The 100-Metre Backstroke

By Chip Wilson

I believe every person has ten moments or decisions in their life that stay with them and affect who they become. For me, one of these moments happened at a swim meet when I was ten.

Read on for the first publicly shared excerpt from my new book, Little Black Stretchy Pants—the unauthorized story of how I built lululemon, and the lessons learned along the way.

Noel, Brett, and I had all been swimming for as long as I could remember. My siblings and I had access to a swimming pool every summer as my mother had worked as a lifeguard in San Diego, and my dad had a summer director job at a Kiwanis camp for underprivileged kids. That was our introduction to swimming.

“Our parents would get up every morning in the wee hours and take us three kids to swim practice. Yes, even in the freezing cold winters,” says my sister, Noel.

It worked for my parents, too—given their relentless schedules, it was good for them to find something with which to occupy us. Our family life soon revolved around seven or eight practises a week and meets on the weekends. Everything was swimming.

Swimming was also a great activity for us because it was affordable. All you needed was a bathing suit and a pair of goggles, and you were good to go. Despite that, I managed to find something I so desperately wanted but couldn’t afford— the perfect swimsuit. The only swimsuits available in Calgary at the time were made by Speedo, and they were all solid colours. In fact, when Speedo introduced simple stripes on their suits, it took the swimming scene by storm.

One day when I was eleven or twelve, I saw a suit at a swim meet that was totally different. The material was a colourful flower pattern. I wanted it immediately.

I asked the kid wearing it where he’d gotten the suit. “Texas,” he replied.

I’d become used to not being able to afford the clothes I wanted, but I was determined to get that suit. My mom considered it, and I suggested to her that if I liked the style of the suit, then maybe other kids would like the style, too. If we ordered a bunch and sold them, I told her, then we could make a small profit and use the money to cover the cost of my suit.

We brought in the bathing suits, and they sold like crazy. We’d purchased the suits from the supplier for maybe thirteen dollars, then sold them for double that. They were something no one had ever seen before—something new. Since they weren’t available in Canada, their exclusivity gave them an additional appeal. As I had negotiated with my mother, I got my own suit for free. It was a small but powerful success.

That experience taught me about importing, shipping costs, and sales. Because I had been on a couple of age-group teams at the national level and was a good swimmer, I also noticed that others started to follow what I wore. I couldn’t afford an on-deck tracksuit, so I wore torn, beat-up, loose jeans and graphic t-shirts. That ensemble was emulated and soon became standard swim meet gear. Nike later realized the power of tastemaker athletes and changed the sports business model with sponsorships.

I believe every person has ten moments or decisions in their life that stay with them and affect who they become. For me, one of these moments happened at a swim meet when I was ten. Although I had a naturally athletic build, I was a very mediocre swimmer overall. I hadn’t done anything spectacular in my age-group.

Anyway, at this swim meet, just as I was getting ready for the 100-metre backstroke, my dad came over to me and said, “Chip, I’ve got this theory…”

It wasn’t unusual to hear this—my dad had many theories about vitamins, nutrition, and athletics, long before the wellness movement became popular. My dad also believed pain was all in the mind. As such, the mind could learn to control that pain and harness it to train and compete.

In athletics in 1965, the prevailing theory of how to approach a race was to save your energy until the end and make sure you looked good at the finish line. “Let’s try something different,” my dad said. “Why don’t you just go full out from the start, instead of saving it up and looking good at the finish? If you collapse or start to drown, I’ll come and get you right away, but instead of thinking it’s a 100-metre race, think of it more like it’s 25 metres. Just a one-length sprint and take it one length at a time and go for it.”

I went with his theory and ended up breaking a Canadian record, finishing the race eight or nine seconds below my previous time. We had to do the race again the next day because the officials thought it had been a mistake with the clock, but I did it the same way again, and it worked just as well the second time.

As I look back at my life now, I realize this event focused in me a new way of thinking. I’ve long noticed how most people never give 100 percent in their relationships, business, or commitments. Personally, I’ve always been afraid of failing because I haven’t given something 100 percent. I’ve been fearful of someday lying on my deathbed, thinking, “God, if I’d just gone for it, would it have been successful?” I think I owe this mindset to that one moment at age ten when my dad gave me his “poolside theory.”