American business and entrepreneurial energy extends to every industry. Many great businesses have been created by immigrants from around the globe. The excellent company history below, which won third prize in our Essay Contest for High School students, demonstrates both ideas. Company founder Wang Xiaohong swam for China in the 1988 and 1992 Summer Olympics. This story also reminds us of how talented some of our young authors are.
American Business History Center
Jessica Cheng is currently sixteen, and is a junior at American High School, in Fremont, California. She founded the Economics Club there and plans on also majoring in economics in the future. In her free time, she likes teaching her dog Mojito new tricks, discovering new songs on Spotify, and reading pieces from The Atlantic and Time.
From Olympic Swimmer to Small Business Owner: The Tale of Calphin
Many recreational athletes partaking in all sorts of sports can claim, without a doubt, that they were taught by an expert. But for one to be able to claim—and do so nonchalantly—that they were coached by an Olympian, isn’t something that happens everyday.
Unless you’re a swimmer at Calphin Aquatic Club. Founded in 2008 by Wang Xiaohong, former Olympic swimmer and silver medalist at the 1992 Summer Olympics, the swim school today is the product of countless hours of careful planning, an ardent passion, and years of dedication.
In 1994, after officially retiring from her competitive swimming career, Xiaohong received a coaching offer from a swim club located halfway across the globe, in Carson City, Nevada. Though she did not previously have any experience coaching, opportunity had knocked at her door, and she decided to make the move.
Starting out initially as an age group coach, she came across another opportunity almost two years later, in 1995. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the head coach moved out of state, leaving the Carson City Aquatic Club without a head coach. Carson City at that time was a small city with a population of only about fifty thousand people. This meant finding a suitable new coach would be just as, if not more challenging, than finding a needle in a haystack. However, it was precisely this situation that landed Xiaohong yet another opportunity.
Seeing that she not only had the proper qualifications, but also was already familiar with the facility’s operations, Xiaohong proposed to the club to promote her to head coach.
Unsurprisingly, given Xiaohong’s good fit, the idea was approved of, and she continued teaching, now as “Head Coach”.
For three years, Xiaohong remained at Carson City Aquatic Club, using that time to also earn a degree at the University of Nevada. While there, Xiaohong met her future husband and married soon afterwards.
Her husband, an engineer and computer scientist, was part of the booming tech industry. After landing a job in the Bay Area in 1998, he and Xiaohong moved over together. However, given that it was her first time there, Xiaohong was unfamiliar with the Bay Area’s swimming scene. Thus, for a short period of time, she decided to enter the tech industry as well.
Xiaohong had a couple of stints as a software quality assurance engineer, yet despite having decent pay, she constantly found that the job was unable to provide her with a sense of fulfillment. Perhaps as a result of her non-engineering background, Xiaohong never felt confident in her job, causing her to find it increasingly difficult to envision herself continuing down this career pathway four, five years later.
But thankfully, she didn’t have to.
Following the dot com crash in 2000, Xiaohong, like many others, was faced with unemployment, and had no choice but to seek out both another job and career pathway.
The answer for her future employment came to her one day in a serendipitous conversation with a friend. Her friend asked: why scrounge around when you have a golden opportunity right in your hands? Why compete in a field where others obviously hold the advantage?
Why not go teach swimming?
And indeed, given her extensive experience in the field of swimming, it would have only made sense if she put her expertise to proper use.
So taking her friend’s advice, she decided to give it a shot. In 2003, after a brief search, she soon found a pool facility at a nearby high school, where she would be able to teach weekend classes at.
At first, Xiaohong handled everything herself. A swim instructor in the water, and a coach on deck, she handled both sides of the pool, and all sides of the budding business venture that would soon become the California Dolphin Swim School. But as the number of swimmers who plopped in and hopped out each week doubled from a mere 66 to over 120, Xiaohong discovered the need for an assistant. Enrollment continued to grow exponentially however, and to keep up with demand, so did the number of newly hired employees. Even after renting out the pool at a local college, swimmers kept pouring in, showing no signs of stopping.
A couple years into the business, Xiaohong was met with another realization. The facilities she was at allowed rentals on just weekends, and even then, offered only a stringent window. Yet demand for swim lessons was ever-increasing, and their current business model was unable to fulfill that demand.
Together, Xiaohong and her husband, Joseph He, determined that what their growing business needed was unrestricted hours of operation, unrestricted pool usage—in short, freedom to run the business as they wished.
To meet these needs, they considered a variety of options. But it soon became awfully apparent that the only way to achieve all this was to have their own pool facility.
With that, they began searching for a location. As if predestined, Xiaohong spotted soon afterwards during one of her regular drives, a large sign peeking up over the freeway wall, listing a plot of land within a small plaza for sale. She and her husband went to check out the land and determined that while the plot of mottled grass was shaped quite irregularly, the Fremont location met their needs perfectly. It was sandwiched right between the two pool locations Xiaohong was currently teaching at, so once the new facility was completed, swimmers from both sides would easily be able to conveniently switch without having to travel far. They could make things work.
