Feature by Jeff Commings
HOUSTON, Texas, July 11. GRAHAM Johnston didn’t reach his goal of breaking the Masters world record in the 1500 freestyle last week at the United States Masters Swimming long course nationals, but he’s lucky he got the chance to race at all.
After a 400 IM race five months ago, he felt shortness of breath and pain in his chest — more intense than the usual sensations after completing one of the most grueling swimming events. Doctors discovered a blocked aorta in his heart and promptly inserted a stent to keep blood pumping regularly.
Johnston, 81, was able to get back in the pool and train for nationals shortly thereafter. In addition to the 1500, Johnston won five more individual events last weekend and helped the Masters of South Texas win one relay and place second in two others. It was one of the few championship meets in which Johnston did not break a national or world record, finishing a minute slower than Divano Giulio’s world record of 24:40.69 in the mile.
“I’m happy that I can still get into the pool and train at the top level,” he said, “and I enjoy swimming so much that I don’t want to give it up.”
Johnston’s swimming history begins in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where as a teenager he made good on his dream to continue his swimming career in the United States. After selling his belongings and accepting some money from his mother, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean and became the first South African swimmer to compete for an American university, earning All-America honors for the University of Oklahoma from 1951 to 1955.
Johnston’s time at Oklahoma helped get him a spot on the South African Olympic team for the 1952 Games in Helsinki, where he competed in the 400 and 1500 freestyles, as well as the 800 free relay. After competing at the highest level of the sport, Johnston quit swimming at 22 years old. Masters swimming wouldn’t be conceived for another 17 years, so Johnston and his wife Janis went to South Africa, where Graham sold mining equipment. After two years, the Johnstons returned to the United States. Johnston made a lucrative career selling heavy equipment to miners and farmers all over the country before settling in Houston.
Johnston was invited to a Masters swimming competition shortly after the organization was founded in 1972, but he refused. The bug bit him in 1973, and Johnston made his Masters swimming debut at the 1973 nationals in Santa Monica, where he was summarily defeated by Bumpy Jones, who would become a friend and rival.
“I have a great ego and I’m competitive in just about anything I do,” Johnston said. “I was confident I could win (at Santa Monica), but in the first two races I was whipped down to third place.”
From that moment on, Johnston was on his way to becoming a Masters legend. Throughout his career as a Masters swimmer, he has broken nearly 90 Masters world records across seven age groups. Eight of those records still stand in the 70-74 and 80-84 age groups. He was inducted into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in 1998.
He’s made a name for himself in open water venues as well, becoming one of the oldest swimmers to traverse the Strait of Gibraltar at age 74 and the first man over 70 years old to complete the 3.5-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim in less than an hour.
And, in 1995, he swam in the chilly waters from Robben Island — the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned — to the shores of Cape Town in South Africa in a little more than two hours, becoming one of the fastest to do so.
Life has slowed Johnston a little bit recently in his pursuit of excellence in the pool. In addition to the stint placed in his heart earlier this year, Johnston learned that his wife was going through the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and caring for her means fewer trips around the country for meets.
But the goals are still there, including a possible run at that 1500 world record at a meet in San Antonio next month. And Johnston, who says he wants to swim “until I’m 105,” says he’ll never turn his back on the sport that gave him so much.
“If I remained in South Africa (instead of attending college in the United States), I would have been in some mediocre position and would not have been happy,” he said. “Swimming opened doors to me that would not have been open in South Africa, and I’m so happy about that.”
Send feature story ideas to Jeff Commings at email@example.com.