10 Questions with John Swanson, Founder of The Granite Games

John Swanson, founder of The Granite Games.
John Swanson, founder of The Granite Games.

The 2018 Granite Games will be the 6th year in a row athletes have made the journey to St. Cloud, Minnesota, to throwdown in one of the biggest off-season competitions. In just a few weeks, over 3,000 athletes will compete as individuals or in teams of 3 or 4.

With The Granite Games quickly approaching, we caught up with John Swanson, the founder of The Granite Games, to learn about the history and what it takes to put on such a large event.

The Barbell Spin: The Granite Games began in 2013. How were The Granite Games born? What was the motivation behind creating an off-season competition?

John Swanson: Great question. The Granite Games were actually preceded by The Cloudytown Throwdown, which was a small in-box competition I started in 2011 with about 40 athletes competing right inside the walls of our garage gym. It more than doubled in size in 2012, and in 2013 we made the leap to rebrand as the Granite Games and we’ve evolved from there to what you see today, with over 3,000 athletes expected to take part in this year’s event.

But, to your question, I started all of this because I was speaking to some of my gym members—one in particular—and I was using the word “athlete” and she was taken aback by that. No one had ever referred to her as an athlete before. And this stuck in my mind, that many of my members had never experienced competition before, or even considered themselves to be athletes. So, I organized the first Cloudytown Throwdown. Very quickly though, I realized that a small in-box throwdown could only bring the experience of competing to a small number of athletes, which is why my team and I made the decision to rebrand our competition and re-launch it on a much larger scale.

What drove me then is what drives me now…I want to create a world-class fitness competition experience for as many athletes as possible, from Pro to Scaled and everyone in between. I believe everyone should experience competition at least once.

TBBS: Did you have any experience before this in organizing a functional fitness competition?

JS: No. There has been a lot of trial and error in our journey, but that’s how we’ve gotten to where we are now. It’s the same way I approach all my businesses. We try something, maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. We learn. We grow. We do better next time. This surprises a lot of people, but I actually take feedback to heart—from athletes, from volunteers, from spectators and staff. If they tell me something isn’t working for them, I internalize that feedback and I try to find another solution, or I make it a top priority for next year.

For example, I just re-wrote our entire event programming because I heard from our judges that there weren’t enough breaks during the day. It’s a ton more work for me to re-do the programming three weeks out from competition, but I value the hard work and time our volunteers expend to make this event a success each year, and I always want to honor that sacrifice.

TBBS: Each year the Granite Games gets better and better, what is one thing you learned from last year that you are implementing this year?

JS: Aside from altering the programming schedule to ensure more consistent breaks for our judges, another example would be the athlete response to the Swim Run event. That event really drove home how athletes today are ready and willing to push the envelope. They crave new ways to test how well-rounded their fitness is.

TBBS: How big is the staff and volunteers that help put this together?

JS: This year, we have just shy of 500 people total working to pull off the event. My core staff is actually quite small, we only have 6 of us working full-time on Granite Games throughout the year, but starting in the spring, we begin pulling in department heads, and of course some of our core judging crew is hard at work judging Online Qualifier submissions after that wraps in June or July. It truly takes a village to make the Granite Games happen, and whether someone is able to give a half day or a full week during go-time, my staff and I are so grateful to each one of them. We try to show that not just with our words but with breaks, quality meals, snacks, COFFEE and some really awesome, unique swag they can take away from their experience.

TBBS: Who does the programming and scheduling of events (ie. the Dave Castro of The Granite Games)?

JS: Currently, I over see the programming. I have a few different individuals who I bounce ideas off. Ryan Bressner, a member of my staff has strong input but ultimately it falls on my shoulders for final say. My amazing wife Jess partners with me on scheduling and logistics.

TBBS: We are just a few weeks away from this year’s competition. Can you give any hints to what might be new this year (or what you’re most excited to watch) on the competition floor?

JS: We’ve trickled out a couple hints to athletes in the past month or so, including an obstacle course, Pro Individual Swim and a Wreck Bag Python event for teams. We’re trying something different this year, keeping an air of mystery and an element of surprise by not releasing all the events beforehand. I’m excited to see athletes adapt to the unknown and unknowable in the moment. They’ll learn a few workouts the week prior, but the rest they’ll discover onsite.

TBBS: This year on Thursday night, a wide range of speakers will gather for FitCon. What was the thought behind this new feature?

