Last week I learned the sad news that our high school swim team coach, Jeff Johnson, passed away at the age of 74. There’s a wonderful obit about his career published in the Boston Globe, and many heartfelt testimonials from his swimmers over the years have been posted on Facebook. Last I’d heard he had just retired after over 40 years of coaching for our high school, both boys’ and girls’ swim teams to defeat other teams in several thousand swim meets. I was a student at Acton Boxborough Regional High School, or ABRHS for short, from 1983 to 1987. Here are some memories I’d like to share about my experiences with the boys’ swim team and with our amazing Coach Jeff Johnson.
First, a short prelude, having to do with my childhood growing up in Acton, Massachusetts. When I was around 9 years old, my mother and soon-to-be stepfather moved us into a lovely old Victorian era house on 53 Windsor Ave, which became our home for the next two decades. Down the road in West Acton Center lived the Bennett brothers, who quickly became my best friends in a friendship that lasted all through high school. Pete Bennett was two years ahead of me and Marcus was one year ahead in school. For years they were like my older brothers, and over the years we did all kinds of activities together and with our other close friends, many of them relating to sports and outdoor activities such as fishing, hiking, long-distance cycling, camping, and mountain climbing. But the best thing we ever did together was to join the high school swim team.
Pete was the first to join the boys’ swim team as a freshman in 1981. He would regale us with tales of the team, the boys on it and all their shenanigans, the grueling practices, and of course, the coach, Jeff Johnson. Marcus joined the swim team the following year, and I joined the year after that in 1983. When I started swimming competitively as a 13-year old freshman, I was a little butterball with little to no prior training in competitive swimming. A few weeks into the swim program, to paraphrase the film Fight Club, I was like a block of wood. We all were, because of the intensity of the training under Coach Johnson.
Swim season began in November and lasted through to the spring break in February. It was around three months in all, coinciding with winter season. Every afternoon we’d meet at 3 pm at the high school pool, a 25-yard pool built in earlier times that had some big ventilation issues, leading to plenty of coughing fits by us swimmers over the years. We usually swam for around two hours, averaging 5,000 or 6,000 yards per practice. The practices were longer and more intensive at the beginning of the season. They tapered off somewhat once we began holding regular swim meets—at least, the day before a meet we’d taper back to around 3,000 yards.
I’m not sure I had too many interactions with Coach Johnson in my first or second year. Mainly I was focused on surviving the first season, which in addition to the intense practices also included a lot of hazing of freshmen by the upper-class students on the team. I think I got off comparatively easy. The one big hazing session I recall was having to sing happy birthday to myself on the bus during a trip to a swim meet in another town (it was my birthday on that day).
In terms of competitiveness, I was definitely at the bottom of the totem pole. The following year, I climbed up a notch or two. At first, I think Coach Johnson had me in the breast stroke events, but somehow he saw promise in me as a long-distance swimmer, and in my sophomore year he started putting me in the 200 and 500 yard freestyle events. At first these were excruciating, since they lasted several minutes. Over time I came to learn how pace myself better and how to get through these grueling events mentally. I even came to develop an interest in Zen Buddhism as a way to cope with the challenge of getting through swim practices and nerve-wracking swim meets. And maybe that’s one thing that led me along the pathway of being an Asian Studies scholar.
Coach Johnson was very organized with the practices and he was very determined for us all to improve on our own performances and to beat our competitors in the swim meets. I started noticing that not all the high school swim teams and coaches in our league were as competitive or as dedicated to the sport as our team. Some were more-so than others. Then there was our arch-rival, Weston. Every time we competed with the town of Weston’s high school swim team, the event took on a much more significant aura, and Coach Johnson got a lot more intense and serious. There was something about his ongoing rivalry with Weston and their coach that was very special—but more on that later.
Coach Johnson ran a strict regiment and he didn’t tolerate any fooling around. I remember one time he got exasperated by the antics of some of our swimmers during practice and he pulled us all out of the pool, where we were left standing in a big huddle all dripping and cold. With a red face he harangued us for a few minutes, and the speech went something like this: “I don’t care if your feet hurt, I don’t care if your arms hurt, I don’t care if your balls hurt, you’re going to keep swimming!” Marcus Bennett and I were looking at each other and trying to stifle a laugh. Fortunately we kept our cool, and everyone got back in the pool and worked even harder.
