SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Every week from June to August, swimmers gather on East Beach for an ocean swimming race called Reef and Run.
Thursday’s event drew a huge crowd, a special swim in honor of a cherished local lifeguard and athlete.
Nick Johnson’s presence could be felt in Santa Barbara as dolphins could be seen in the ocean before hundreds of swimmers jumped in the water.
With wetsuits on, swim caps secured and race numbers freshly inked, the spirit of Nick Johnson lives on through each and every swimmer.
“We miss him and I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” said Derek Shoemaker, a former teammate of Johnson’s.
Derek Shoemaker played water polo with Nick from his early teens to college.
“He was always the guy you know when we wanted to leave practice he would be the last guy in the pool, the first guy to show up,” said Shoemaker.
Tony Sholl calls that the 110%, a mentality, a persona that’s permeated into the Lifeguard Agency, and Junior Lifeguard Program.
“Nick was one of our longtime junior lifeguards, came up through our program, ended up transitioning to being a junior lifeguard instructor and beach lifeguard. He played water polo for Santa Barbara High and UCSB,” said Sholl, Aquatics Supervisor.
At just 19, Nick tragically died from shallow water blackout during a swim workout in 2014.
“Since then, every year we’ve done a memorial swim to him which raises funds for Santa Barbara High Athletics,” said Sholl.
Every year Reef and Run’s Nick Nite continues to grow.
Raising spirits and thousands of dollars for local aquatics, research and water safety education
“You see 250 plus people come out and there’s a bunch of kids who are as young as nine, eight, seven, didn’t know him but again they’re caught up in that spirit of just giving 110% the whole time,” said Sholl.
Organizers say Nick’s dad, who was spotted in the crowd Thursday, usually matches the donations made.
In the last five years, they’ve raised over $20,000 dollars.