Passages: Legendary Swimmer Graham Johnston at Age 88

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Graham Johnston Passes Away: May 15, 1931 - July 27, 2019. Photo By ISHOF

Written by Robert Keilleen

Graham Johnston Passes Away
Legendary Swimmer was 88.
May 15, 1931 – July 27, 2019

The world lost legendary swimmer Graham Johnston at age 88.

Graham was born on May 15, 1931 and raised in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He learned to swim at the age of 4 and loved it, and all sports, lettering in five during high school.  In 1946 at age 15, he became the South African Junior Diving champion; repeating this feat in 1947 and 1948. He also was South African National Junior Swimming Champion in 1946, 1947, and 1948.

In 1948, Graham’s older brother, Don, swam in the 1500m freestyle at the London Olympic Games, after he barely touched Graham out to qualify for the South African team.

In 1952 Graham was selected to represent South Africa in the Olympic Games held in Helsinki. He competed in the 400- and 1500-meter freestyle and swam a leg of the 800-freestyle relay. After his Olympic performance, Graham was one of the first foreign-born athletes to receive a scholarship at an American university. He was awarded a full swimming scholarship at the University of Oklahoma where he was named an NCAA All-American for three years. In his senior year he became a student coach and one of the Freshmen he inspired and shared his considerable training and racing skills was Jeff Farrell, who went on to win 2 gold medals at the 1960 Olympic Games.

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Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

Graham qualified once again for the South African Olympic team in 1956, but elected not to compete because the dates conflicted with his final semester at Oklahoma.

Graham would have been the first to tell you that 1952 was a banner year for him, not because he swam in the Olympics, but because he met his future wife, Janis, at Oklahoma that year. Graham and Janis married in 1955 and Graham retired from swimming the next year.  The couple moved to Houston, Texas in 1962 where they raised their five children.

After being away from competitive swimming for sixteen years, from 1956 to 1972, Graham returned to the sport at the age of 41 and in 1973 swam in his first master’s national championship in Santa Monica, California. This success was followed over the next forty-seven years by national championships, national records, world championships and world records too numerous to recount.

In 1998 Graham was inducted into The International Swimming Hall of Fame (“ISHOF”) at age 67. During this period while swimming in the 65-69 age group, Graham held every national record at every freestyle distance from 100 yards in the pool to the 10k open water swim. He was the first and at the time only person to hold all seven United States masters national long-distance swimming records in any age group. In 2001, he was voted masters swimmer of the year. Graham was not only a regular participant at national and world championships with Janice at his side, but he also loved open water swimming and won the oldest open water swim in the country, the Waikiki Rough Water Swim eight years in a row from 1993 to 2000. He was the first swimmer over the age 60 to complete the swim in under an hour. He was the oldest and fastest of all age groups to complete the Robben Island to Capetown, South Africa swim in 51-degree water without a wetsuit. Graham also enjoyed the Lanai to Maui Channel relay and at age 74 became the oldest man to swim the Straits of Gibraltar. Simply put Graham loved to swim, anytime, anywhere.

Graham was inducted into the Texas Swimming and Diving hall of Fame in 2009, the National Senior Games Hall of Fame in 2011, and, the Huntsman World Senior Games Hall of Fame in 2012. Graham was the epitome of masters swimming and truly one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors. The Dad’s Club of Houston, where he trained, and Graham are synonymous. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Jim Montgomery summed-up Graham’s swimming career well:

“Spanning over seven decades Graham was truly one of the greatest competitive swimmers of all time”.

Graham and Mrs Johnston

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

Graham is survived by his beloved wife, Janis, their five children Kevin, Linda, Jenny, Bruce, and Shelly, and their grandchildren. Graham will be irreplaceable to his family and those he sought out (and who sought him out) and connected with at swimming events around the world. The swimming community all over the world are better off having known and connected with Graham. They will carry his legacy forward to others.

Summing up Graham’s swimming accomplishments, glowing as such a summary is, does not however sum up the man.  There can be no finer tribute to pay him than to sum up the man as Hamlet did his father: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”

Graham Johnson Swimmer Cover

Photo Courtesy: US Masters Swimming

38 comments

    • avatar

      He was an amazing “guy” inside and outside the pool and just “fun” to be around him. What “spirit” he had. RIP

  1. avatar
    Eney Jones

    I love you so…Graham. Hope you are laughing with Don Hill.

  2. avatar
    Ryk

    RIP Graham. You were a lgend !

  3. avatar
    Skip Thompson

    Graham was one of the greatest masters swimmers and nicest guy you will ever want to know. I am sadden by this news and he will always be remembered. My prayers go out to Janice and family.

  4. Shawn Clark Sabo

    The masters swimming world just became dimmer. A true gentlemen and champion of masters and swimming. God speed. Prayers to his family. I’ve no doubt he is organizing Masters swimming in heaven

  5. avatar
    David Finley

    Great man; Awesome swimmer

  6. avatar
    Jacki

    He was so tuned in, compassionate and humble…there isn’t another Masters swimmer like him.