JS: The thought was, how can I offer even more value to everyone making the trip out here for the weekend? How can I give athletes, spectators, volunteers and staff something they would likely otherwise never have an opportunity to experience. They’ll have direct access to fitness industry leaders, whether that’s their favorite Pro Athlete, a Coach or Nutritionist who could answer questions about the holes in their own fitness, or maybe a specialist in the business side of the house to share their hard-earned insights on how to succeed as an owner or entrepreneur in this market. Our field of round table experts runs really deep and there’s absolutely going to be something for everyone to take away from the evening.

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Meet our 2018 Granite Games Fitness Conference line-up! . Athletes & Volunteers, flash your badges at the door. . Tickets available to all who’d like to attend as well—tap the link in our bio! . 2018 Keynote Speaker: CEO & Founder of NCFIT Jason Khalipa . @jasonkhalipa is a San Jose, California native, CrossFit Games world champion, author and lifelong competitor. Jason married his high school sweetheart, Ashley, and the couple was blessed with two beautiful children, Ava and Kaden. Jason and Ashley are extremely passionate about fundraising and building awareness for children and the families of children battling cancer. . Jason is CEO and Founder of NCFIT, a global company aimed at making fitness effective, fun and accessible. With thousands of participants worldwide, NCFIT is widely considered first in class in functional training by industry insiders. Jason is also one of the most accomplished athletes in CrossFit Games history. In 2008, Jason was crowned the Fittest Man on Earth. He has also earned top finishes, including placements as the 5th, 16th, 7th, 5th, 2nd, and 3rd Fittest Man on Earth. Jason had the honor of representing Team USA three times in the worldwide CrossFit Invitational and earned Spirit of the Games honors in 2009. . Jason attributes much of his success in life and competition to the love and support of his wife and children, as well as to the AMRAP Mentality. . . #granitegames #earnednotgiven #iamanathlete #roadtominnesota #amrapmentality

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TBBS: When you started The Granite Games, did you ever think it would grow to something this big?

JS: No, and to be honest, that was never the plan. We simply knew we wanted to create an amazing experience for each and every athlete who traveled the Road to Minnesota. I think the fact that it has grown to the size it is now is a testament to that commitment and my team’s passion for what we do.

TBBS: You have three businesses – The Granite Games, Fast Factory and Factory Forged. How much time do you devote to The Granite Games throughout the year?

JS: The Granite Games is an all-year round gig for me. Within a week or two of wrapping on Sunday night, my team and I are already establishing next year’s dates, so we can announce them to the community and let folks book their hotel rooms in advance or mark the weekend on their calendars.

I always set aside some time to reconnect with my family after the marathon that is the final few months leading up to each year’s event, and we really start to dig in again around January. We have to set and announce the Qualifier dates, program the Qualifier workouts, start securing demo athletes and filming content… It picks up steam pretty quickly. I also have an excellent team that excels at what they do. They know their roles and have the autonomy to do what needs to get done to keep moving the needle. And that extends beyond Granite Games to include Fast Factory and Factory Forged. It really is a group effort at every turn.

For myself personally, in terms of time management, I approach my life with the analogy of the glass jar, in which you have to fit large rocks (symbolizing the most important things), pebbles (secondary priorities), and sand (small stuff). I always start with the large rocks each day. My biggest priorities. If I get those done, everything else is just a bonus. With 3 companies, family, health/fitness and everything else in life, there will always, always be unfinished business. The goal is never to cross everything off the list. It’s to move the needle on the most important items consistently.

TBBS: What is your favorite memory from a prior Granite Games?

JS: Currently, my favorite memory over the years was the surprise 2-mile run Pro Individuals faced last year in 2017 when we bussed them out before sunrise to an undisclosed location, and as the sun was creeping over the horizon, we told them their first task would be a trail run through the Minnesota hills. We let that sink in for a moment, and then dropped a huge banner to reveal a row of weighted vests—and told them they’d be running in these. It was such a great test of mental strength in the face of adversity. Watching athletes thrive in a tough situation and fall back on their training to carry them through, even though they couldn’t have known they’d face this test… It was pretty incredible.

If you asked me what my second favorite memory is from these past 8 years, I’d say it was the 2013 Snatch Ladder, our very first event as the Granite Games. When that first barbell went up, I actually teared up. That moment—it was the culmination of a dream coming to life, right in front of my eyes. It’s a moment that will always stick with me.

The 2018 Granite Games start on September Thursday, September 6. Make sure you follow @thegranitegames on Instagram. And to get a peak behind the creator of The Granite Games, follow John, @johnwswanson, as well!