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The Making of a World Champion: An Aqua-Tots Franchise Owner Spotlight

When we say our franchise owners are committed to swimming, we mean it! Franchise owner, Malena Hankins, lives and breathes her passion for swimming daily. She is a mother of four, franchise owner of three Aqua-Tots Swim Schools locations and an accomplished, inspirational athlete. However, this World Masters Champion swimmer’s journey to success is far from traditional.

When a Passion for Swimming Begins

Growing up in Ecuador with a pool in the backyard and a nearly noise-canceling wall surrounding it, Malena’s parents knew the importance of swim safety for their children. “My dad put me in swim lessons at four years old,” she recalls. “And it was then that I fell in love and found my happy place. My family was very competitive, and we loved sports. Naturally, I stayed in the pool and swam as much as I could. By the age of nine, I won my first swimming competition, and by the age of 14, I was swimming for our national team, representing Ecuador in swim meets throughout South America. I was good at swimming, it opened doors for me, pushed me to new goals and allowed me many opportunities.”

The Detours Along a Swim Journey

By the age of 19, Malena was swimming for Georgia Tech in Atlanta. However, her swim journey took a detour when Malena found herself the proud mother of her firstborn son. Being a new, young mom, she watched as her competitive swimming career drifted away. “I stopped swimming for 10 years. My family grew, and after three kids, I became determined to lose stubborn pregnancy weight that was lingering. I had zero interest in going to the gym, so my husband encouraged me to begin swimming again. I liked his idea, but I didn’t want to just swim; I wanted to compete.” 

And compete she did. Malena began training and reignited a passion that had burned brightly many years prior. Soon, the training, the sacrifices and dedication began to pay off. She competed and won one competition after another. She traveled to World Masters Swimming competitions in Sweden, Brazil, Italy and Hungary, set a Masters Pan American record, began a long-distance open water swimming career and earned the title of National Champion for the 1 mile, 3 mile, 5k, 10k and 25k swim in 2012. The swimming champ was back!

For the Love of Swimming

But Malena wasn’t finished! In 2014, she embarked on the first leg of The Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, a 28.5-mile counterclockwise swim around Manhattan Island. “After 9 months of planning and training—and newly pregnant—I completed a goal that I had my heart and mind set on for over five years. It pushed me towards the limits of my body.” On the most grueling stretch of the event, Malena recalls, “Seven hours into the swim, I felt like I wasn’t making any ground and my left shoulder started to give out on me. I rolled over onto my back and started backstroking while my support crew gave me energy drinks, chews and Motrin to fight the inflammation in my shoulders. This was the very first moment that true doubt crept into my mind. At that moment, I truly didn’t know that I could finish. With tears in my eyes, I rolled back over and started the fight again as my husband, who was in the kayak beside me, cheered me on, ‘You are going to do this, Malena! Come on, Honey! You’ve got this!’

“Within minutes, a wave flipped John from his kayak; I was scared to death. Yet, that was the fire that I needed to square my shoulders and take it the rest of the way home. That moment made me realize that I wasn’t the only one fighting the elements. And I knew I could do this! God gave me the ability to swim and the tenacity to endure. I take no responsibility for my gifts or abilities, but the decision to put them to use—that’s what I am called to do.”

A Passion for Swimming and Saving Lives with Lessons

Malena was able to raise $2,250 to support drowning prevention from that swim alone. In fact, it was during her “swimming reinvention” that Malena discovered Aqua-Tots. “I was working in corporate America, but I wasn’t really happy. I was in the mix of raising small children, and I wanted their young lives to be my focus. While I was doing research about getting back into swimming and training, I realized that what I really wanted to do was teach children how to swim. So, in 2008, I started teaching babies how to swim in hotel pools using the Aqua-Tots curriculum.” 

Malena now owns three Aqua-Tots franchise locations in Georgia and Tennessee where her passion for swimming and a mission for drowning prevention meet. “I work hard, and I play hard. I wake up every morning at 4:30am to train, to compete, and to keep on schedule with my kids and work. It’s a lot of sacrifice, but it’s worth it.”  

This mother of four is still competing, still dreaming and still making waves. Malena took home the 1st place medal at the World Masters Swimming Competition in South Korea in August 2019, and in September 2021, she became the second female Ecuadorian to swim from Catalina Island to the California mainland—a long, arduous journey that she completed throughout the night, with over 44,000 strokes, in 62° water. Watch her amazing accomplishment below.

Malena, we’re so proud of you. Your dreams, passion and dedication are inspirational. We are honored to have you as a part of the Aqua-Tots family. 

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