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Here's a master of all strokes

Published Oct. 13, 2005

John Johnston got his feet wet as a diver, but he has become one of the top swimmers for the St. Pete Masters with numerous age-group victories. "He's well up in the top 10 nationally in his age group (ages 75-79)," St. Pete Masters coach George Bole said. "He swims all four strokes _ the fly, back, breast and freestyle _ and that's not very usual for his age. The butterfly didn't officially come in until 1953."

Johnston, 75, took up diving in 1925 and became an NCAA champ in 1936, his senior year at the University of Michigan.

"I started out relatively young, around 10 years old," he said. "Usually, depending on your height, if you were tall you went into swimming, and if you were short you went into diving. That's because a short person can't really compete with that tall person."

On his way to becoming a top Masters swimmer, Johnston's height hasn't been the hindrance it once was. He hasn't grown any _ he is 5 feet 6 _ but now he encounters few swimmers his age he can't leave in his wake.

At the Tampa Open Masters Meet in January, Johnston won nine age-group events. At the St. Pete Masters Swimming Championships in April, he won 11 titles.

After the latter meet, Johnston got a call from an old college friend who spends three months each year in Clearwater _ Frank Barnard. They visited for about three hours the next day at Johnston's home in northwest St. Petersburg.

"We called him Derland (Johnston's middle name) when we went to school," said Barnard, a former University of Michigan swim team captain ('37) who still lives in Ann Arbor. "Derland was just a real nice, quiet, methodical type who really worked hard at his diving, and as a result he became a real winner."

Johnston said diving is difficult to continue late in life. Finding a pool to practice in can be an obstacle. Then, even with a good practice facility, opportunities for competition are limited. And, diving is physically taxing.

"It's harder on the knees, what have you, with the board," he said. "Swimming is no problem."

What's so great about swimming?

"It's fun, first of all," Johnston said. "It's easy on the body, as opposed to jogging, if you're not used to it. Here you can coast along and glide and build up strength."

When Johnston was in peak diving form, he crossed paths with Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan in several movies), Sammy Lee (1948, '52 Olympic platform diving champion and later the coach to Greg Louganis), Duke Kahanamoku (considered the father of modern surfing) and Strother Martin, who aspired to an acting career.

Martin became widely known for saying the line "What we have here is a failure to communicate" in Cool Hand Luke, which starred Paul Newman.

Johnston finished at Michigan with a doctorate in organic chemistry. His life's work _ pharmaceutical organic chemistry _ eventually carried him to Puerto Rico, where he met his wife Ruth. May was the month of their 12th anniversary.

Johnston retired in 1980, moved to St. Petersburg and joined the St. Pete Masters.

Ruth, who is an accomplished organist and choir director at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Northeast St. Petersburg, couldn't swim until her husband taught her.

"She just couldn't believe the human body floated," Johnston said. "Once she found that out, she was all set.

"She wasn't gonna go in the deep part. She wasn't gonna let go of the side of the pool. "I'm not gonna get my face wet.' I came home one day and there she was doing handstands in the bottom of the pool."

Ruth admitted she used to be "petrified" of the water. But she got over it.

"For someone who wouldn't get beyond their knees in the water," she said, "I would jump into 17 feet of water, totally fearless, knowing that, first of all, I would be okay and knowing that he would be there."

Johnston said his next big meet will be July

19-21, when the St. Pete Masters put on their annual long-course championship meet. Johnston said he would enter, once again, 11 events _ one on Friday, and five each on Saturday and Sunday.

Barnard said he also competes in Masters meets, swimming in the Michigan Seniors program. Now that he has renewed his friendship with Johnston, a fledgling cross-country rivalry has begun.

"He's been very successful," Barnard said, referring to his old college friend. "He's got a den full of medals and trophies. I've really got to get busy, now. I can't allow a diver to do this to a swimmer."