If you want to surf — yes, surf — in Colorado, Troy Juth and his team can show you where. If you want to learn to scuba dive in Colorado Springs, they can show you how.
The thousand-odd miles between the Front Range and the nearest ocean are no barrier to the popularity of water sports here — not just the whitewater sports you’d expect, but deep-water sports like diving.
Juth, co-owner and founder of Underwater Connection, said Colorado has one of the highest per-capita rates of certified divers in the United States.
“There are a few reasons,” he said. “I think people that live here are more active and more adventurous. Then when we travel — we have the mountains here, but we don’t have the ocean — we head for the ocean. It’s the ideal thing to do on vacation.”
UWC staff work to ensure everyone who makes their home near the mountains can be at home in the water too.
For 27 years, UWC has offered scuba diving lessons: open water, advanced, rescue diver, specialty courses and professional qualifications. Two years ago, the range grew to include kayak, stand-up paddle board and swimming lessons.
The expansion came when UWC left its old building on Academy Boulevard in June 2014, opening a custom-built, 12,000-square-foot facility just off I-25 at Garden of the Gods Road.
“We were pretty much solely scuba at the old location,” Juth said. “I wanted to be a full aquatic center, so I had all that in mind when we were designing. We’re the only dive shop that’s opened up here offering instruction and sales in whitewater and touring kayak, swimming, stand-up paddle boarding.”
UWC is now the largest diving facility in Colorado and boasts the deepest scuba pool in the state.
Juth said he added other sports based on the needs he saw.
“Swimming was a natural fit,” Juth said, “and we’ve got some of the best whitewater kayaking in the country here, but there’s no place to learn. I have friends that say, ‘Man, it would be cool to do that!’ but you don’t just grab a boat and go jump on the river. You’d make the news that night — and not in a good way. There was a need for a facility where you could learn to do it safely.
“Stand-up paddle boarding is kind of new, and it reminds me of how snowboarding started. People thought that was a fad but now you go to the mountain and half the people are on snowboards. Stand-up paddle boarding is like that — for every boat we sell, we sell 10 stand-up paddle boards, and every weekend my whole rental fleet is out.”
Whitewater kayaking, Juth said, “is a different animal. It takes a special person to go down whitewater.”
UWC’s whitewater expert is Scott Holmberg, a retired Special Forces, ACA Class 4 whitewater kayak instructor and certified stand-up paddle board instructor. He spends most days out on Colorado’s lakes and rivers, guiding UWC customers.
Scuba course director Doug Beardslee holds scuba diving’s highest qualifications, is certified to train instructors and handles UWC’s military programs.
“We’re approved by the VA so veterans can use their benefits to qualify all the way to scuba instructor,” Juth said. “Their benefits pay for all their lessons, books, fees, their scuba equipment.
“We also run the program for cadets at the Air Force Academy. They have a scuba program there, but to get certified, they come to us.”
Juth has built a team of experts. “My expertise is scuba, so I brought in other experts,” he said. “In the beginning, I taught all the time because I had to — I was balancing trying to run the business and teach. I don’t need to do that anymore. My focus is running and expanding and growing the business.”
As well as offering lessons, equipment sales and rentals, UWC runs dive trips all over the world.
“We handle the ground, the diving, the air,” Juth said. “I just had 38 people come back from Curaçao. They just come in and pay, and we say, ‘Here’s your airline ticket, your diving, your lodging, your meals, all your drinks.’ We have trips out of the country about every other month.”
Online sales are next. After 18 months of planning, Juth and his team hope to go live with an online store Sept. 1. It is aimed less at UWC’s existing customers and more at divers without physical access to equipment.
“The bulk of our customers still want to come in for the vast knowledge we have of the product — being able to touch it and see if it fits correctly, because with almost everything we have fit is critical. They can try it in our pool, and if they don’t like it for whatever reason — even ‘It clashes with my bathing suit’ — they can continue to exchange it until they’re satisfied.
“But there are a lot of divers around the world who don’t have a facility like this where they can walk in and find a wide selection of some of the best dive equipment available. My market’s Kansas, Nebraska, where you have divers but they don’t have a dive shop. I’m not competing in [Florida] — I can hit a 9-iron from dive shop to dive shop from Key West to Key Largo.”
Juth hadn’t planned to build a career on diving.
He took scuba diving lessons at 21, while he was “between colleges,” and ended up working at the Colorado Springs Scuba Center, long since closed. After another valiant attempt to become as interested in college as he was in diving, Juth left UCCS and returned to the dive shop.
Then, a customer approached him with the idea of opening a store.
“He said ‘You can run it, I don’t have the expertise,’ so he’s a silent partner with a passion for diving, and we’ve been partners ever since,” Juth said. “Not one hiccup in 27 years.”
For their first facility, the pair acquired a building that had been an old Godfather’s Pizza Parlor.
“The kitchen was there, even the salad bar was still there — we gutted that building, dug a hole, built the pool,” Juth recalled.
“People thought we were crazy. But at the time we were the only facility in town with a pool inside. Everybody else had to travel around renting different pools, so we had an edge on the competition.”
At the new facility, the 15-foot-deep indoor pool maintains a comfortable 88 degrees and an ambient room temperature of 90 degrees year-round. That means the classes and business volume fluctuate very little between seasons .
And can you really surf in Colorado? Yes, you can.
“When we run in the Arkansas River, [white water] feature 3 is this great surfing feature. You’ll have a half a dozen people with surfboards and they’ll jump in below that feature — they’re right there in the eddy and they’ll just surf,” Juth said.
“Surfing in Colorado.”
[su_box title=”Underwater Connection” box_color=”#005ac3″]Year established:1989
Number of employees: 44 (10 full-time staff, plus eight swim instructors, 25-plus scuba instructors, one kayak/SUP instructor)
Location: 4940 Rusina Road
Contact: uwcscuba.com, 599-3483[/su_box]