"Swimming laps," says Kip Fuller, 30, a Denver-based inventor, "makes for terrific exercise. But let's face it, it's one of the most boring activities in the world."
Fuller knows whereof he speaks. He began his love-hate affair with swimming when he entered grade school, and by the time he was 11, he was competing in the 1969 AAU age-group regionals in Austin, Texas. He finished with three gold medals, one each in the individual medley, the freestyle and the backstroke. Other sports later wooed Fuller away from the pool, but recently, aware of the exercise value of swimming, he went back into the water.
Initially, the return was an unhappy one. "Kip would come back from the pool complaining," says his business partner, Gary Schlatter. Fuller insisted he needed something to help pass the time and was soon at his drawing board. The result was Aqua Tunes, a lightweight, waterproof pouch and earplug that let a swimmer listen to a radio or cassette player while doing laps. When market research indicated recreational swimming was more popular than Fuller and Schlatter had imagined, they decided to mass-produce their invention. Their only obstacle was a technical one—designing a component that would fit and stay in a variety of ears. The solution? Measure hundreds of ears until a standard one-size-fits-all plug could be created.
Introduced three years ago at a cost of $40, Aqua Tunes has made recreational swimming substantially more enjoyable. Alicia LeVine, who distributes the product for World Wide Aquatics of Cincinnati, says, "We get calls from people who simply can't swim their laps without it. They listen to everything from French tapes to the news to music."
Aqua Tunes was neither Fuller's first sports-related invention nor his last. A competitive motorbike racer and water skier, he has been creating items to enhance his sports performance or enjoyment since he was a teenager. His initial effort came in junior high school. "I tried to build a fiberglass expansion chamber [a modified exhaust pipe] for the Yamaha 80 cc I was racing," Fuller says. "Unfortunately, it exploded."
Undaunted, he continued to tinker, and several years later he went into business with his childhood friend, Schlatter. Their first product was the TricTrailer, a folding utility trailer for hauling boats, motorcycles and other items. It was quite popular, but after they had sold some 3,000 trailers the enterprising duo realized that they were losing $25 per sale. "You can't make that up on volume," Schlatter says ruefully.
With Aqua Tunes, though, volume and profits went hand in hand. Encouraged by his success, Fuller has recently begun production on the Aqua Coach, a system that enables coaches and instructors to communicate with swimmers, water skiers and board sailors while the athletes are in (or on) the water. "After figuring out a way to waterproof a stereo, it was only logical to waterproof a receiver," says Schlatter. Logical, yes. Easy, no. Fuller had to create a system, complete with antenna, that would receive transmissions on a special frequency from as far as one-third of a mile away. It took time, but eventually he succeeded. The result: a six-inch-long antenna that has 40 feet of coiled wiring inside. The instructor, whether ashore or in a boat, wears the Aqua Coach headset and tiny microphone to transmit to the athlete.
The $200 Aqua Coach has been embraced by a number of instructors. Says Fuller, "It's easier to correct an athlete when he's in the middle of doing something wrong than to yell at him to stop or to talk to him after he's out of the water."
High school swimming coaches are the primary users of the invention, but Major Hall, who is both the coach and a member of the United States Board Sailing Team, also finds the device useful. Hall can now sit comfortably in a Boston Whaler and chat across the water to his board sailors. "A lot of what we do deals with technique on the board," says Hall. "A small change in body position can make a great deal of difference. Aqua Coach allows us to tell a sailor what to do." At the 1984 Summer Olympics, Hall's team pulled an upset over some of its more experienced European counterparts and won a silver medal. Aqua Coach was not permitted during competition, but Hall used it extensively during pre-Olympic training.
The Canadian national water ski team also employs Fuller's invention. "Most coaches sit in the speedboat and wave their arms and yell and scream, and the only person who hears them is some farmer on a tractor on shore," says Canadian team coach Steve Bush. "Now we can take it easy. Aqua Coach is another tool, like video, that helps professionalize our approach." Bush sees only one drawback. "We coaches don't have an excuse to grandstand anymore," he says.