Johnson leaves a lasting impact on Santa Barbara water polo

Nick Johnson earned the respect of local aquatics athletes and coaches.

Nick Johnson - UCSB Water Polo

Nick Johnson

Johnson was a tireless worker and his tremendous work ethic rubbed off on his teammates and the younger kids he worked with at Santa Barbara High and in the city’s Junior Lifeguards program.

“I thought so highly of Nick as a person and a role model, I had him coaching our frosh-soph players before he had graduated high school,” Santa Barbara High water polo and swim coach Mark Walsh said. “If I was ever in need of help to coach or run a tournament, I thought of Nick first.”

The aquatics community suffered a huge loss Monday with the tragic death of Johnson.

Johnson, 19, a SBHS alum and a sophomore water polo player at UCSB, died after being found unresponsive at the bottom of the swimming pool at Santa Barbara High on Monday morning. He had been doing a workout and was discovered by members of the Santa Barbara High swim team. He was pulled onto the pool deck and administered CPR by swim team members before paramedics arrived and rushed him to Cottage Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The coroner’s office will determine the cause of death.

“He was surrounded by fellow swimmers and lifeguards and they did their best on the pool deck,” Nick’s father, Berkeley Johnson, wrote in a statement Monday on his Facebook page. “The doctors in the emergency room also made every effort but could not revive him. Karen and I simply do not know what to do. We want to thank all of you for your heartfelt condolences and we’ll go to ground at home and try to regain our equilibrium. Nick was a sweet boy and I cannot tell you how much we all will miss him.”

Nick is the oldest of four children of Karen and Berkeley Johnson. In his UCSB bio, he called his parents his personal heroes.

He was a team captain at Santa Barbara High and led by example, Walsh said. “Nick was receptive to coaching and never placed blame when things didn’t go his way. That is pretty rare in a good player in high school.”

UCSB men’s water polo coach Wolf Wigo first met Johnson in club water polo. He appreciated Johnson as an athlete and a person.

“Nick was the best kid, hardest working kid, a first-class person and a wonderful student and brother to his teammates,” Wigo said in a statement. “I was lucky enough to be his first coach and along with everyone in the UCSB family and water polo community, I will miss him greatly.”

Walsh said the impact Johnson left in the SBHS program lives on.

“Nick will not be remembered for a goal he scored, a pass he made, or a center he shut down. Nick’s lasting memories are far more reaching,” Walsh said. “His display of relentless hard work made lasting work ethic changes in the athletes in his class and the classes behind him. So, years later, when you see a kid jump in the pool first or a kid push himself to his limit, you can see a piece of Nick.”

Walsh added: “As great a player and role model Nick was at the high school, he was an even better son, brother, and friend. So, as devastated as I am, I am truly saddened by what his family and friends are going through.

“Nick, you will always be missed and never forgotten.”


  1. The Rt.Rev'd. J. C. Yanek, D.D says

    Rest in peace, Nicholas. Third anniversary, 24 March, 2017, feast of St. Gabriel the Archangel. The Ven. and the Rt. Rev’d. John C. Yanek, D.D., Provost of the Royal Presidio Chapel, S. Barbara, California.