05/02/2012 10:29 am ET

Rita Goldberg, British Swim School: At '60-Something' She's Still Helping Kids Learn To Swim

Since the age of 4, swimming has been the love of Rita Goldberg's life. But she never thought she could turn that love into a million-dollar business. Now, 60 years later, she's the head of a successful swim school on two continents and recently started offering franchises.

As a young adult in Manchester, England, Goldberg thought she'd have to put the thrills of childhood swimming and joys of high school competitive swimming behind her once she "grew up." But when she was in her early 30s, someone asked her to help with a new swim club. "I fell back in love with the whole thing again," Goldberg said. "The passion rose in the teaching aspect rather than the personal training aspect."

But Goldberg didn't get the idea to start her own business until she accompanied a friend's child to a swimming lesson and saw that the teacher was providing lessons out of a pool built in his garage. "I thought, 'This is absolutely what I want to do,'" she said. "It was the proverbial light switch."

Goldberg and her husband sold their home and bought an old Victorian house that had ample parking and a huge basement to build a pool in. After breaking through resistance in getting a business permit and bank loan, Goldberg opened British Swim School. Her innovative teaching methods proved to be a huge hit, and her emphasis on water survival and safety allowed her to teach children as young as ages 2 to 3.

After realizing her marriage was ending, Goldberg decided to start over. She moved to the United States with not much more than a suitcase and relaunched the business from scratch. Franchising since October, British Swim School is soon opening its 17th location and teaches more than 3,000 students weekly.

Do you remember the first time you ever swam?

I can't remember the feeling of my first ballet class, but that I do remember. I remember being in the shallow area and saying to whoever I was with, "I'm swimming." And they said, "your feet are on the bottom," and I said, "no, I'm swimming." It was an incredible feeling. It was magnificent. I felt incredibly happy, because I was floating. I still go into the ocean and feel that same feeling. It's just special. There's something wonderful about being weightless in water.

And as you got older and continued to swim, did you ever think you could make a living at it?

Absolutely not. It never entered my head throughout my early adult life. I thought I'd go into nursing. The thought never even touched me. Swim schools didn't exist back then.

Was that a problem when you did decide to start one?

It was an absolute nightmare. There were problems with permissions -- the business was so unique, no one knew what to do with it. It made sense to nobody but me. I had to find someone on the Manchester Council who would fight for me. I went to 31 counselors who would not listen to me and the 32nd did. So eventually we got permission, which was an amazing feeling -- this is a woman who had never been in business. I never thought I could do this.

Did you also run into problems getting financing?

I went with a business plan to all the big banks, and they were very kind but said, "sorry, this is an unusual venture and we don't know where you would fit, and therefore, we can't give you a business loan." Every one of them refused me.

So how did you get funding?

At that particular time on TV, there was a program that vaguely resembles today's "Shark Tank," and the final 10 were interviewed on TV and the experts funded them. I sent them my business plan because I had nothing to lose. Then, about two or three months later, I got a letter from the television company saying whilst I did not win the chance to come on TV, I did come in the final 20, and the final 20 got a guaranteed business loan from Barclay's Bank for 10,000 pounds, which in 1980 was probably equivalent to $150,000 now. I had to go back to the same bank manager who refused to give me a loan previously, and he laughed and said, "I have no choice. I have to give you this loan now."

And you were able to finally build your pool?

We built a pool in the basement of the house, which was an engineering miracle. The back of the house was the reception, cafe, snack area, with changing rooms. We lived in the front of the house. The business started off with an absolute bang. We took 100 bookings the first day. And it's still there, still going. My ex-husband is still running it. We're on the second, probably not far from the third generation we're teaching.

But you got divorced and left England and your business for the United States? Why did you decide to do that?

I got on a plane with a suitcase and said, "I'm taking off for a year, and I'll see what happens after that." Sometimes things don't work out and the best way to change them is to put distance between you, and that's what I did. I was married very young and having never been on my own, I didn't know how life would be for me. But I knew I had to change things, and my boys were grown and had their own life. It was time to move on.

I had no money. For me to get my money out of Britain, I would have had to make my ex sell the house and business, and honestly I did not want to do that -- it would have been a devastating thing for him, and it just wasn't that kind of divorce. I literally just left it all.

How did you start over again here?

I had developed a method of teaching, and America was so advanced, I couldn't imagine it not being here, but I couldn't find it. So the germ of developing the business here began that first year, and the next step was to figure out how I could do that legally. My husband and I decided we could use the route of opening a subsidiary of the Swim School I had in England over here. I found a fitness center that was opening and joined with them and began a swim school there with 17 children, and by the middle of the summer had 300. So we burst into action again. Once you prove to the government that you are viable and employ Americans for a year, you can get [a green card].

And how did America treat you as an entrepreneur as compared to Britain?

It's very, very different. If you were entrepreneurial and a woman in the '80s in England, it was an oddity -- you were regarded as strange. People here admire the entrepreneurial spirit. They admire success and strong women. Doing things here once I was a legal citizen was a tremendously different experience. I don't know what it's like there today, but if you showed signs of success there back then, people would think, she's got a big head. If you show signs of success here today, people think, wow, isn't she great.

When did you decide to franchise?

About three years ago. We moved into a couple locations, one in Maryland and two in New Jersey, and it was difficult to control the locations. We came to realize that ownership is the only way to make this successful and would be a positive way to make these locations that we had work so much better. I hope that young people who love swimming will know there is a great business they can afford, where they can enjoy going to work every day.

And now you get to see kids experience the same joy you felt as a kid?

Absolutely. I see that almost daily, when a child realizes he can swim. I recently went out to monitor a class and there was a 3-year-old boy who had been coming two weeks and he was miserable, not a happy camper at all. I just happened to be there to watch this little boy's face as he realized, "I can do this." The light switch went off that this is great, not horrible. It was lovely. It took me back to that feeling. You can't change human nature. Every generation has the feeling it's reacting differently to the world, but there are certain things in life that never change.

We are so fortunate in our industry. I don't know of anything else like it, where there is a definite line of not being able to do it to doing it. Seeing that is what feeds you.

Do you go out in the water and experience that joy of swimming yourself?

I get in the water when I'm stressed, when I'm happy, when I'm tired. If you can submerge me and let me swim for half an hour, it's fantastic. I don't think there's anything in the world quite like it. I've never lost my love for it ever.

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Rita Goldberg
Company: British Swim School
Age: "60-something"
Location: Sunrise, Fla.
Founded: 1981 in the United Kingdom, 1994 in the United States
Employees: 30-40 corporate employees, 2 franchisees
2012 Projected Revenues: $2.2 million