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Heartbroken Family Says Water Was at the Center of Nick Johnson’s Life

As family, friends cope with UCSB water polo player's death, they remember a young man with heart, drive and fearlessness

Nick Johnson’s childhood room looks untouched from the time he moved out to attend UC Santa Barbara.

His athletic accomplishments shout out from plaques on every wall, trophies lining every shelf and rows of medals hanging in the closet.

There are intimidating pictures of him playing water polo next to ones of him smiling with siblings and cousins.

Between the years of water polo, Junior Lifeguards and fishing with his family, water was at the center of his life.

“When he wasn’t playing water polo, he was fishing,” said his father, Berkeley “Augie” Johnson.

Nick was doing what he loved, swim training for water polo, when he died Monday at age 19.

While doing laps with the swim team at his alma mater, Santa Barbara High School, other swimmers noticed he was at the bottom of the pool. He was quickly pulled up to the pool deck, but despite frantic and prolonged efforts to revive him, he was pronounced dead at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

A fearless competitor and relentless athlete, Nick started playing water polo a few years before high school. By then, he had already been running every race in town, putting up world records for indoor rowing, and competing in baseball, basketball and karate.

This was not a young man accustomed to staying still for long, family and friends say.

His power in the pool, both on club teams and the Santa Barbara High varsity team, helped him get into college, the elder Johnson said.

“He didn’t study much,” he told Noozhawk. “Thank God for water polo because he wouldn’t be in UCSB without it.”

Moving just a few miles away from his Montecito home, Nick lived in Isla Vista with six water polo teammates — which made for some interesting family visits, Johnson recalled.

A boyhood photo of UCSB water polo player Nicholas Johnson. (Johnson family photo)

He said he and his wife, Karen, and Nick’s three younger siblings have been to countless games over the years to watch him play. Action shots are hung all over their house.

“We lived on the pool deck,” Johnson said.

Nick entered the world of water polo with coach Wolf Wigo, who went on to become his Santa Barbara Aquatics Club and UCSB coach. Although he wasn’t a natural, what set him apart, and advanced him beyond the dog-paddling, was his relentless work ethic.

“He’s not the biggest or the strongest, but he just grinds,” Johnson said. “He was always the first in the pool and last to leave; it’s just his nature.”

The sophomore utility player trained every day, whether his Gauchos team did or not, and his life of hard work was an inspiration to teammates, family and friends.

Mark Walsh, his Santa Barbara High coach, told Noozhawk that “Nick will not be remembered for a goal he scored, a pass he made or a center he shut down,” but for his dedication, desire and heart.

“His display of relentless hard work made lasting changes to the work ethic of the athletes in his class and in the classes behind him,” he said of the 2012 Santa Barbara High graduate. “Years later, when you see one of our kids jump in the pool first or a kid push himself to his limit, you’ll see a piece of Nick.”

Walsh even had Nick help coach freshmen and sophomore players while still a student himself, he said.

“If I was ever in need of help to coach or run a tournament, I thought of Nick first,” Walsh said.

Last week, Nick was one of two players to make every practice session during finals at UCSB, even though he had to study hard to get through his classes, his dad said.

“Wolf said this was his year, that’s why he was training so hard,” said Johnson, who added that he wonders if that’s what happened in the pool, that maybe he pushed himself too hard.

An investigation into Nick’s death is under way, but it’s still unclear what happened.

No witnesses report seeing Nick in distress before discovering him at the bottom of the pool, according to Santa Barbara police.

The family is struggling to get through each hour now, but a lot of extended family members — mostly from Berkeley, where Augie and Karen grew up and were teenage sweethearts at Berkeley High School — have descended on Santa Barbara.

“He was so good-hearted,” said Kristen Jensen, Nick’s aunt. “He was just the nicest kid.”

Jensen’s children were devastated by the news of their cousin’s death and haven’t been able to stop crying in two days, she said.

Nick was the oldest and most stable, reliable one of the four siblings, his dad said.

“We thought he’d be the one to take care of us when we were older,” he said. “We just ... don’t know what to do.”

Nick’s high-school girlfriend, Charlotte Hendrix, flew back to Santa Barbara on Monday night, Johnson said.

They met freshman year and dated for about five years, both playing water polo the entire time. When it was time for college, Nick went to UCSB and Hendrix went to Harvard University, where she plays for the Crimson.

Even though the two aren’t dating anymore, Nick filled in at a father-daughter dance with Hendrix’s younger sister when her father couldn’t make it, Johnson said.

Since the news spread Monday, the Johnsons say they’ve been blessed by the outpouring of support. The already close-knit water polo community quickly closed ranks, with families eagerly signing up to make meal deliveries to help out.

Two of Nick’s siblings also play water polo. Sam, a senior at Santa Barbara High, was playing in Kotor, Montenegro, with a club team when he got the devastating news Monday. He and some teammates were flying back Tuesday night.

Sam and Nick had been talking to Wigo about having the brothers play together at UCSB, Johnson said. At the aquatics club, Wigo also coaches Sophie, the youngest Johnson and a student at Montecito Union School.

Cooper, the lone water polo holdout, plays volleyball for Santa Barbara High.

This week, Nick’s parents have received hundreds of messages from people sending condolences and sharing pictures, many of which they say they’ve never seen before.

There are friends from elementary school through college, past water polo coaches and players, and families who remember Nick teaching their children at the city’s East Beach Junior Lifeguards program.

Many people know him that way, since he spent most of his summers there demanding push-ups out of every kid.

Of course, Nick met the most people during his years in the pool.

Fellow water polo player Brendan McElroy was a year ahead of Nick at Santa Barbara High, and they were the only Dons on the UCSB squad. He said Nick was known for his “big smile and an even bigger heart.”

“He was not only a loving brother and son, but also a co-worker, teammate and, most important, a friend to all who knew him,” he told Noozhawk. “His absence will be noticed and his presence will never be forgotten by the community that loves him.”

To honor Nick’s legacy, the family is working with UCSB and Santa Barbara High School to arrange a scholarship fund in his name. 

The Santa Barbara High School Aquatics Booster Club has a link on its site for a Nick Johnson Memorial Fund, at the request of the family. Money will support the high school aquatics program. To donate, click here.

Funeral arrangements were pending Tuesday.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Water was at the center of life for UCSB water polo player Nicholas Johnson. (Johnson family photo)

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