Founders of Goldfish Swim School happy they took the plunge

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Birmingham — Nearly 15 years ago, Jenny McCuiston and her husband brainstormed a plan to open a swim school for children. 

A longtime swimmer and instructor, McCuiston, 39, saw a need to create a bright and inviting space for children to take swimming lessons. That led them to open the first Goldfish Swim School in Birmingham.

Christina Korte works with her son Ryan, 2, during a swim lesson at Goldfish Swim School in Canton.

“I knew if we did it, we’d have to make it something special…,” she said. “We did the warm water and the heated pool, heated air, and the fun toys and the colors because we wanted something different than what was offered.”

McCuiston never imagined that nearly 15 years later their business would grow to a franchise approaching 100 schools. As of mid-December there were nine schools in Michigan, dozens in other parts of the United States and two in Canada.

McCuiston said she wanted to take the fear out of swimming lessons.

“A lot of people were thrown in and you figure it out,” she said. “We all have those shivering memories, so we wanted to kind of take that away and reinvent the idea of swim lessons with obviously safety being the focus, but we wanted to add fun in it.”

Aisha Ani works with her son Chidiebere during a swim lesson at the Goldfish Swim School in Canton.

With husband Chris, McCuiston spent two years researching the business before opening their first school in 2006 in Birmingham. The indoor pool at 2388 Cole St. had 510 swimmers when it opened. Now, now more than 2,000 students come through the school weekly for lessons. Across 96 locations, that’s about 130,000 students swimming each week.

The couple initially thought they’d open four or five locations in Michigan. Less than two years after opening the first school, friends approached them about partnering in the business.

Chris McCuiston suggested that they become a franchisor. They inked a deal for the first franchise location in Farmington with the help of Chris' brother, Andrew McCuiston. That school opened in 2009.

Goldfish Swim instructor Donovan Cheridan works on a swim lesson with Yeji Krupitzer, 3, of Canton,  at the Goldfish Swim School in Canton.

There was slow growth in the beginning, as potential franchisees watched to make sure the swim-school business wasn’t a fad. Things eventually picked up. Business in Birmingham and Farmington even grew through the recession.

“A lot of parents would give up spending money on themselves or doing a lot of other extracurriculars, but stayed put in swimming because they knew it being a lifesaving skill that was critical that their children learn how to swim and be safe in the water,” Chris said.

The McCuistons' desire to teach children how to swim goes beyond their schools. They have raised more than $200,000 to donate to USA Swimming this year to help children learn how to swim by funding lessons in places that may be underprivileged. They plan to donate $1 million to the governing body for competitive swimming in the United States.

Arzoi Sandhu (left) gets her googles fixed by Goldfish Swim School instructor Donovan Cheridan in Canton.

Shana Ferguson, chief commercial officer for USA Swimming, said that this year the USA Swimming Foundation distributed more than $600,000 in donations to partner with swim-lesson providers to give kids the opportunity to learn to swim.

"So there is real impact being felt by the donation Goldfish made to us," Ferguson said. "We are humbled and thankful to have partners like Goldfish who share our vision of providing water safety education to children.”

Lessons at Goldfish Swim School range from $84 a month for group lessons, to $190 a month for private lessons.

Leah Spring works with her daughter Juniper, 1, of Livonia,  during a swim lesson at the Goldfish Swim School in Canton.

On a recent day at the Goldfish Swim School in Canton, a group of young children practiced swimming skills with their parents during a lesson. Another class worked with an instructor as parents watched from a waiting area partitioned by a glass wall.

Among the students that day was 17-month-old Juniper Spring of Livonia. She’s taken 30-minute classes weekly for eight months.

“I like the small classes,” said Juniper’s mother, Leah Spring. “It’s just a lot of fun for them.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN