In the Swim

Financier to open 21 Big Blue Swim School locations in the Mountain West

Austin Smith is passionate about the water. The financier from Salt Lake City, Utah, spent his childhood swimming in pools and lakes, and later took up scuba diving. Now he is diving into a very different aspect of the water: the learn-to-swim industry. 

Austin Smith

Smith has big plans to open 21 Big Blue Swim School locations in Utah, Arizona and Nevada over the next seven years. The first of these will open in Oram, Utah, in early 2023. He expects the first locations in Arizona and Nevada to open by late 2023 or early 2024, with three or four opening per year in each state until all 21 swim schools are open. It’s an ambitious plan, but Smith is confident it will succeed. 

“I think there’s immense opportunity in these markets,” Smith says. He cites in particular the small number of high-quality swim school options as well as the large number of children in the Mountain West. “I would argue there are more kids here than anywhere else in the world,” he adds, with a laugh. 

Big Blue Swim School works with children from six months to 12 years of age. The teachers are all lifeguard certified and trained to be expert instructors. The aim is not only to teach children how to swim and feel safe and confident around the water, but also to teach them vital life skills. 

“For a lot of these kids, jumping into the deep end of the pool is one of the scariest things they could do,” says Smith. “You teach them how to do something really hard, like overcoming their fear of the water. Then they ask themselves, ‘What other difficult things and circumstances can I overcome?’ It impacts them for the rest of their lives. Swim lessons can provide a great foundation for these kids to develop personally and learn how to do hard things.”

Big Blue was launched, in large part, to combat childhood drownings, Smith adds. “That’s something we’re passionate about,” he says. “We want to have an impact on reducing childhood drownings. While they may not be 100% preventable, I think absolutely a large number could be prevented if children just understood the dangers that come from being around the water and how to be safe.”  

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While the investment as a franchisee is significant, Smith says that there are opportunities for pool professionals to get involved in Big Blue. 

“We’re a newer organization and we’re growing fast,” Smith says. “We’re always looking for new people to work with who understand the industry and want to be involved.”

Big Blue Swim Schools, co-founded by U.S. National Championship swimmer Chris DeJong, is reported to be one of the nation’s fastest growing swim school franchises. DeJong’s competitive career ended in 2008 when he lost in an Olympic qualifying race to Michael Phelps by three-tenths of a second. Not yet ready to turn his back on swimming, DeJong offered private swim lessons in the Chicago area. Business boomed, as his reputation as an elite swimmer attracted clients, and he brought in John Lonergan, a friend and fellow competitive swimmer, to help out. After formulating a business plan and attracting investors, the two opened the first Big Blue Swim School in the northern Chicago suburb of Wilmette in 2012. The operation turned into a franchise in 2018 and more than 200 locations around the country were signed over the next three years. 

Smith cites a number of reasons for the popularity and fast growth of Big Blue. The vibrant, blue and white murals on the walls are designed to appeal to children, as is the water temperature, which is kept at a very comfortable 92 degrees. Antimicrobial carpeting on the floors prevents falls and reduces noise. Parents can watch lessons from the heated and air-conditioned viewing deck, which is separated by glass from the 13-lane pool. There, they also have access to drinks, snacks and high-speed internet. The swim schools are located in retail shopping centers, making them convenient to get to and allowing parents the option of running errands during lesson times. 

Smith also touts LessonBuddy, a proprietary app for the Big Blue Swim School franchise that lets parents schedule and pay for lessons, make changes to lessons and track their children’s progress. The wearable technology allows kids to monitor their own progress, letting them track things like how long they can tread water, how far they can swim unaided and how long they can hold their breath. LessonBuddy also allows franchise partners to manage the business remotely. 

“The learn-to-swim industry is set to grow tremendously over the next 10 years and we’re right on the cusp of it,” Smith says. “There’s a lot of opportunity out there. We’re excited about our territory and plan to have more schools in these markets soon.” 

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