News of the death of 20-year-old local swimmer Nicholas Johnson shocked the community when it occurred in March, and the Santa Barbara County coroner released a report this week stating he believes the cause of the young man’s death to be shallow water blackout, a condition that can cause swimmers to go unconscious underwater.
Johnson, a sophomore at UCSB and a competitor on its men’s water polo team, was found unresponsive at the bottom of the Santa Barbara High School swimming pool on March 24, but efforts to revive him, at the poolside and later at the hospital, were unsuccessful.
A report from Dr. Robert Anthony, a forensic pathologist with the county, was released this week and stated the cause of death to be accidental drowning, and listed shallow water blackout a reason the otherwise fit young swimmer could have gone unconscious.
Anthony’s report outlines the details that led to Johnson’s death that day, starting with Johnson beginning his workout in the pool that morning around 8:30 a.m.
Santa Barbara police Sgt. Aaron Baker said he had been at the scene and interviewed Santa Barbara High School coach Christine Piasecki, who said Johnson had been working out on his own, and that there were 11 or 12 other people in the pool, including team members and coaches.
“Based on several witness accounts, [Johnson] was seen swimming at high intensity on taking a breath once at the end of a lap. He did this several times,” the report stated.
Piasecki recalled talking with Johnson briefly as he took a break from his workout at around 9:30 a.m., but about 10 to 15 minutes later, Piasecki and others noticed Johnson was missing.
They spotted him at the bottom of the pool, brought him up to the pool deck and began CPR, the report states.
Medics responded to the scene and began lifesaving procedures, and Johnson was taken to Cottage Hospital. Medical personnel were unable to revive him, however.
Johnson had been swimming almost every day for the past 12 years, the report stated, and did not take any medications, drugs or supplements. He drank beer occasionally, “but not in excess,” the report stated.
The coroner’s report described Johnson having minor abrasions on his nose, forearm and left inner thigh, “which may have occurred when [Johnson] was pulled out of the pool.”
A toxicology screening was done on Johnson, and showed only a small presence of Lidocaine, which was likely used during resuscitation at the hospital.
Because he was an experienced swimmer and was last seen in the pool doing a “high-intensity workout … I believe [Johnson] died as a result of shallow water black out,” Anthony wrote. “This death will be classified as an accident.”