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How Chris DeJong Turned Barely Losing to Michael Phelps Into a Multi-Million-Dollar Business with Big Blue Swim School
How Chris DeJong Turned Barely Losing to Michael Phelps Into a Multi-Million-Dollar Business with Big Blue Swim School

The founder of Big Blue Swim School lost out on his Olympic dream—but now he’s grateful he was able to channel that disappointment into starting a franchise that is profoundly impacting children’s lives across the nation.

Every athlete’s dream is to make it to the Olympics. Competing on the world stage with the best of the best is the apex of an athletic career—no matter what the ultimate outcome.

That was also the dream of Chris DeJong, founder of Big Blue Swim School. Growing up in the small town of Holland, Michigan, he spent countless hours of his childhood swimming in Lake Michigan. DeJong went on to become a member of the US National Swim Team while winning five national titles as a middle-distance freestyler and backstroker. The sport of swimming was, simply put, his passion.

"After years of training, I still never thought of swimming as a job,'" DeJong told CNN Business. "I think it’s impossible to get out of the water in a worse mood than when you got into the water."

In 2004, DeJong—ranked No. 4 in the U.S. and No. 5 in the world for backstroke—narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics in Athens, Greece by just three-tenths of a second. He was crushed, but instead of giving up, he kept training as hard as he could. He trained every day with Michael Phelps, now the most decorated Olympian of all time.

In 2008, DeJong, 24 years old at the time, was staunchly determined to make it to the Beijing Summer Olympics with Team USA. Unfortunately, he lost again—this time by just three-tenths of a second behind Phelps himself.

"I knew then that my competitive swimming career was over. I really didn't know what I would do next," DeJong told CNN. "It was a difficult, confusing time."

After dedicating his entire life to a pursuit as all-encompassing as swimming, there was no clear path for DeJong to follow. 

So he created his own.

DeJong moved to Chicago and began teaching swim lessons and quickly discovered a new kind of passion for the sport. “Seeing a young child make the transformation from being afraid to even look at a pool to going underwater for the first time was a big part of the motivation to start my own business,” he said. 

In 2009, DeJong took that passion a step further by founding Big Blue Swim School. Started in Glenview, Illinois, the business quickly caught on, growing to serve thousands of families.

Eight years later, Big Blue caught the attention of Level 5 Capital Partners, garnering an investment to officially launch its national franchising strategy. The brand now plans to grow to 150 locations by the end of 2021 and add as many as 400 locations in the next 10 years.

“We are now shifting from corporate-owned locations to franchising thanks to the team at Level 5 Capital Partners,” said DeJong. “Their expertise is helping me spread my love for swimming to as many people as possible. Franchising gives us the opportunity to do that on a national scale.”

Big Blue’s proprietary technology LessonBuddy—coupled with its practice of employing instructors that are full-time specialists—sets Big Blue up to become the dominant player in the $20 billion swim school industry.

“Once the customer experiences the difference, they realize that Big Blue has a superior teaching method that promotes child enrichment and builds confidence both in and out of the pool,” said DeJong.

Ultimately, athletes deal with retiring from their careers with varying levels of grace and productivity. For DeJong, the end of one dream simply meant the beginning of another.

“To be perfectly honest, I’m pretty sure that if I had made the Olympic team, I wouldn’t have left the sport with the hunger and desire necessary to start this business,” said DeJong. “I realized that my experience swimming at every level, from age-group swimming to international competition, gave me a unique perspective on everything that was wrong with swimming instruction, especially at the entry point for most kids. It’s really special to make a difference in a child’s life.”

The total investment necessary to begin operation of a new Big Blue Swim School is $1,825,500 to $3,687,000 (including real estate costs). To learn more or inquire about Big Blue Swim School, visit https://diveinwithbigblue.com/

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