. The best way to deal with these factors is with a strong emotional support system. Keep actively involved with other seniors. Volunteer your time. Stay active and keep learning something new and different.”

Kim Ruiz Balcerzak is Managing Editor of Living Prime Time 50PLUS.
Photos courtesy of Betty Perkins-Carpenter.

 

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