How SwimSwam Became SwimSwam, The Inside Story (10 YEAR ANNIVERSARY POST)

SwimSwam launched March 12, 2012, but we started long before that day.

I’ll never forget telling Tiffany, my wife and co-founder, who manages legal, financial, HR, and everything else, “Swimming news? Swimming content? I don’t know about this. I’ve been producing swimming content since 2006, and it’s not a big business.”

Tiffany had been persistent about launching a swimming news company since 2010. She’s a USC grad, one who stayed in LA building a career in the cutthroat entertainment industry throughout her 20s. Through my social circle, she knew a lot of elite swimmers, liked them, but she didn’t like their coverage in swimming media. “No one’s penning their stories well, not in a way that’s capturing my attention.”

She had a point. I followed swimming media, and tried in my small way to create interesting coverage, but I had no drive to consume it daily. With few exceptions, swimming media, the news, was boring.

Tiffany had another point, a stronger one. “There’s no competition. There’s one other company, and they haven’t innovated in years. At the very least, there should be two voices in the sport.”

The other company had been it, the only voice, since 1960. I still had their old magazines in the garage. That publication had written and reported my history. It was as if I had been floating on their swim-info river since childhood, and Tiffany was saying, rivers are fun, but there’s an ocean over here.

“You need to see it,” Tiffany nudged. “What should we name this company?”

The long yellow legal pad came out and the potential URLs were listed. As God is my witness, Tiffany, a nonswimmer, said, “What do you think about SwimSwam? It’s short. You are either a swimmer or you swam?” That was the first name on the list. I thought it was okay, but it sounded weird rolling off my tongue. So, a hundred more URLs were listed, bad ones. There were a lot i-swim somethings. At the time everyone was copying Apple, the behemoth computer company, using “i’ ahead of their name to signal edginess and innovation. We left the long scribbled-out list of URLs on the bedside table to sleep on it. The following morning I remember brushing my teeth in front of the bathroom mirror repeating, SwimSwam, SwimSwam, SwimSwam.

Tiffany’s instincts were right, and her timing was spot-on. We were still in the Michael Phelps era. After his stunning performance in Beijing, winning eight gold medals, global media attention on our sport would be even greater on the run-up to 2012 Olympics. That was our window to hit. Suddenly time felt precious. I was in my early 40s, and I couldn’t imagine another Michael Phelps for lifetime. It was now and never.

By late 2011, we were in full launch mode. Once you give yourself over to an idea, you dream about the future, you hope for success, and then you start penciling out goals. I still wish I had that piece of paper. It was pretty focused, like my age group goals times when I was kid: 36 months. In three years, one year out from the 2016 Olympic Games, SwimSwam will be the most read swimming site in the world.

Our team of co-founders was tiny. Tiffany, Garrett McCaffrey and I were it. Garrett, working with Flosports, had produced the best content in swimming. Garrett was the exception to the boring rule. His voice was authentic, cutting through effortlessly, always letting the subject shine. More importantly, he had gained the respect of everyone. Swimmers, coaches — they all knew he loved the sport.

I’ll never forget the day Garrett said, “Hey Mel, you reading the ‘Swimmers Circle’?” I had and I hadn’t. I searched swimming news and read a lot of the blogs, but the “Swimmers Circle” didn’t click in my head until I typed in the URL. “Oh, it’s that guy that uses college logos all the time.” I looked closer. I looked at the volume of the content. Garrett said it first. “This guy, Braden Keith, he’s a machine.”

We met Braden at a swim meet in Austin. He was tall, younger than I expected, and a little wary. Braden had a lot of questions, but mostly he wanted to know if we had the grit to grind. If he was coming on board as a co-founder of a new site, he wanted and needed support — professional administration and a team he could trust to generate advertising revenue to make the hard work worth the effort. Thinking back to that moment, it’s so funny now. I wouldn’t have guessed we’d end up communicating endlessly all day for the last 10 years about everything swimming related.