    • avatar
      Kent Barker

      Yes, I drove by the Dad’s 50 meter pool this morning
      at 10:00 am when he swims looking for him with
      that sidearm style of his…..but he was not there.

      • avatar
        Jim Crane

        Graham & I swam together from 1972 until 2015
        We were great friends in & out of the pool. We trained at the Dad’s Club for that same length of time. We competited in the same events but in different age groups. Graham was ten years older than myself. We pushed each other in practice everyday & we became better swimmers. I will really miss not having Graham next to me in the pool. God bless you Graham Johnston, keep swimming in that pool up in heaven & I will join you when my time comes.

  7. avatar
    David Guthrie

    Gone Too Soon
    I’m incredibly fortunate to have begun my Masters swimming career at the Dads Club in Houston where I had the privilege to meet and train with Graham for many years. His example redefined my whole mindset and expectations from the outset. Nearly 30 years my senior, he set a relentless and punishing training pace, day in and day out, that was a challenge to even keep up with, much less compete against. His dry humor, charm, and constant ribbing were just as dependable. Graham and Janis (the absolute sweetest woman and most devoted wife in the world) presided over meets like swimming royalty. Their very presence elevated everything to a completely different level. They ARE Swimming Royalty.
    I’m sad to lose such an amazing man and friend. But it’s especially sad knowing he left us too soon. Seeing the number 88 in the headline, you might think Graham was old. But in his case, the normal math doesn’t apply. Not at all. No, he was getting older, but Graham was far from old and far from done. He was still strong and his mind sharp, and he had more left to do–more he wanted to do. He wasn’t ready to stop living and he never gave up.
    And that’s how I will remember him. Full of life. Full of fight. Full of humor. Full of love. A great man.

    • avatar
      Nicole Christensen

      Thank you David – I am too sad to say anything at the moment. I am so glad you did.

      Nicole

    • avatar
      Shelly King

      Thank you David for your wonderful words about our dad!
      Shelly Johnston K.

    • avatar
      Kyle Fisher

      So well said David!

  8. Jonelle Schmidt

    My coach, Ron Johnson always talked about what a great competitor he was. I’m sure they’re up in heaven and competing again.

  9. Lynette Hines

    Sidney Salek NZ Masters) competed with him in World Masters over the years ?? RIP

  10. avatar

    RIP, Graham was alway a joy to visit with, always up, and full of energy, truly interested in how your swimming was going! We will miss you

  11. avatar
    Joan Pepler

    Dear Janice

    I read about Graham’s passing. This is such sad news. I am sending you and family my condolences from South Africa. May God continue to strengthen you at this time.

    With lots of love

    Joan Pepler

    • avatar
      Shelly King

      Thank you Joan. Love, Shelly Johnston K.

  12. avatar
    Sandy Thatcher

    I competed against Graham many times. We were often in the same heats even though he was 13 years my senior. He could always beat me in freestyle, but I sometimes could beat him in back and breast. He was as gracious when losing as when winning. A true gentleman whose contribution to masters swimming was inestimable. He even taught me refinements like when seeing me doing the double-arm backstroke against him in one meet, he advised me to add a little dolphin kick motion at the end of the inverted frog kick. I was amazed watching him do grueling events like the 200 fly and 400 IM well into his 80s long after I had given them up. When you saw him enter the venue using a walker and bent over, you’d figure he was a slowpoke, but get him in the water and he became a dolphin! We’ll all miss him greatly.

  13. avatar

    Wow, when I heard the news of Graham’s passing it was like a gut punch. He never seemed old or like he was on the verge of leaving us. I love him and my three girls love him and Janis so much and their children and I am so sorry for your loss. What a kind, generous, loving, smart, intelligent, gritty, incredible human being Graham was. I know the qualities he expressed will live on through his family. I am shedding tears as I am writing this thinking about all the times we spent together and that smile and warmth that I will miss so much. Graham was the swim coach at The Briar Club for many years and he touched so many lives and he made our kids better people just by being in his presence. Such an honorable human being, I can’t say enough about this man! Rest In Peace Graham, humanity has lost a great one. I love you.

  14. avatar

    Graham was one of the kindest, most knowledgeable and fiercest competitors that I ever met. A true champion who inspired so many. I miss him.

  15. avatar
    Kent Barker

    I’ve been driving by Dad’s 50 meter pool every morning for over
    a month looking for him…can tell it’s swimming by the wide
    freestyle arm stroke….today I found out…so sad….

    • avatar
      Shelly Johnston K.

      Kent,
      If get a chance… go swim for my dad please! 💔🏊‍♂️

  16. avatar
    Kent

    I’ve been driving by Dad’s 50 meter pool every morning for over
    a month looking for him…can tell it’s swimming by the wide
    freestyle arm stroke….today I found out…so sad….