Coach Johnson was a smallish, somewhat portly fellow with blondish balding head, ruddy face and a little mustache. Over a given season, we’d see every range of expression from the Coach, from anger to elation, from misery to bliss. He invested deep emotions into the sport and into us as individuals. When you did well, he’d let you know. When we or he under-performed, we’d hear about it too. He was all in, totally dedicated to the sport, and that was deeply infectious and contagious.
Coach Johnson came from the nearby town of Leominster. When he wasn’t coaching, he was dispatching snowplows, or so I recall (and I think the obit published in the Boston Globe confirms this as well). He had an accent typical to that part of Mass., and he spoke in a somewhat high register. This made him fun to imitate, and believe me, there must have been legions of Coach Johnson vocal imitators over the decades. One of the finest was my childhood chum Marcus Bennett, who perfected Coach’s voice to such a high degree that he used to fool the other teammates. Marcus would walk into the locker room at the beginning of practice and start yelling at everyone in Coach’s voice to stop fooling around and get in the pool, and the other boys would jump and scramble until they realize it was just Marcus fooling around.
By my junior year, we’d assembled a fantastic group of swimmers and we were now more competitive in our league than ever before. Our star swimmer was Scott Fraser, who was in my sister’s class two years behind me. His younger brother Josh joined the following year as well. The Fraser brothers were both amazing swimmers. Scott seemed to have been born to swim; he was tall and lanky and had huge flipper-like feet. In my class, we had Jim Olsen and Larry Stuntz. Jim was a sprinter and Larry excelled in back stroke. Larry and I later joined the Dartmouth men’s swim team, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. Chris Cicella was another standout swimmer, from the class behind mine. The list goes on. Anyhow, that year we came closer than ever to beating our arch-rival Weston in the most intense meet we’d ever had.
I remember that meet well. It took place in our own home school pool. It came down to the very last event, the 400-yard freestyle relay. We thought we had it clinched with our A-team, but the Weston coach decided to split his A and B teams, and they came in second and third. Somehow because of the way the points were scored, that put them ahead of us by a small margin even though our A team won by a mile.
When Coach Johnson found out what had happened, he was stunned. I had never seen a man so saddened by an event that didn’t involve somebody’s death. The Coach brought us all into his office after the meet to explain what happened. There were tears in his eyes as he told us how sorry he was and how he felt responsible for the loss of the meet. In fact, there wasn’t a dry eye in the office. We were all in tears, not just because of our own frustration, but also because we could feel his deep pain and anguish at having come so close and then losing to our arch rival Weston on what could be seen as a minor technicality, or at best a bit of underhanded cleverness.
After the season ended in winter 1986, I was up in New Hampshire skiing at a small ski resort in Lebanon called Whaleback Mountain, when I had a bad accident. I hit a jump the wrong way, landed on my side and found myself lying on the slope with a ruptured spleen. Long story short, I spent the next two weeks in the nearby Mary Hitchcock Hospital of Dartmouth College recovering after emergency surgery.
I later heard from my family and friends that during the annual end-of-season dinner, which took place while I was still in the hospital, Coach Johnson broke down in tears when he talked about my accident. According to the witnesses, he said something like “That kid is the hardest worker!” When word got back to me about this speech, I was stunned. I never thought he’d really noticed me, since I wasn’t one of the top swimmers on the team. Anyhow, that incident really made me realize how deeply Coach Johnson cared about me and about all of us.
I came out of my recovery from that horrible accident determined to have the best swimming year during my senior year of high school and to make a real contribution to help our team beat our arch rival, Weston.
While I do remember working hard in practices, I have to say that the hardest workers of all were our divers, Andy Ells and Josh Kopelman. In addition to joining in for some of the swim practice, they spent countless hours developing their diving skills. Diving takes a great deal of courage and bravery, since that hard board is somewhere below you as you twist and turn through the air. I remember one time Andy Ells was having difficulty with a dive, and Coach Johnson kept him going through the practice as we watched him hit the board at least once. But he kept on going, a testament to our commitment to working through pain, anger, anxiety and fear throughout our careers as competitive swimmers.
