Martha Burns was a housewife and mother living in Minneapolis when tragedy struck. She managed to save her family from drowning in debt by starting a business in the backyard pool.
Burns, 60, runs a swim school for kids. But her business and life are really a lesson in keeping your head above water -- no matter what.
Growing up in Mexico, Burns loved to swim. But her well-to-do parents expected women to become scholars, not athletes.
"Every time I got a 'C,'" Burns recalls, "My mother would say, 'Your brain is full of water.'"
Burns' talent went unused.
"I qualified to be on the Mexican Olympic team," she says, "but that was not even a consideration for me to go."
Mom and Dad said, "No way," Burns recalls.
At age 22, she married a wealthy American named Bob Burns. Bob understood his wife's first love was the water, so when they moved to Minneapolis, he built her a pool.
Martha Burns notes, "He did that, which I'm really grateful for now." Her husband had no idea how that pool was going to pay off.
They raised two children: little Martha and David; Martha taught the kids to swim as soon as they could walk -- neighbors marveled at their skills.
"And they said, 'Would you teach my child? Would you teach my child?'" Martha Burns says.
So Burns gave swimming lessons, just for fun, not realizing that, while she was teaching kids to float, her husband was sinking deeper and deeper in debt.
"He would never say I need help," Burns says, "So I continued like in la-la land: doing my classes, spending my money, and things were really bad -- until the day he died."
In 1988, Bob Burns suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving Martha, two kids, three mortgages, and little else.
"With no money," Burns says, "When I say no money, there was not a dime."
Faced with losing her home, Burns turned to the one thing she knew best.
"I knew I had already done a few years of swimming; I knew I could do it; and I thought, now I'm going to turn it into a business."
She started a swimming school and word of her talent in the water quickly spread.
"They just started coming," Martha Burns says. "If you believe, it will happen."
Burns would even work magic with kids other schools wouldn't take -- such as a blind boy.
Still, she struggled, working "probably 60 to 70 hours," a week, she says. "For three years, I never had one day off."
She needed a loan to keep the business going, but her bank turned her down.
What was it that made her say she could do this?
"I truly didn't know if I could do it," she says chocking up a bit, "but something kept you going."
That "something" was her children: Martha and David. They not only inspired her, they jumped right into the family business -- literally.
Finally, four years ago, a local minority business association gave her a loan. With it, Burns built a pool with a windowed waiting room for parents, and later, a cafe next door.
"nd that's all I needed. One person to say, 'I believe in you, and we'll do it,'" she says.
Today, Burns swimming school has 250 students and a waiting list. And this year, it will net around $250,000.
What's the secret of her success?
"When I get up in the morning, I say, 'Thank you! I'm going to work. I love it. I love to be here.' Everybody says, 'Go home, go home.' No. I love what I do. I truly do."