  17. avatar
    Shelly Johnston King

    That’s my dad. He passed away 7/27/19, at the home he built over 50+ years ago, as he’d wanted to. He will be greatly missed by our family, and so many others.
    If you knew my dad, you know swimming was his true passion, other than my mom, and our family.
    We have all lost a true athlete, and wonderful person!
    Dad, may you continue to be swimming, and/or coaching the “Angels” above!
    If you’re a swimmer, next time you swim – do a few extra for him!
    Swim for Graham! ❤️🏊‍♂️🏊‍♀️

    Swim dad swim.
    I love you, Shelly

  18. avatar
    Sandy Thatcher

    Will there be a memorial service which the many friends and former competitors of your dad like me will be invited to attend?

  19. avatar

    Spent a lovely day sharing bleachers with him at a meet in early 2011 in Victoria BC. Always smiling, laughing, making jokes [pretending to kick my 50 something husband when they shared a heat and my husband beat him, but Graham was faster in another race]. I didn’t know what a legend he was until the announcer started listing the records he was demolishing that day. He made such an impression on us that I’ve been following him ever since. RIP Graham, you were a treasure.

  20. avatar
    Bruce Rollins - DC Swimmer

    Heroes are remembered. Legends never die.
    Great swimmer. Better Husband, Father and friend.
    He made us all smile…even when he beat us in the water.

  21. avatar
    Allison Mahlstedt Callender

    Graham was such a prominent figure in my young swimming life at Dad’s and at Briar Club when we taught there together. He was always in a upbeat mood and encouraged greatness in the pool by anyone and everyone who swam with him or for him. Such a special man. He LOVED his wife and family so much—-his wife and kids mentioned in almost every conversation. I will definitely swim a few more for Graham. RIP friend!

  22. avatar
    Lesley Galletly

    So saddened to hear this news. Graham was a true gentleman and friend both in and out of the pool. He and Janis always made us feel so welcome in their home and we looked forward to meeting up with them both at the various swim meets across the world.
    It was a great honour to have someone of Graham’s calibre present me with my induction award into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in California.
    We will always cherish the memories and photographs.
    Our condolences to Janis and the family.
    Sandy and Lesley Galletly
    Perth, Scotland, UK

  23. avatar

    Celebration of Graham’s Life will be held Sunday, September 1st (Labor Day Weekend) at Dads Club, 1006 Voss Road —off I10 in Houston. The celebration will begin at 1:00 with a time of remembrance starting at 1:30. The rest of the afternoon will include swimming of laps (for anyone interested) and food/drink. Dad wanted everybody to come casual and have a good time.”
    Donations in honor of Graham can be made here https://bayoucityaquaticcenter.org/graham-johnston

  24. avatar
    Sandy Thatcher

    Reflecting back on meets where Graham and I competed head to head, I remember in particular the South Central Zone Long-Course Championships in 2017, In fact, I took some notes about that meet from which I draw this excerpt about Graham:
    “Most fun for me was facing off against Graham Johnston. We often end up in the same heat, and we did in several events this time. In fact, we swam in adjacent lanes in the 100 and 200 back, and he beat me in all three backstroke events, but not by much: 3 secs. in the 200, 2.5 in the 100, and just over 1 in the 50. In the 200 he was 2 secs. ahead of me at the 50 and 100, but I switched to the double-arm stroke for the third 50 and caught up to him at the wall. Graham, as he usually does, turned on the afterburners in the last 10 meters and got to the wall first. He asked me afterward what was it with the double-arm back and I explained that it takes less energy and allows me to recoup some energy for the last 50 doing single arm. My coach from Texas Ford, Richard Garza, is pushing me to do the whole 200 double arm. There is some other man in my age group who does that, and I witnessed it at a meet at The Woodlands earlier this year. I also did the second 50 of the 100 double arm, which prompted one woman to comment to me later that she had never seen anyone do the double arm that fast! Whatever works, right? At least I could take some satisfaction in pushing Graham to new Zone records in the backstroke. In freestyle I am not in the same league with Graham. We both started off our respective 200 free relays in adjacent lanes, and he left me in his wake by 7 secs. Later I returned the favor by beating him by 7 secs. in the 50 breast, doing the best time I have done since moving to Texas eight years ago. (I once beat him in the 50 fly, but just by inches, at a Woodlands long-course meet a few years ago.) Graham, ironman that he is, of course competed in the maximum number of events each day whereas I limited myself to three individual events per day plus relays.”

    Those swims of Graham in the 100 and 200 back remain Zone records today: 1:53.24 and 4:11.07. The times I have entered for Nationals in those events are the best I have done in the past three years: 1:55.14 and 4:04.09. I will dedicate those swims at Nationals to Graham’s memory–and hope my body can do what his always did and turn on the afterburners on the last lap!

  25. avatar
    Anonymous

    To a wonderful family, we loved knowing all of you when we were at BUMC. We will miss hearing that Graham has set another record. Love to Janis, Jenny ,Linda, Shelly, Bruce and Kevin.
    Eddie and Sylvia Knox, Rock Hill, SC