To understand just how far the aquatics industry has come in the past 40 years, look no further than Johnny Johnson, owner of Blue Buoy Swim School in Tustin, Calif. Ever since his mother encouraged him to get in the pool, this former “military brat” has been an influential force helping to shape the industry’s approach to learn-to-swim programs and drowning preven
Johnson eventually became a swim coach and teacher. Then 30 years ago, he became part-owner of Blue Buoy, which first opened in 1956. Johnson and his wife, Cindy, became sole owners in 2007.
“Once I started teaching, I found I really had a love of working with kids,” he says.
Today the motto at the Johnsons’ school is, “Great beginnings lead to great finishes.” The number of repeat clients and successful athletes are seen as testimonials to Blue Buoy’s teaching methods.
“We’re into our third generation teaching some families,” Johnson notes. Some of the athletes associated with Blue Buoy include Gavin Arroyo, U.S. Olympic water polo player, 1996 and 2000; and Olympic gold-medal swimmers Jason Lezak and Janet Evans. (Evans has two young children now enrolled in lessons at Blue Buoy.)
As owner of what could be considered one of the nation’s oldest private swim schools, Johnson was a charter member of the United States Swim School Association and served as president from 2001-03. He also was a founding board member and immediate past president of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.
“Being an aquatics professional, it’s hard not to be involved in drowning prevention,” Johnson says.
He points to a specific incident early in his career that made him deeply aware of the issue. It was the late 1960s and a child whom Johnson taught during a two-week-long block of swim lessons drowned while in a pool at his parents’ tennis club. It was around that time that Johnson also lost his father, a career Marine, in the Vietnam War.
“Losing that student really brought home to me the fact that teaching swimming is not just about teaching a fun activity,” he says. “We’re being entrusted with someone’s most prized possession.”
To help ensure that others never have to experience such a tragedy, Johnson developed the Safer 3 drowning prevention program and started the Swim For Life Foundation, a 501c3 incorporated in 2004.
The basic premise behind Safer 3 is that it’s not possible to eliminate the risk of drowning, but it can be mitigated with a three-pronged, multilayered approach focused on prevention.
According to Johnson, the Safer 3 campaign, modeled after an Australian program, is picking up steam. The organization has a new executive director, Geoff Brandt, and growing partnership opportunities.
Perhaps that has been Johnson’s biggest contribution to the industry. Through all his work, he’s helped build bridges and forge new partnerships and collaborations that will strengthen drowning prevention efforts overall. A good example is the pre-conference meeting Johnson helped organize prior to the 2009 Drowning Prevention Symposium. The meeting was a first-ever gathering of professionals from a range of stakeholder organizations.
“I think that’s one of the things that missing in this country — a unified approach [to drowning prevention],” he says.