To appreciate this start-up business venture, you need to look underwater. Through the chlorine clouds just below the surface bursts a streamlined human torpedo. Arms extended and head lowered, he is traveling at more than seven miles per hour, 30% faster than the world's fastest swimmers. He practically tears a hole through the water. "Speed becomes addicting," the torpedo says.
Isn't that what an Olympic gold medalist sprint swimmer is supposed to say when asked how a single fin, a slanted snorkel and a well-respected name translate into a business plan? Pablo Morales can't give his marketing spiel at the moment because he's in the middle of a noontime workout at the Lynbrook High pool in San Jose. But he can offer a product demo. He pushes off from the wall and vanishes quicker than you can say "Free Willy." Halfway down the length of the pool the snorkel breaks the surface with a hot snort, and Morales's lean, undulating body begins flashing in and out of view with a rapid dolphin kick. This is called monofinning.
Morales, 32, has a three-year-old company, Finis, Inc., that is the only U.S. producer of monofins and accessories. In Europe fin swimming, i.e., using two fins, has been around since the late 1960s, and monofinning first appeared about 10 years later. There are now about 2,500 devotees of monofinning in the U.S., and Morales expects that number to double by 1998.
Competitive swimmers are also training with monofins. Misty Hyman, a 17-year-old from Arizona who set the short-course world record in the 100-meter butterfly in December, trains almost daily with a monofin, using it to perfect her signature underwater "fish kick."
"This is a tremendous opportunity," Morales says. "How often can you say you're bringing a new sport into America?"
Who better than Morales to act as the sport's ambassador? "By virtue of who Pablo is, he instantly validates monofinning," says Finis cofounder John Mix, 31, a former water polo player.
As a teenager Morales won two individual silvers and a relay gold for the U.S. in the 1984 Olympics. At Stanford he dominated collegiate swimming, taking 11 of 12 possible NCAA individual titles. But in 1988 he failed to make the U.S. Olympic team despite holding the world or U.S. record in three events. He retired tearfully and enrolled in Cornell Law School, earning his degree in 1994. But he resumed training just months before the 1992 Olympic trials, and at 27 he qualified in the 100-meter butterfly. In Barcelona, eight years after his first Olympic triumphs, he earned two golds, one in the 100-meter fly and another in a medley relay.
"Competitive athletics is a metaphor for life," Morales says. "You need to relate everything you're doing to a goal. I'm now trying to bring that same focus to business."
If Morales needs encouragement, he can look to Europe and Asia, where the sport has really taken hold. Competitions range in distance from 50 up to 1,500 meters, with three categories: surface, apnea (no breathing) and immersion (finners carry small air tanks). Arm strokes aren't the norm because they break the streamline and slow you down. Last summer Hungary hosted 30 teams at fin swimming's eighth world championships, and the U.S. finished 20th, 10 places higher than in 1994.
Morales and Mix, who have been friends since high school, started Finis in 1993 with a prototype that consisted of two sneakers glued to carbon-fiber sheets. Now they offer six sleek models that are shaped like large spackling blades, the designs of which are protected by two pending patents. Morales handles product testing, patents and trademarks, and international distribution and promotion, while Mix oversees sales, operations and U.S. distribution.