Swag Hartel grew up outside of London, England and his passion was soccer. A young man with a rebellious streak, young Swag ended up at a live-in boarding school to focus on his schooling. Little did he know that his life would change forever. He started playing rugby at his new school and within three weeks he separated his shoulder. Since he couldn't play rugby any longer, he gravitated to the track and started running. At the age of 14 he ran the half-mile in 2:08. As a senior, he ran a 1:50.8 and was the fastest 17-year-old half-miler in the world that year.
To this day, my shoulder still gives me trouble, he laughs. It was definitely one of those good news/ bad news moments. The bad news? He couldn't play rugby any longer. But he was on his way to becoming a world-class runner.
Swag's biggest running moment came in 1970 when he placed second in the British Championship with a 3:40.5, his fastest ever 1,500 meters. It was a great era for British milers. Swag was going head-to-head with Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram, among others.
Ovett was just a filthy, filthy runner, Swag insists.
In 1977 Swag moved to Louisville, Ky., where he and fellow Brit Nick Rose ran the roads professionally.
Between 1979 and 1985 I ran 64 1OKs under 30 minutes and a half-marathon in 1:04, he recalls. He raced on the weekends and took a day job at Athletic Attic, managing the running store for two years.
In April 1985 he opened his own Swag's Sport Shoes store and because of his reputation on the roads, he built a great following.
My goal at the beginning was to stay one step in front of the bill collectors, he laughs.
It wasn't easy. I was working 50-hour weeks, cleaning the toilets and trying to get by in our 1,500-square foot building.
Swag believes his store is so successful because it is much more than a running store.
About half of my sales are from running shoes, he continues,
but I also carry everything from cross trainers to hiking boots to soccer, golf, volleyball and basketball shoes. Our customers drive a long way to come see us because they know we have so many types and styles of shoes.
Asked about a pet peeve, Swag doesn't hesitate. The one thing that drives Swag crazy is the number of runners who don't actually know their true shoe size.
I fit at least 10 people every day, he says,
and most of them are in the wrong size shoes. I've had people walk in and tell me they wear a size 12 and they'll leave with a 10½ 4E. Since most stores don't carry widths, customers end up getting shoes that aren't right for them.