By the time they met as parents on the sidelines of New Canaan’s youth soccer fields about one year ago, town residents James Patten and Jill Swarni already had much in common.
They each lived in town for about 15 years, their kids attended public schools here and played the same sports, and both were accomplished businesspeople with standout collegiate athletic careers.
A consultant, Patten helped win three National Championship titles playing lacrosse at Hobart College, earning two All-American selections as well as NCAA Midfielder of the Year and Hobart College’s Athlete of the Year honors. He’s also coached at Colgate University and was the head assistant coach when the lacrosse staff won the Patriot League Coach of the Year Honors.
An owner and operator of Elevate Fitness, Swarni played soccer at the University of New Hampshire, where she served as a student athletic trainer for various sports teams (assisting the head trainer for a semi-pro basketball team in her senior year), and earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology there with an emphasis on athletic training.
Separately but around the same time, Patten and Swarni also realized that they were reaching similar conclusions about youth sports.
“We came together at the same time with the same concept of how youth sports has gotten crazy,” Patten recalled on a recent afternoon.
“You are not going to ‘change’ it. I use the term, it is ‘good, bad and ugly.’ I think there is some good, a little bad and certainly some ugly, but with the dynamic of club sports leading the charge and private schools ratcheting up their programs and even our town leagues ratcheting up where they’re happening year-round, youth sports are really taking off. But no one is talking to the kids about being an athlete anymore. What is it like to be an athlete? No one is talking to the kids about ‘Let’s be an athlete first.’ What does it mean to be an athlete? Leadership, teamwork, positive energy, mental health. All of that plays in and if you have that, and passion, you will be successful in whatever you have. Recruiting and drilling are great, but is anyone talking to kids bout hydration and sports nutrition and mental health and what some may call ‘soft topics,’ but they are real.”
Together, Patten and Swarni conceived of—and this week, launched—a new app called ‘Aspire and Persevere.’ The subscription-based model app is designed to connect young athletes with expert advice in multimedia formats including video, audio and short-form editorial on a range of topics from sportsmanship to leadership and healthy competition. That could mean a physician from Greenwich’s Orthopedic & Neurosurgery Specialists are sharing an exclusive video about injury prevention, or the head coach of Penn State men’s lacrosse or Princeton women’s soccer are diving into what to eat before or after practice or whatever else they deem an important topic for developing athletes.
“We are trying to touch on a set topics we think are being forgotten,” he said. “There are some great coaches out there doing it, but all in all the bigger theme of things is a lot of it is being forgotten, it is going to skills and drills and recruiting.”
The subscription model is twofold, for individual youth or parents as well as for clubs or teams to create their own feeds to push down to their athletes, became a de facto “health and wellness newsletter,” Patten said.
“We are excited,” he told NewCanaanite.com. “We’ve talked to clubs, athletic directors and coaches and they’ve all seen a need for this. So there’s a real opportunity for us to seize. Our mission is to help the kids, so if we can help out one kid in high school or college, then we have been successful. Yes, we think there is a business there and a population and opportunity, and that our content is right and needed with all the noise out there—information that’s wrong, delivered wrong or not engaging.”
Asked what she’s seeing at Elevate Fitness that calls for the tools Aspire & Persevere is providing, Swarni said in an email that in the past decade she has seen scores of young athletes come in with their parents “asking for help and information on rehab of injuries, preventative exercises, proper education on strength, conditioning and nutrition.”
“We are seeing many overuse injuries due to athletes being suggested at a young age to specialize in one sport or to play each sport all year,” Swarni said.
Her goal for the first year of Aspire & Persevere is to “introduce athletes to knowledge” and “provide them with tools to create a healthier lifestyle now and in the future.”
The name ‘Aspire and Persevere’ comes from the motto of Patten’s former prep school, Avon Old Farms.
“I loved it then and we think the words are very appropriate for what we are trying to do,” he said.
Patten said that in working with a developer to create the app itself, he and Swarni were careful not to try and build a completely finished product, because “you don’t know where the trends go or opportunities lie.” With that said, future generations of the app may include tools for community-building and sharing, commenting or even a Waze-style point system that rewards users with coupons for sporting goods stores.
“We need revenue generation first, and then the second or third builds can build on what we’ve created in these dynamic spaces for coaches,” he said. “But again, we will follow where the trend leads and do builds as needed.”