Joe Stilwell was enjoying the coolness of his neighbour’s swimming pool when he came up with a unique business idea.
“I was going down to the bottom of the pool and then exploding upwards out of the water,” said Stilwell. “I thought it would be great jump training. High resistance, low impact.”
As an avid athlete with a penchant for volleyball, Stilwell immediately recognized the benefits of the exercise. He went home to research similar techniques online and found HydroWorx, an aqua therapy pool company in the United States, which launched in 1997.
“The very first time I read about this company, there was nothing in Canada,” he said. “The Ottawa Senators had an aquatic therapy pool – but it was really old compared to similar pools in the United States, where there are probably 2,500 to 3,000 facilities. Right then, I knew aquatic therapy would be a great business idea someday.”
Not yet ready to pursue his idea, Stilwell tucked it away for safekeeping. It was, after all, the summer before he’d be moving to Belleville to become a Lancer on Loyalist College’s varsity volleyball team. During his time at the college, his team won two OCAA Provincial Championships. His participation in varsity athletics wasn’t the only thing that had an impact on his future career. Stilwell completed the Fitness and Health Promotion diploma program, gaining a solid understanding of what it means to work one-on-one with clients as an exercise professional.
“We were personal trainers for faculty and staff at Loyalist College,” he said. “Getting the hands-on experience helped me a lot.”
After graduating from Loyalist in 2003, Stilwell travelled and went to Dalhousie University to study Kinesiology.
“In my fourth year I did a paper comparing land and water training,” he said. “There wasn’t much research available back then, but it got me going. By that time, I had sort of forgotten about my idea. It was always in the back of my mind, but that paper put it in motion.”
More than a decade had passed since those early days of jump training in his neighbour’s swimming pool. In 2012, Stilwell launched Hydrathletics in Kingston, becoming the first Canadian company to provide public use of HydroWorx pools.
The pools have built-in treadmills, resistant jets and cameras. The clientele varies from veterans to people who have had motor vehicle accidents and hip and knee replacements.
“It’s one-on-one with a trainer and the clients are in the pool by themselves,” he said. “For the most part, it’s rehabilitation, getting people functional again; building their strength back up and getting them back to their daily lives.”
In November 2015, Stilwell received the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Kingston Chamber of Commerce.
“It was a nice honour,” he said. “One of my clients had nominated me. You never know if you’re going to win and I guess people say you don’t do it for the recognition, but it was a great moment.”
Last March, Stilwell opened his second location in Stittsville. Much like his Kingston flagship, it’s geared toward rehabilitation, sports performance and fitness. Seeing big growth in the business, he’s determined to open 10 new facilities throughout the province.
“I love the business side and I want to continue to grow in that realm,” he said. “I don’t know if I ever believed I would do it and make a go of it, but I’m glad I have.”