Against my better judgment, I recently got involved in a Nick Johnson workout. When he was one of the most active young men on the planet, Johnson blazed a trail in the mountains above his Santa Barbara home. He chose a supremely challenging route, up a steep and jagged ridge to a rocky outcrop that commanded spectacular views of the entire South Coast and the Channel Islands. It was a physically demanding and psychically uplifting experience that he shared with many friends, teammates, and potential dates (does she have the right stuff?). They think of him every time they look up at that rugged terrain.
Augie Johnson figures he’s done that three-mile climb of more than 2,000 vertical feet about 50 times in the year since Nick, his oldest son, died. I told Augie that I’d like to experience it myself. We met early one morning and began hiking before sunup. Augie, a strong man who had competed as a college rower, brought along his 10-year-old daughter, Sophie. I struggled to keep up with them. Augie carried a pack with two large bottles of water for which I would be very grateful. He kept a steady pace and carefully chose a familiar path through a maze of sandstone and chaparral obstacles. He knew the spots where if you strayed in the wrong direction, you would find yourself in danger of falling down a very steep precipice. He often had to tell Sophie to slow down and wait for us. She hopped from rock to rock as if she had springs in her knees and suction cups on her feet. I was scraping against those very same rocks, lowering myself gingerly and then pulling myself up to the next plateau on all fours.
After two arduous hours — made more difficult by the rising of an unusually intense March sun — came the payoff. First, the view. Then, the look of Augie beaming with teary pride at the brass plaque Nick’s friends had embedded in the rock, a fitting memorial to his son who had been such a rock himself. The subsequent descent tortured my weary legs, but I was nonetheless elated at having done Nick’s climb.
There are other established tributes that say a lot about Nick Johnson’s character. A lifeguard tower at East Beach bears his name. U.S.A. Water Polo hands out the Nick Johnson Inspiration Awards to age-group athletes who exemplify the values of the Olympic Development Program. At the CrossFit gym on East Cota Street, the Nick Johnson Workout is a daunting regimen of strength and endurance activities (count me out).
“It takes the best guys an hour to get through it, and they end up dropping on the floor like me,” CrossFit trainer Traver Boehm said. He described Johnson as “focused, determined, hard-working, humble, and polite — qualities you don’t see in kids his age.”
“We Johnsons may not be the greatest athletes,” Augie Johnson said, “but we have a high pain threshold.”
It was a terrible irony that Nick drowned while working out on his own at the Santa Barbara High pool on March 24, 2014. He was pushing toward his pain threshold, swimming laps while holding his breath underwater. He had always given an all-out effort. As he wrote in a manifesto that Augie found on his son’s computer: “Only you decide when you’ve had enough. No one else can decide when it’s your time to call it quits.” Living up to that credo, he swam into a cruel deception. It was a little-known biochemical condition known as “shallow-water blackout.” It erased the pain and turned off the alarm system in his brain that should have told him to emerge from the water to life-sustaining air.
Other young men and women like Nick Johnson — physically fit swimmers likely to respond audaciously to the challenge, “How many laps can you do underwater?” — are now aware of the danger because of what happened to him. Before the start of the Channel League Relays, the first meet of the 2015 high school swimming season, athletes from five schools gathered in the S.B. High gym for a presentation that fully exposed shallow-water blackout.
“Nick Johnson would do everything 110 percent,” Dons coach Mark Walsh said. “Hours after he passed, his dad called me and said, ‘Don’t let this happen to another kid.’” Walsh screened a video that explained the science behind the blackout syndrome, how the mechanism that provides the stimulus to breathe — a rising level of carbon dioxide — is depressed when a person hyperventilates before swimming underwater.
UCSB water polo coach Wolf Wigo got choked up when he recalled how he was attempting 20 laps underwater in the family pool. In the 16th lap, he said, “I pushed off, started to slowly fade, drifted toward the bottom … my dad … knew what was happening … he pulled me out.” Wigo was a 26-year-old, two-time Olympic water polo player at the time.
The swimmers were told always to have a lifeguard present during any workout, never to compete at breath-holding, never to hyperventilate before attempting to swim or kick underwater. Because there is no training benefit from underwater swimming, it all boils down to one basic rule: “Just don’t do it.”
Augie Johnson said he and his family — wife, Karen; sons Sam, a student at Cal, and Cooper, a S.B. High volleyball player; and Sophie — are looking forward, not back at the past year. They will celebrate Nick’s 21st birthday on May 16. He is still with them in spirit, leading them up the mountain to gaze at the wonder of life on this Earth.
WESTMONT MADNESS: The NCAA basketball tournament is a long, drawn-out affair compared to the NAIA Championships, and Westmont College was at the cutting edge of the chaos in Kansas City during the past week. The Warrior men won four games in five days — including a 70-69 upset of No. 1 Hope International — to reach the championship game for the first time. The Warrior women made it to the semifinals.