Eleven years ago, Chris DeJong lost a race and paved the way for Olympic history.
A competitive swimmer at the University of Michigan, DeJong had been on the U.S. National Team for nine years and ranked fifth in the world and fourth in the U.S. in backstroke when he faced off against Michael Phelps in a qualifier to represent America at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
DeJong, who had previously missed qualifying for the 2004 Olympics, fell short again, as Phelps edged him out by a mere three-tenths of a second.
Phelps, of course, went on to make history with a world-record eight gold medals in 2008 and 28 Olympic medals overall before retiring in 2016, while DeJong’s loss effectively ended his career as a competitive swimmer.
Instead of wallowing in disappointment, however, DeJong realized that the best way to hold onto his love of swimming would be to help ignite the same passion in others.
Joined by fellow swimmer John Lonergan, DeJong opened up a swim school called Big Blue Swim School in Wilmette, Ill., in 2009, and the concept has since evolved into a franchise with plans to expand around the country, including in Fairfax County.
“I just narrowly missed the US Olympic Swim Team, which was a big disappointment at the time, but that ultimately fueled my desire to start a successful business,” DeJong said. “When I realized that swimming could be that, I felt like I had the prerequisite perseverance and resilience to be an entrepreneur.”
With DeJong as its guiding force in his positions as president and chief marketing officer, Big Blue Swim School plans to establish its first Virginia location at the Greenbriar Town Center on Lee Jackson Memorial Highway in Fairfax.
While the length of the permitting and construction process means the school will likely not open its doors for another year, the Fairfax franchise is just the first step in Big Blue Swim’s entry into Virginia.
The company has its sights set on five additional locations in the state over the next two to three years.
Big Blue Swim School chief development officer Scott Thompson says Fairfax’s demographics from both an age and income standpoint suggested it would be an appropriate starting point for the school’s foray into Virginia.
“Families are in need of this type of service,” Thompson said. “They want a clean, efficient way to help their children learn to swim, and they don't want to have to think or work too hard to make it happen. It just fits in their lifestyles.”
For most of its existence, Big Blue Swim has been a standalone school.
After launching their first school in Wilmette in 2009, DeJong, Lonergan, and their team focused on selecting and training staff and developing and refining a curriculum based in part on their own competitive swimming experiences.
They even created proprietary lesson management software that lets parents track their children’s progress in real time, manage their account, schedule make-up lessons, and change the timing of their classes.
The teachers at Big Blue Swim are crucial for differentiating the school from other swimming programs, DeJong says.
All teachers undergo 100 hours of initial training on the school’s curriculum that includes information on how to work with different kinds of children and how to navigate varying learning styles.
After starting with about 600 students, the original Big Blue Swim in Wilmette grew to 2,200 families, prompting the owners to add four new locations in the northern Chicago area.
The possibility of expanding outside of Illinois emerged in 2017 when the investment firm Level 5 Capital Partners acquired a majority stake in Big Blue Swim School for $17 million and began pivoting the company to a franchise model.
Big Blue Swim started exploring and selling franchise opportunities about six months ago.
“It allows us to bring our Big Blue experience to more families across the country at a rate much faster than we could ever hope to do ourselves,” DeJong said. “We're looking for awesome franchise partners who are passionate about swimming and are eager to live our company mission and core values, to be the right partners in local markets.”
Thompson says Big Blue Swim has assembled a team of business managers and corporate staff that will ensure the instructional and facility quality remains consistent across the school’s new franchises.
“I am most excited about the impact that we’re going to have on the families locally in that market and helping people…get their kids safe around the water and then ultimately using that water and experience to build their kids’ confidence so they can do anything outside of the water,” Thompson said.