When Kacy Johnson was a few months old, his parents took him to a swimming pool, hoping he would be comfortable playing in the water. He wasn’t, and he almost drowned, he remembers his parents telling him. And even though he had water wings on, he was a screaming, distraught tot who didn’t want to get wet and who refused to go down the water chute at the hotel pool.
"I guess I was just stressed," chuckled Johnson, now a junior at ‘Iolani.
To overcome Johnson’s early fear of water, his parents, Ron and Lisa Johnson, eventually had him take swimming lessons. Later, as a 7-year-old, Johnson began swimming competitively.
But as a preteen athlete, Johnson was unimpressive. He was "chubby, slow" and somewhat uncoordinated when he entered ‘Iolani as a sixth-grader, recalled senior David Lim, Johnson’s teammate on both the ‘Iolani varsity swimming and water polo teams.
Johnson even confirms the story told by Lim and other teammates that when he was a seventh-grader, he dislocated his knee while dancing at a school dance.
Those early benchmarks no longer define Johnson. Today, he is widely considered to be the best all-around prep swimmer in the state, and arguably the most dominant.
Many expect Johnson, the Interscholastic League of Honolulu boys record-holder in the 200-yard individual medley (1:54.67) and 100-yard breaststroke (57.35), to shine at the state swimming and diving championships Friday and Saturday at Veterans Memorial Aquatic Center in Central Oahu Regional Park.
ATLAS INSURANCE SWIMMING AND DIVING STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS
The Punahou boys and Kealakehe girls will try to defend their state titles at the Veterans Memorial Aquatic Center, Central Oahu Regional Park.
"He has the right attitude and work ethic, and he has the talent," said Iolani coach Brian Lee, a former USA National Team coach who guided Sri Lanka’s team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
‘Iolani, recognizing his long association with the Kamehameha Swim Club, allows him to swim one day with the varsity and the other days with his club, as long as he gets an attendance sheet signed, Johnson said.
John Flanagan, a distance freestyle specialist and a gold medalist at the 1998 World Aquatics Championships who coaches Johnson at the Kamehameha Swim Club, added: "He’s at a great place now. He has a lot farther to go; he’s not even at his peak.
"He can sprint, and he’s got endurance (for longer races)."
When Flanagan and his brother, Kevin Flanagan, began training Johnson, now 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, he was "a big kid who was just using his size and strength" with no technique.
"He now works on his technique and looks for other ways to get better," John Flanagan said.
One of the first things Johnson did was to improve his diet. Fruits were in, and his habit of eating until he was full after every meal came to an end. He also rededicated himself to swimming, started training harder and set high goals. ‘Iolani, Johnson said, helped develop his time-management skills and sharpened his focus on how to achieve his goals.
In Johnson’s seventh- and eighth-grade years, he improved tremendously, his ‘Iolani teammates said. "He just took off," Lim said.
"I put in the time," Johnson explained. "I pushed myself."
Johnson said he realized his hard work was paying off at a winter competition when he was about 13, when he set state age-group records in six of the eight events he swam.
In addition to Johnson’s breakout as an elite high school swimmer, he has shown a maturity in handling his "wow factor," said senior teammate Jacob Butters.
In and out of the pool, Johnson continues to be a regular teammate and friend unaffected by the attention he garners, Butters and others said.
Johnson said his mother, an assistant coach with the Kamehameha Swim Club who swam for Kaiser High, taught him that while he can be a fierce and tenacious competitor, he must also be an athlete who is humble.
Lisa Johnson’s words must have taken hold. ‘Iolani coach Lee and others associated with ILH swimming describe Kacy Johnson as "a great kid."
And from one of Johnson’s contemporaries, here’s this assessment: "He’s a dominator in water polo," Lim said of Johnson, who also likes to surf.
"He plays with me in the school jazz band. He knows how to lay the bass down.
"And he does all of this while balancing the rigors of ‘Iolani academics."