Towards the end of 2006, Xiaohong and her husband began preparations for the construction of an indoor swimming pool. Her husband, both an engineer and an MBA, was primarily responsible for creating the business plan, and of course, figuring out the logistics for construction of the actual building. The swim program on the other hand, was designed by none other than Xiaohong herself, as she drew upon her experience as both an Olympic medalist and seasoned coach, to create a system of seven mastery levels, each subdivided into their own three sublevels. This would later become the core of the lessons, and by extension, the core of the business.
With plans now in place, they needed just one more thing—funding. Together with the help of some friends, as well as a highly supportive and enthusiastic group of swimmer parents, Xiaohong and her husband pooled together enough money to begin construction; the remainder was taken out as loans. With the necessary backing from the thirteen investors, everything was now in place.
After the Fremont city planning commission approved the construction of the 10,000 square-foot facility in April of 2007, the project broke ground ten months later, in February of 2008. Less than half a year later, on September 27th, the five-million-dollar facility—decked out with two heated pools, a mini gym facility, two offices, showers and lockers—was completed.
The California Dolphin Swim School became a thing of the past when on May 22nd, 2009, the facility held its grand opening ribbon cutting ceremony. Now an aquatic club by the name of “Calphin”, the pool was officially open for business.
The first year, Calphin saw about seven hundred swimmers enter and exit the pool each week. Since classes were offered on a weekly basis, this also meant that they had around seven hundred year-round swimmers. A good portion of these students were part of Calphin’s existing customer base, who switched over from their now-closed high school and college pool sites. The situation, thanks to careful planning and preparation, was looking up quite favorably. The budding business had broken even, and Calphin began turning a profit.
In the next three years, as a result of effective marketing and exemplary word-of-mouth reputation, Calphin would see its swimmer numbers double, then double once more—just as it had when Xiaohong founded her first swim school. Thus instead of dealing with just a couple hundred students, they now had nearly three thousand. Facing this massive influx, Calphin found itself confronted by an unanticipated issue.
The initial coaching team consisted of a mere six, seven staff members—which initially, was enough. But with now four times the number of students, everything seemed to be in shortage, and there was fear that this would compromise Calphin’s signature quality.
To tackle this issue, Xiaohong, responsible for all aspects of coaching, including the hiring and training process, took to finding a solution. As hiring announcements were put up, the number on the coaching team surged, quickly rising from ten, to twenty, to forty. Nearly half of these hires were high school students. Though proficient swimmers themselves, most of, if not all, were new to the world of teaching.
Determined to reduce stress on the thinly-stretched coaching team while still maintaining the quality of lessons that had already become one of Calphin’s most notable trademarks, Xiaohong developed a detailed process for coaching the soon-to-be instructors on teaching strategies, sharing tips like how to best help first-time swimmers overcome their fear of water.
With a much larger staff team now at nearly fifty, Xiaohong also created a new system of incentives, offering bonuses and raises to instructors able to get through a teaching quarter with a clean record—no complaints, safety concerns, or overall issues—and making sure to properly address the performance of any instructor whose teaching did not meet standards, even letting them go if necessary.
Though the issue of scaling up to meet consumer demand proved to be Calphin’s biggest challenge, through trial and error, Xiaohong was able to develop a system that, now thirteen years later, continues to keep the aquatic club smoothly running.
With an effective system for managing operations finally figured out, Xiaohong and her husband decided in 2013 to open up another facility twenty-five miles away, in the city of Dublin. The site, renovated from an existing building, opened in 2014, and in just three years’ time, had reached full capacity at about two thousand year-round swimmers.
Now 13 years since the construction of Calphin’s first Fremont site, and 18 since Xiaohong founded her first swim school, things are going as smoothly as ever. Though the pandemic resulted in a temporary closing of both facilities from March to June of 2020, both have since reopened, and are back on track to pre-pandemic business levels.
Xiaohong shared that despite being a short-term shock to their business, the shutdown will have little to no long-term impact.
And this is a good thing, because Xiaohong plans to keep her swim school running for as long as possible, to fulfill her dream of ensuring that all budding swimmers are able to learn not just how to swim, but how to swim with correct, proper technique.
Despite co-owning one of the most highly recognized swim schools in the Bay Area, Xiaohong still doesn’t quite see herself as a successful business owner.
This isn’t to say that she hasn’t had successes, but rather that business isn’t the area in which she tries to pursue success. As an Olympian and dedicated athlete of the sport, she believes that her greatest sense of accomplishment comes from being able to directly use her expertise to help swimmers and coach alike, improve.
It is this attitude that continues to make Calphin a top choice for both parents and students who care deeply about the quality of each and every one of the one-hour swim sessions. And quality, Xiaohong—known by swimmers as Coach Wang—never fails to deliver.
Thanks to Calphin, tens of thousands of swimmers have been able to together take over a million classes. In a sunny indoor swimming pool, tucked into a small neighborhood plaza, nestled within the Silicon Valley, swimmers are learning how to swim—and only from the best.