By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, May 24, 2018
Having grown up in a low-to-middle-income family outside of Washington, D.C., Mark Henderson said he was fortunate to have great coaches who looked out for him.
Along with great instruction, they also gave him great advice and provided access to him and his parents to resources and information that helped make him into a future Olympic champion.
“Coming up through the ranks, they gave me vital information that wasn’t available to all swimmers and that definitely gave me some advantages I wouldn’t have otherwise had,” he said. “Now, it’s my turn to do the same for other athletes – all athletes.”
While the Internet was in its infant stages at the height of Henderson’s stellar swimming career, today, he’s using the omnipresent medium to make that information readily available.
His startup – The Athletes Village (theathletesvillage.com) – is that central spot where coaches, athletes, parents, etc., can access information that can help them be successful in sports and life.
The site currently focuses mostly on swimming, but Henderson said there are numerous nuggets of very helpful and useful advice from coaches and current athletes that would be beneficial for athletes from any sport. The long-term plan is to expand it to benefit athletes from all sports.
The website – or community as it’s called – enables athletes and coaches (and other practitioners like sports psychologists, nutritionists, etc.) to give back to the sports they love and know while finding and creating new ways to improve and build their global brand.
And it’s not just a place to find information. It’s also an interactive mechanism where athletes can ask questions and get the answers they need and want.
“There has always been this vast amount of information but no repository for people to go and access and benefit from it,” said Henderson, who starting The Athletes Village a year after leaving his long-time position with JP Morgan investments on Wall Street.
“We’ve created this online platform that provides a place for anyone can come, ask questions of athletes, read tips and personal athlete experiences – whatever they might want or need. The key is that we’re building a place for old and new information to be stored and contained for all athletes and all sports.”
Whatever information and resources were available to him when he was competing definitely made Henderson one of the best in the world at his highest point.
After rising through the ranks, Henderson found himself in the enviable spot of being one of the favorites to make the 1992 Olympic team in the 100 butterfly at Olympic Trials.
Uncharacteristically – and perhaps a bit caught up in the momentum of the meaning of the race – he took his race out very fast, led at the turn and died over the final 10-15 meters, watching Pablo Morales, Mel Stewart and others pass him by.
At world-record pace over the first 50 meters, Henderson finished seventh at the wall.
“I was typically 5th at the halfway point with the best part of my race over the final 50 meters, but I just went out too fast and had nothing left at the end,” he said. “Imagine leading the entire race and then watching people pass you by at the end.
“It was devastating to me. I didn’t want to get too far behind them, and it backfired on me. I let their race dictate my race strategy, and if I have any advice for young athletes, it’s to always swim your race. Don’t let others change your strategy. You know what works best for you.”
After Olympic Trials, Henderson, just 22, took some time away from the sport to get some perspective and decide if his heart and body were in it for another four-year run.
He said he relied upon his “superior network” of friends and family to help him along the way, and ultimately, he decided he still had more to achieve and more goals to conquer – namely the Olympics.
“I went back to my roots, spoke with my club and college coaches to really get an idea of what I wanted and how much I still wanted it,” he said. “It took me a few months, but I soon realized I wasn’t done.”
He returned to competition after an 8-month absence stronger than before, and in 1992, he won gold at the U.S. Open and U.S. Nationals (summer) and added another two gold medals at that summer’s Pan Pacific Championships. He finished the year with a gold and two silver medals at the first Short Course World Championships.
A year later, Henderson became a member of the first USA Swimming resident team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and under the guidance of coach Jonty Skinner, won two National titles, a gold medal at the 1994 World Championships and more medals at his fourth-straight Pan Pacific Championships and the 1995 Pan American Games.
That meet was held in Atlanta – the site of the next Olympics – and Henderson said swimming there made he want to make the 1996 Olympic team even more.
At 1996 Trials, he found redemption, making the U.S. team in the 100 fly – and although he didn’t win an individual medal in Atlanta, he did swim the fly leg of the 400 medley relay team that won gold and set a new world, Olympic, American and U.S. Open record.
“Swimming in that relay with some of my best friends – guys I’d been swimming with for many years including Jeff Rouse – more than made up for what went wrong in 1992,” he said. “Just to have that Olympic experience together was amazing.
“Most of the guys retired after that meet, and I stayed with swimming a few months before I realized it just wasn’t and wouldn’t be the same without them. It was tough to leave, but I knew I needed to move on to the next phase of my life.”
Tired of the “rat race” and realizing the nature and structure of investing was changing – having braved the tumultuous “Great Recession” – Henderson left industry in 2014 wanting to do something great to give back to sports.
Which brings us full circle back to The Athletes Village, for which Henderson moved his family from the Bay Area to Bend, Ore., a little more than a year ago.
And Henderson has an ideal scenario in mind that displays the power and reach of his new startup.
“Can’t you just see it – Michael Phelps, while waiting in line at the post office with 20 minutes to kill – is notified over his smartphone that there is a question on theathletesvillage.com about the 100 butterfly,” Henderson said. “He pumps out a few answers to those questions, and the athlete walks away with information he didn’t have a few minutes ago.”
He said he and his investors are working on creating an app for the site, but with a very limited marketing budget, the value of the site will depend upon word of mouth and success stories in the early going.
And this is just the beginning.
He sees big things for The Athletes Village and everyone it impacts.
“There are so many untapped resources out there – parents, coaches, former athletes, nutritionists, trainers, etc. – who have all of this knowledge that they can share through The Athletes Village,” said Henderson, husband to wife, Tamara, and dad to daughter, Brooke, and son, Brady. “Information is there and needs to be shared, and this is the platform for it.“We’re a little overwhelmed right now getting everything input and organized and structured – including working on the app – but there is great potential here. This is something I’ve been working on in my head for years, and now it’s all coming to fruition. I know it will change peoples’ lives in a very positive way.”