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Remembering Ron Johnson

2001 Masters swimmer of the year and 1999 Coach of the year

P H Mullen | May 7, 2002

Ron Johnson died on August 8, 2009 at the age of 78. A Celebration of Life was held on Saturday August 15. Ron was inducted into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in 2007. He was the 2001 Masters Swimmer of the Year (Men 65-69 and Men 70-74)

Ron Johnson may have been one of the most accomplished swimmers of 2001, but he's convinced his best times were left in the operating room. That's because last December, as Johnson was peaking for his biggest meet of the year, he was waylaid by both a double hernia and a prostate problem. Then he tore ligaments in his knee while kicking breaststroke.

Despite the late-season setbacks, Johnson, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., just outside Phoenix, was one of two men to dominate the 70-74 age group last year. The other was Graham Johnston, and when they raced, everyone stopped to watch "Johnson vs. Johnston."

Johnson finished 2001 with 13 number one rankings and 11 world and national records. He also became the first man over 70 years to break three minutes in the 200-meter IM (2:59.90). He also owned top rankings in every discipline except breaststroke.

Johnson, the only coach ever to win collegiate and Masters awards for Coach of the Year (he coached Arizona State University), runs the Sun Devils Masters program in Tempe, Ariz.

When Masters swimmers die, maybe they get to go to a place like this: workouts run like clockwork morning, noon and night, and Olympic swimmers stand on deck giving stroke instruction. The head man, Johnson, spends his idle hours writing a swim book called "A Feel for the Water," which will present interviews with top coaches, training philosophies and a general assessment of where the sport is going.

A couple of interesting facts about Johnson: first, he was the first man ever to hold the world [*] record in the 100-yard butterfly. The stroke (which grew out of breaststroke) was legalized [**] in September 1954. A month later, Johnson, a swimmer at the University of Iowa, set the first global [*] standard.

Second, around the same time, a young Ph.D. student, working as an assistant coach at Iowa, wrote his thesis on stroke mechanics in swimming and used the strokes of two swimmers to build his case. The Ph.D. student was, of course, James "Doc" Counsilman, and this work would ultimately change the sport forever. One of Counsilman's subjects was none other than Ron Johnson.

published in Swim magazine, May-June, 2002

History and Archives Committee 04/12/2010 note for above story: [*] collegiate, [**] for collegiate events

History and Archives Committee 04/12/2010 note: In 1952, the international swimming governing body FINA adopted butterfly as a separate stroke effective 01/01/1953 in the FINA rules.  Basically, butterfly was defined as an over water recovery with the dolphin kick. In late 1954 or early 1955, the breaststroke rule changed to no longer allow an over water recovery with a "frog" or breaststroke kick. By 1955, the breaststroke and butterfly were separate collegiate events, although the medley relay distance remained 300 yards (back, breast, free) and the IM was 150 yards (back, breast, free). The following year, in 1956, collegiate events included the 400 medley relay (back, breast, fly, free) and the 200 IM (fly, back, breast, free). On 04/30/1957, the breaststroke rule was further changed to prohibit underwater breaststroke.

According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, the first recognized FINA world record for the 100 butterfly was set in 1953 by Hungarian Gyorgy Tumpek who swam the 100 long course meters fly in a time of 1:04.3 in Budapest (05/31/1953). The first 200 long course meters butterfly world record, recognized by FINA in 1954, was swum by Japanese swimmer Jiro Nagasawa in a time of 2:21.6 on 09/17/1954.

Coach of the Year 1999, Ron Johnson

from the USMS Coaches Committee 1999

This award is presented annually to the coach who has done the most to further the objectives of Masters swimming. It is sponsored by Speedo and the USMS Coaches Committee selects the recipient. The 1999 Coach of the year is Ron Johnson, coach of the Sun Devil Masters in Phoenix, Ariz. He started this program in 1992 with four members and now has 150 members with three workouts offered daily. Formerly Ron was the men's and women's head swim coach for Arizona State University. He has written for numerous magazines and periodicals including SWIM, Swimming World, and Swimming Technique. He is intimately involved in the design of swimming products and training aids. Ron is also an outstanding Masters swimmer with multiple world records to his credit. He was named to SWIM magazine's Top Ten Masters Swimmers of the Year and was featured on the cover of SWIM Nov-Dec 1998. His swimmers and associates speak of Ron in glowing phrases, "A walking encyclopedia of swimming knowledge and technique,” “He enjoys life to the fullest and does everything in his power to make sure that his swimmers at each workout are having as much fun in the water as he is having on the deck," and "I've had the benefit of all his expert coaching and I've surpassed all the self-imposed limitations I had set for myself. In the future, I will carry Ron's enthusiasm and 'can-do' spirit in my heart forever!"

Ron Johnson

published in Swim magazine, March-April 1999

For years, Ron Johnson has coached—from six year-old beginners to world-class athletes. "The thing about coaching is that you can learn something from swimmers at every level. Once you've worked with the good ones, you can come back and offer the benefits to the beginners."

The current beneficiaries are the 135 members of the Sun Devil Masters Swim Team he founded in 1992 just prior to his retirement after years guiding the Arizona State University men and women.

"I'm enjoying coaching Masters more than any other coaching I've ever done. They are so appreciative. They say `thank you.' And they are paying me," he chuckles.

He, himself, learned from one of the best. While at Iowa, he received coaching from an assistant named Doc Counsilman, advice that he parlayed into two third-place NCAA finishes in the individual medley.

From his cumulative knowledge comes the beliefs and training that have made Johnson a world-class aquanaut. In 1998, he became the only male Masters swimmer simultaneously to hold world records in all four individual strokes plus the IM. "Technique, technique, technique," he says. "If you want to be fast, technique is more important than conditioning. With good technique, you can succeed at any distance."

Johnson essentially coaches himself and goes 3,000 yards six to seven days a week. Three days he does "easy speed"; "I try to hit a goal time and keep my pulse below 160. The secret is to swim really fast and not get your pulse up. One can't race effectively, at any age, with a pulse over 160," he notes.

Johnson hasn't done weights for three years and is convinced he's faster as a result. He does, however, do a lot of pulling and sprint kicking (resistance swimming) with 400 yards of sculling thrown in.

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