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
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.
Resting at the pool wall, Morales looks like a George Lucas
creation: bushy black goatee streaming water, dark goggles over
his eyes and a snorkel in the center of his face. His hair is
graying, but he's still in good enough shape to fin-race.
Getting ready for his final 100-yard repeat, he takes several
deep breaths. "I like to blast the last one," he says before
porpoising across the surface in a roil of water.
Afterward his chest is heaving. "If people knew how good this
feels," he says, "everyone would do it." Wishful thinking.
San Francisco-based freelancer P.H. Mullen Jr. swam the English
Channel in 1995.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Hyman thinks the monofin is a winner and uses it to perfect her underwater fish kick. [Misty Hyman swimming with monofin]