Class of 2013
John Swanson, a former professional hockey player, helped found a St. Cloud pond hockey tournament and inaugurated the Granite Games competition and helped found the nonprofit Minnesota Youth Foundation.
What are you doing now?
Chief executive of The Fast Factory, Factory Forged and The Granite Games
How did the 5 Under 40 award affect your life?
Confidence to keep pushing forward.
Other big changes since you received the award?
Started a family and bought my first house.
What will make the St. Cloud area greater in coming years?
More community business support of each other.
Originally ran: January 19, 2014
John Swanson has aimed for goals all his life. Most of them were defended by goalies.
From the time he learned to walk, he was on skates. He grew up in St. Cloud and embarked on a hockey career that took him through high school, juniors, college and the pros — with stops in the American Hockey League, one rung below the NHL, and Norway.
Long before his playing career was cut short by a knee injury, he began to develop a plan for his life away from the rink. He devised a physical fitness company, Functional Athletic Sport Training, that launched when he was still playing at St. Cloud State University. His aunt owned the company at the time, because he was on an athletic scholarship. But Swanson ran it.
FAST started with six kids, one hour a day, five days a week during the summer.
"Only the best got invited there," Swanson said. "It was kind of underground, mostly for high school, Junior A and Division I and even professional athletes. There were about 10 of us. We did that for two or three years, but only in the summers — May through August. When I got injured, I knew if I was going to make it go it had to be 12 months out of the year. And we couldn't just deal with athletes. We'd lose hockey players when their seasons would start.
So we focused on adults."
In summer 2011, Swanson took over a warehouse near the railroad tracks on Fifth Street North. That was the beginning of CrossFit Fast Factory and an affiliation with a national organization with more than 5,000 gyms around the world.
He also launched the nonprofit Minnesota Youth Foundation, an offshoot of which was the Granite City Pond Hockey Championships and the Elite Edge summer hockey league. Part of the proceeds from both have gone to local youth hockey organizations. He has gyms in St. Cloud and Sartell and has trademarked Fast Factory Inc., which has grown to include an apparel and equipment company, a marketing and design division and a consulting business.
Swanson also developed the Granite Games, which attracted more than 580 athletes last year and expects 1,000 this September.
Where did the desire and inspiration come from for you to open your own gym?
"What intrigued me at an early age — I think about 16 — was I wanted to be the best hockey player I could. But what I was truly fascinated with was what the best were doing in the offseason. When I played at St. Cloud State, the guys would always talk stats. They'd talk about goals and they knew the stats for all the players we were playing. But I was the guy who knew what they did in the offseason. It fascinated me — the different styles of training and what people were doing that was different. ...
"That was where I got intrigued about fitness. How do you create the best? What does that look like?"
What is CrossFit and how did it change your life?
"I can tell you the exact day I found it. (SCSU teammate) Andreas Nödl signed pro (in 2008) and that day he and I and (fellow Huskies) Ryan Peckskamp and Craig Gaudet were sitting there and we rented the movie ‘300.' As we watched that movie, I remember those guys talking about how none of it was (computer-generated imagery). It was all their real bodies. I looked at these actors and they were in better shape than 99 percent of the professional athletes I was studying. I was curious. What did they do? ... It's amazing what you can Google search. That led me to CrossFit. As soon as I found it, I was hooked. ...
"(Peckskamp) and I started doing some of the workouts in the St. Cloud State weight room and it would just crush us. Here we are, Division I athletes, and we were getting crushed by these workouts because they were so difficult. We started doing that as our training in the garage. We were testing at the highest levels we ever had, but we were also agile. We weren't bulking up. We were staying lean. It was a polar opposite from the standard training style. I fell in love with it."
Would you be doing this if your hockey career wasn't cut short or if you hadn't been as successful as you were as a player?
"Hockey allowed me to have the confidence in some of the risk-taking you have to do. Getting up in front of a CrossFit class and teaching is peanuts compared to playing in front of a crowd of 18,000 at the Xcel (Energy) Center. ...
"It's funny because when you come from a big stage and that gets taken away, people deal with it two ways. My goal was to take the negative that happened in my life (suffering a career-ending injury) and change my circumstances for the better. When I got hurt, I was alone in Norway and we were just going into playoffs and I knew I was going to be there for the next two months, no matter what. The first thing I did was buy business books and launch my website. I thought, ‘OK, you're going to go into business now and the only thing you've known for 26 years is hockey. If you're going to do this, you have to be the best.' ...
"The TV didn't get turned on. I read everything I could about running a CrossFit affiliate. I read every article I could find. I emailed everyone I could. I knew when I got back, I had the summer to launch the business. Because if it wasn't launched by the time we lost those youth athletes to their teams in the fall, we'd have nobody. I try to keep those study habits true to this day. When I drive in my car, I don't listen to music. I have a plethora of audiobooks and I'm currently reading three business books."
How did you get the idea to develop a pond hockey tournament (on hiatus this year) and now the Granite Games?
"The reason the pond hockey tournament started is simple: I don't believe your parents raise you. I came from a broken household and at the age of 15 I moved out. I had rocky relationships that took a long time to get better with my family. It was hard. I was going through a lot of changes. When I was 16, I got a car and I wasn't sure if I wanted to play hockey anymore. What I fell back on was that I used to skate at Schmidt Park. My parents weren't there when I skated, it was the community. There were other people that pushed me to be better. I believe thoroughly people's success is determined by their desire but also by their surroundings. ...
"For us to produce more elite athletes and elite people in life, we have to create that type of environment. I thought we could do that through pond hockey by creating a festival that celebrates athletics and is great for the community in the dog days of January.
"The Granite Games was the same concept. I had this new gym and all these new adults were coming in and 90 percent of them had never played sports. It was amazing to watch them. CrossFit was their sport. Every day they were competing in the gym. They would have butterflies before a workout and their faces would light up afterward. One day I said, ‘They deserve to feel like an athlete.' There's no better way to understand that than to create a competition. Our goal with the Granite Games — and it always has been — is to create an environment not for the elite athlete but for the people who never made it past high school or never played at all. ...
"It was never designed to be as big as it was, but it has snowballed into its own monster. It's a full business of its own."
What else do you want to accomplish?
"I want to see the consulting side take off (and) I see the Granite Games continuing to go big. A lot of people told me, ‘You can't do it' when we started the gym. We're higher priced. My own family members said, ‘You're going to charge what?' My philosophy is people will pay for quality if you deliver the service. ...
"I could see the Granite Games being on television. I don't think that's a stretch. We packed Halenbeck Fieldhouse in our first year. On the gym side, I foresee us continuing to open pockets of communities. And I want to keep giving back to the community, by speaking or getting involved where I can. I want our community to be known as a fit one, not just another in the most obese country in the world."
Family: Wife, Jessica, who has a daughter and son from a previous marriage. They are expecting another child in May.
Education: Bachelor of science in marketing, St. Cloud State University.
FYI: Swanson graduated from Technical High School, where he played hockey and earned an athletic scholarship to St. Cloud State. After a brief professional hockey career, he returned to St. Cloud and began training hockey players.
He also volunteers as a Sartell youth hockey coach, helped found a pond hockey tournament and inaugurated the Granite Games, a competition that brought 580 athletes and many more fans from around the world to St. Cloud last year. Swanson also helped found the nonprofit Minnesota Youth Foundation. Find more at www.crossfitfastfactory.com.