That fall, I joined a regional swim team called the Barracudas. ABRHS swimming superstars Scott and Josh Fraser were on this team as well as a few others from the ABRHS boys team. Some of the best swimmers from nearby rival schools such as Lincoln Sudbury were also on this team.
By this time I had a driver license and a car—an old brown Volkswagen Rabbit that I bought second hand with the help of my parents. Every morning I woke up around 5 am or earlier and drove over to the homes of the other swimmers in our town and then we drove out to Brandeis University where we used their pool for morning practice. The morning practice was usually two hours, and then we’d drive to our ABRHS high school for a day of school, and later that day we’d drive back for the evening practice. We were probably averaging 10,000 meters a day of swimming on most days.
Coach Johnson was old school, in the sense that he focused on hard work and on working through pain. I remember one lecture he gave on the blackboard by the pool about the different stages of pain we had to go through. The most extreme was “agony.” If you’re not working in and around the agony zone on a regular basis, you’re not working hard enough, is the message that I recall.
By contrast, the coaches who led the Barracudas took a more scientific approach to swimming. I learned a lot from them about how to develop and perfect my freestyle stroke and my breast stroke, with plenty of exercises, some of which I still use from time to time when I swim now. We watched videos of swimmers, and we trained in a very methodical way. There was no discussion of pain that I recall, let alone agony. The coaches didn’t get very emotional with us, at least not as I can remember. By the end of my fall training with the Barracudas, I was swimming the 500 freestyle event and clocking around 5:30, my best time ever. I was ready for the winter swim season at ABRHS.
That year we had our strongest team and our strongest season ever. Scott Fraser, Larry Stuntz, Chris Cicella, and Jim Olsen were all at the peak of their powers (though Scott would continue to excel for another two years in high school). I don’t remember the exact score of the meet against our arch-rival Weston, but suffice it to say that we creamed them that year. Coach Johnson had promised us two things if we defeated Weston. First, he would shave his mustache. Second, we’d get to throw him in the pool after our victory. To the best of my recollection, both of those things happened on the day we finally beat Weston.
Then we went on to do something even more extraordinary. After defeating Weston to become league champions, we went on to compete in the North Sectionals, and there we went up against the previously undefeatable boys’ swim team from Chelmsford. Once again it came down to the last event: the 400 yard freestyle relay. Jim Olsen started off with a bang, followed by Larry Stuntz and Chris Cicella. We took an early lead against Chelmsford and kept it throughout the event. Even though they had an amazing swimmer for their anchor and he came in with his own personal best time, he couldn’t catch up with Scott Frasier. I remember him being quoted in the newspapers saying that it didn’t matter what he did as an individual, all that mattered was how the team did as a whole.
As usual, I contributed to our team effort in the long-distance events, scoring points in the 500 and 200 yard freestyle events for both of these key meets and beating my personal best times. Although I wasn’t a champion swimmer by any stretch, I did my share. And while my stint with the Barracudas learning their more scientific methods helped a lot, it was the emotional speech of Coach Johnson that previous winter when I had my injury that was my real motivator, even though I never heard the speech in person. I suppose I just wanted to show him that I could make a difference to the team after all those years of hard work, even after my life-threatening injury, and I believe I did.
I went on to join the men’s swim team at Dartmouth College along with Larry Stuntz. That lasted one memorable year, and then I quit competitive swimming for good. Coach Johnson went on to lead the ABRHS boys’ team to several state championships, and then he did the same with the girls’ team. Hands down he was the best, and the most memorable coach, I ever had.
One more little memory to share: While coming back to Acton on the bus from a swim meet in senior year, we stopped at a fast food restaurant for a quick meal, and one of the servers at the counter was a very attractive girl. Coach Johnson tried to get me to flirt with her and he talked me up to her as if he were setting us up for a date. It didn’t happen of course, but I won’t forget those moments of warmth, kindness and humor that came out on occasion while he was pushing us all hard to work through the pain and become the best athletes and the best people we could be.