SwimLabs Rides London's Wave

The United States' medal-hogging in swim events has given one Colorado business a major boost.
Business Writers
August 24, 2012

If you think that the nation’s fascination with swimming is done now that torch has been extinguished at the Summer Games, you’d be all wet.

Business is just starting for people who coach swimmers. 

``We call it the Olympic ripple,’’ says Michael Mann, president of SwimLabs Swim School, a company in Highlands Ranch, Colo. The ripple “flows through the competitive teams, then to the learn-to-swim programs... We will see a lot more competitive swimmers this fall, all of them looking to improve their technique."

Medals As Free Advertising 

Mann saw this phenomenon after 2008, when Michael Phelps won eight medals in Beijing. Mann started the company in 2006 in the basement of an animal hospital in a Denver suburb. The first month he estimates that the school’s several instructors offered 250 lessons. Since then SwimLabs has given more than 100,000 lessons and employs 25 full-time instructors. “We had our best year in 2009,’’ Mann says. Enrollment jumped almost 20 percent “and we’re on that target this year.’’

Another reason to expect a jump in business will be the proximity of Team USA darling Missy Franklin, who lives in Centennial, Colo., a few hundred feet from Mann’s offices.

“The Olympics always elevates the sport, especially swimming,’’ Mann says. “The last time when Phelps got all the medals, all the [local youth] teams had waiting lists to get on. That’s happening now.’’ Parents are calling, saying that a son or daughter has decided to be a swimmer, instead of a gymnast or baseball player. “Little girls watch Missy, why not? There’ll be pretty big effect.’’

Taking a Risk

Mann started the business after he was laid off in construction. The former University of New Mexico swimmer had a background in franchising and found space for three small pools in the building on a dead-end street.

“After doing 90 percent of the work, we opened our doors. We hadn’t even advertised," Mann says. “My wife said, ‘if it doesn’t work, we’re going to have three pools in the backyard and you’re going to be teaching kids.'"

The children did come, sent by other parents who would pass on Mann’s name at swim meets. Next, the competitive swimmers arrived, as well as parents looking for an edge in triathlons.

How It Works  

Mann believes that proper technique will help each swimmer get the most out of each stroke. Lessons take place in small pools with flow systems that push against the swimmer, keeping their bodies in place. Each pool has three mirrors on the bottom and one in front, and there’s a video monitor on the wall. Swimmers watch themselves continuously in the mirrors and then can stop and review their strokes on the playback.

“Children are very visual. Adults – more so,’’ Mann says. “They are so ingrained in their habits. When they put their heads in the water, they shut off the brain and have their arms working. If they look up on the screen, they can make immediate improvements.’’

Using video is a great way to prevent and overcome injuries, he says.

“If their shoulder’s having a problem we can see immediately if they’re over-rotating or pulling off to the side,’’ Mann says. “I see your video in the front to side to top. I can slow to a single frame. We can really see what you’re doing.’’

He charges children $65 for four lessons. Adult lessons cost as much as $65 for a single class. He also offers video analysis, for people who can’t get to Colorado.

Going Global

Word has spread beyond the Denver area. Mann has phone apps that offer swim tips and he has attracted athletes from China, Belgium and Switzerland. He figures up to 15 percent of his customers are triathletes. He’s hoping that in the coming months he’ll be able to build partnerships with individuals in the east and west coasts.

At 58, Mann still practices what he preaches. He’s a regular at U.S. Masters Swimming meets, and has set 15 individual records—including those in the most difficult pool events, the 400-meter individual medley and the 1,500 freestyle.

Best of all? "I don’t have three pools in my backyard," he says. “Thank the Lord."

Suzanne Sataline is a newspaper and magazine writer with 25 years experience, most recently on the staff of The Wall Street Journal. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Popular Science, Washingtonian magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.

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