Milestone moments matter. We’ve had many, but the painful ones imprint your brain in full color. SwimSwam stumbled out of the gate. A couple of weeks after our March 12th launch, we flew to Indianapolis to cover the Indy Grand Prix. Olympic Champion Nathan Adrian suffered a suit malfunction, splitting his tech suit directly down his crack — and he still managed to edge Michael Phelps in that 100 free final. Braden reported the news lightning fast — within five minutes as he became famously known for, and the story went viral when we hit the front page of Yahoo. SwimSwam crashed. Hard. We couldn’t get the site back up for nearly 48 hours. I’ll never forget sitting in the Indy stands, staring at that pool’s deep-blue diving well, refreshing my computer over and over. It hurt. Mostly, it was embarrassing.

We recovered fast from the Indy misstep. Third-party analytics platforms ranking websites put SwimSwam ahead of all swimming news. It appeared we were number one globally, but I couldn’t help but think, are we really the most read swim site? It felt like magical thinking — like that midseason semi-taper you didn’t admit to, but swam super-fast, then told everyone within earshot, “Oh, we’re still grinding. Coach won’t rest us for another three months.” Braden, being Braden, said dismissively, “No, wishful thinking.” I can’t remember his exact words, but he thought the Yahoo bump was yoking analytics, that it was delayed metrics and wasn’t really real.

Thinking back, those first few weeks after launch felt dreamlike moment to moment, like we are pretending to be this thing called SwimSwam. I had experience, had been an on-camera swimming analyst for ESPN, ABC, and Fox Sports. I even had my own show on ESPN2. I understood media, but swimming news, full time, was a whole different animal. And, if we were going have a chance at success, my focus, really, was sales. That painful fact punched me in the gut. I was green, just freshman-stupid learning on the fly. I remember calling companies to buy ad space, acting like I knew what I was doing, cringing as I awkwardly bumbled through conversations. The one thing that was real about SwimSwam, and becoming increasingly clear, was that Braden hit the ground running on day one. No fail starts, no hesitation, he was carrying the football running 99-yard touchdowns daily. Calling Braden The Machine already felt hollow. It was like calling Michael Phelps The Butterfly Beast. That was only a tiny sliver of the story. Braden churned content, but his news design made coverage easy and fast to consume. Great races were noted with context and split times from small meets few fans paid attention to. Braden would simultaneously live report a meet while generating another feature on a DI mid-major college coach we should pay attention to and why, chronicling the coach’s rise in the sport. And he mixed up hard news with the latest odd swimmer viral video on social media. He was a multitalented, content-producing hyphenate. (Of course, anyone who reads SwimSwam knows that as gospel truth, but what you really need to know is this: If Braden says he’s delivering work tomorrow morning, and the apocalypse slams into earth that night, when the sun cracks the horizon, Braden will be walking over the hot coals to hand it off. He. Is. That. Guy.)

We arrived at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha barely three months old as a company. Traffic was steadily climbing, but we were still a small outlet. I was excited to be back at the U.S. Trials, but felt a little insecure among the New York Times and Sport Illustrated types in the media mixed zone. Adding to the nerves, Trials is brutally exhausting. Tension cuts the air with swimmers and coaches ruminating over how the next eight days will define their lives. I felt the same way. Trials could be a winner for SwimSwam or another hard lesson like the Indy Grand Prix. I was sitting about six rows up in the mixed zone when Braden appeared at my hip. Obviously excited, he could barely speak as he leaned down to my ear, saying something, something about a paywall.

Huh? A pay what? I thought. This happens a lot — Braden explaining to me what’s going on has happened a lot — over the last 10 years.

“They are charging people to read their news,” came out in a forceful, halting whisper.

The other swimming site is charging? Money? I thought. Who is going to pay to read swimming news?

Braden pulled up Google analytics, our traffic. The line that had been gently, modestly arching upward was now nearly vertical as swim fans loaded onto the site en masse.

My goal of SwimSwam being number one in 36 months flatted that day, in that one moment. The other swimming news site did eventually drop their paywall after U.S. Olympic Trials, but it was too late. They had cracked open the door, and after eight days of our Olympic Trials coverage, the lion’s share of fans who consumed swimming news online knew our name.

SwimSwam has evolved into a media beast. The scale of news production is mind-boggling:

  • 10,000+ reports per year,  75,000,000 impressions per year.
  • 220 podcasts per year, 15,000,000+ impressions per year.
  • Social media reach crossed 1.6 million as I write this, and it’s always climbing.
  • SwimSwam has the largest aquatics job listings platform on earth. Most people don’t know that, but our team is managing it every day, 365 days a year.

