The Reef & Run weekly aquatic race series, which supports the Santa Barbara Junior Lifeguards program, waived its usual registration fee and instead requested $5 donations to benefit the Santa Barbara High School Aquatics Booster Club.
Johnson tragically drowned during a swimming workout in March, most likely due to shallow water blackout, which can cause even fit swimmers to lose consciousness. He was 19.
Water was at the center of Johnson's life from an early age, and he was closely involved in the Junior Lifeguards program as a participant, aide and then instructor.
Rich Hanna, senior recreation supervisor for the City of Santa Barbara, said he had great memories of Johnson after hiring him to become a junior lifeguard.
“Nick was a model for other junior lifeguards,” Hanna said. “What he brought to this program is irreplaceable, and his presence will be missed for all the years to come.”
Jane Cairns, race director for Reef & Run, said a member of the committee is close to the Johnson family and helped develop the idea to dedicate one of their weekly events to Johnson.
They also wanted to raise awareness of shallow water blackout, a condition that is still not well-known even within the swimming and aquatics community.
"I'm not here tonight to make money for myself, but to do whatever I can for Nick and his family," Cairns said. "Any money we raise that helps us understand why this happened and how to prevent it in the future makes it all worth it."
At the beach Thursday evening, Stewart Reid, 42, said it was a special night to be at the races for the swim community after losing one of their own.
"I'm thrilled to be out here supporting this foundation and raising awareness for pool safety while honoring a fallen swim brother," said Reid, an avid Reef & Run participant.
All proceeds from Thursday's races will go to research for water safety education and capital improvements for the Santa Barbara High School aquatics program, after consulting with the Johnson family.
Reef & Run is a weekly swim race series held 6:30 p.m. every Thursday at the Cabrillo Bathhouse at East Beach, 1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd.
For $15, contestants can sign up to compete either in 500 meter, 1 kilometer and 1 mile races.