I can scarcely get my arms around SwimSwam today. We produce original news in six different languages. The only way to track the company is across four massive screens at my desk. In real time, it’s like watching code from a swimming-movie version of The Matrix. We know what swimmers and coaches and swim parents care about and why, and how that changes month-to-month, year-to-year.

Reflecting back, 2012 to 2014, we grew, but our evolution of scaling up didn’t really begin until 2015. While several great reporters produced content for us, it was still Braden churning the news, often producing 300+ reports per month. Early spring 2015, the news came to an abrupt halt. Stress and exhaustion had landed Braden in the emergency room. It was a sobering moment. Something had to change, fast, and we started hiring writers. In very short order, Braden was teaching and leveraging his style of news across more and more reporters. That year we launched a print magazine, and we started to contract out post production work on our video.

Since 2015, we’ve grown year over year. We take it for granted because of the pace of work. Often, we’re too busy to take stock and be thankful. It wasn’t until March 2020, when the pandemic hit, that I felt this calm sense of gratitude. I didn’t have to think about it. I was confident and secure in our staying power. I don’t remember us having a co-founder meeting. There might have been a group text, but we just knew in those early days of the pandemic that no employees or contributors would be let go. SwimSwam would continue as we have for the previous eight years. Before anyone said anything about COVID, Braden was already reporting on it and creating a header for our site to aggregate that news. Knowing that old contributors who had worked with us in our early years were sitting at home doing nothing, we reached back out to them. We could afford it. During the hardest two years of the last 10, SwimSwam was rock solid.

As the company has matured, Tiffany and I work mostly in the background, serving our SwimSwam advertising partners. Without their support, creativity, and collaboration, SwimSwam doesn’t exist, and we’ve taken pride in our service as we strive to match the robustness and strength of our news division. The work is hard, real work, but so worth it. Swimming has always felt like family to me, ever since my age group years. As an adult, after 10 years working on the dry side with our partners, the family has only gotten bigger.

I still take the scale of SwimSwam for granted. About every four or five months, Braden rattles us from our myopic admin-focus with a report that’s gone viral. And then there are those moments when we walk through the media mixed zone at a big competition and nearly every reporter’s computer from other companies is displaying our site. That’s how they’re reporting their news — from our background and data. In recent years, at NCAAs, Nationals or World Champs, I’ve starting taking quiet moments, sitting way back from the crowd, watching Braden and his team work. I watch the swimfans. I watch the races. I just want to be in the present moment, to feel it as much I can, because I am so thankful SwimSwam is a part of this sport I love so dearly.

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accswimfan
8 months ago

As a swim parent with kids who came late to the sport, I only arrived on the scene 10 years ago not realizing SwimSwam was new. I’ve loved reading the articles and gaining insight to the sport over the years. I guess I didn’t realize how small an operation it was at first. When I contacted SwimSwam looking for the inaugural issue of the SwimSwam magazine I had ordered as a Christmas gift and Gold Medal Mel emailed me back with his cell phone number in case I had any other questions. You can bet that’s one contact I added, complete with a Gold Medal emoji!

I also appreciated the responsiveness to my request early in June 2021 during… Read more »

Sportinindc
8 months ago

Amazing. I am grateful for your history, loving your trajectory, and looking forward to your future.

Coach Z
8 months ago

Love the story of the name! This whole SwimSwam is simply AWESOME! Thanks for making an engaging platform that delivers at wonderful time. Thanks Mel for the updates and thanks to your entire team. Here is to 10 more years!

Bobo Gigi
8 months ago

😆 I was already there posting some comments on “The Swimmers Circle”
Wow! It was more than a decade ago.

Big thank you to all the SwimSwam team for all the amazing work you do 24/7 365 days per year.
It’s really appreciated.
Long live SwimSwam! 😎

RCP
8 months ago

You folks do a stupendous job. Here’s to 10-cubed more years of success (at least). Thanks.

HereToCheer
8 months ago

Thank you!! Our family has read it daily for years. We are so grateful for SwimSwam and the vision you all followed.

Gah Bohr
8 months ago

Congrats Mr. Stewart!

Jo Si
8 months ago

Btw the name swimswam is brilliant

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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