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WHITNEY HIGH’S MARK JOHNSON IS THE BACKBONE OF AQUATICS IN THE AREA 

 

WHITNEY HIGH SWIMMING and water polo coach Mark Johnson awards the Ben Carlson Award to Caden Cunningham of Huntington Beach at last summer’s Chubascos bodysurfing contest. Cunningham had the highest score of any junior lifeguard.

 

 

BY LOREN KOPFF • @LORENKOPFF ON TWITTER • April 3, 2020

Whitney High athletic director Jeff Day calls Mark Johnson a monarch of aquatics as well as the head of the school’s athletic department. And as any high school coach goes, so does Johnson, who has been the only aquatics head coach the school has known.

In 1984, a little over 10 years after Cerritos High opened, Johnson started the aquatics program there. That was also the same year that the Cerritos Olympic Swim and Fitness Center opened. Five years later, Johnson would become Whitney’s first aquatics head coach. He remembers that when he left Cerritos, he felt Whitney should have an aquatics program since the school is located next to the pool.

Johnson began swimming at his friend’s pool in Leimert Park, then moved to Decatur, IL and swam at the YMCA, which he considers his main start into aquatics. Johnson then did the same thing in Lowell, MA before moving to Downey. He attended Warren High and it was around 1971 that he began to get serious about swimming under the tutelage of Jim Montrella, who was the coach at the Lakewood Aquatic Club.

“It just took off,” Johnson said. “He merged with a team in Long Beach and we had Olympic swimmers; world record holders [from the] 1968 and 1972 Olympics. He was just a fantastic coach with limited pools. He’s still coaching a little down in Mission Viejo. He took the Lakewood Aquatic Club to the top of Nationals and Junior Nationals. He really developed some great swimmers from scratch. So, that really set us off.”

Johnson, who back then always had a strong passion in teaching, started doing that in his parent’s backyard as well at the John Riley Swimming School in Downey in the early 1970s. While at Warren, Johnson was a part of the swimming and water polo team that advanced to the CIF-Southern Section semifinals. Johnson, who swam the individual medley, and his brother, were also CIF champions in swimming. Back then, there was a varsity ‘B’ division and a varsity ‘C’ division which would differentiate swimmers by age, height and weight. 

Upon his graduation from Warren, Johnson attended Yale University for his undergraduate degree. He was on the water polo team for four years and the swimming team for two years. At Yale, his teams were constantly Eastern champions and in 1969, that team was part of the first NCAA Water Polo National Championships. Eight teams were accepted, and the event was held at Belmont Plaza Pool in Long Beach. Yale lost to Long Beach State University 17-1, University of Southern California 13-3 and Colorado State University 9-5. Johnson graduated from Yale in 1971 and after taking a year off, he went to law school at the University of San Diego for two years.

“It was expectations,” Johnson said of his career aspirations back then. “Growing up, I always thought I would go to law school. The Ivy League was extremely challenging, but I really fell in love [with swimming]. I was the captain of the varsity water polo team. So, I really got involved with organizing as well and running the workouts, more on the coaching side.”

While in San Diego, Johnson started coaching and volunteering the water polo team at University High, which was located across the street from USD. The high school has since moved to a location closer to Del Mar and is now known as Cathedral Catholic High.

He never finished law school but came back home and began teaching out of his parent’s home again before a job opened at the Cerritos Aquatic Club in 1975. The coach at that time was Roger Tilley whom Johnson remains friends with. Johnson says he believes the club opened in the 1950s as the Bellflower Bluefins.

“My folks took in a bunch of the team and my friends took in other friends,” he recalled. “It was fantastic. It was just so cool. We got beat easily by the locals, but it was just a lovely experience. I got real involved and just fell in love with coaching there.”

“I met Mark in 1976-1977 at Cerritos College when my sister and I joined the Cerritos Aquatic Club,” Day remembers. “He had more hair and muscles then, but he was, and still is, the same person now that he was 43 years ago. I remember the practices, meets, games and mostly the travel each weekend to compete. I looked forward to his comments and encouragement at the conclusion of each event I took part in. Mark has that special magical talent that most of us don’t have. He’s able to connect with everyone he comes in contact with from athletes, coaches, officials, parents and opponents. He praises and makes everyone better through his positive outlook and comments made. Everyone feels special to him.”

Day, who has been Whitney’s athletic director since 2017, swam and played for Johnson from 1976-1987 and says he has never seen Johnson angry, but that he has always preached a healthy lifestyle of eating properly, working out regularly and drinking plenty of water.

Johnson recalls the challenges of starting an aquatics program from the ground floor when he left Cerritos for Whitney. He said it was difficult but exciting, especially getting contacts to get games scheduled.

“The expectations weren’t great because we were just starting out,” he added. “But we had a lot of early success, and not because of coaching. There were just a lot of good kids and a lot of them came from club teams. It was just a ton of fun.”

Some of Johnsons’ top moments at Whitney have been coaching several CIF champions and beating Cerritos in boys water polo. In addition, Johnson was thrilled to have started the first girls water polo team at Whitney this past winter.

“It was a great bunch of kids; a great nucleus who really improved and got the team identity going,” Johnson said. “It was a lovely season. We certainly didn’t break .500, but that was late in my career to get a new team going.”

Johnson said he thinks the ‘Learn to Swim’ program is hugely important and added that he thinks the socioeconomic situation in Cerritos is very solid and the schools are the best. He continued by saying the City of Cerritos has a good population and it’s a very diverse population, which is probably an advantage.

Johnson reflects back on coaching some United States Olympians in water polo, like Tom Shields, James Shin, who played for USC, Iko Saito, who came out of Cerritos High and went to the University of the Pacific and Nicolle Payne, who was a water polo goalie at Gahr High, joined the UCLA team in 1994 and started on the U.S. National team in 1995.  He also says there have been other kids who went on to play at the academies in West Point and Annapolis.

Then there is Whitney junior Alex Mo, who went to the CIF state meet last season and finished in second place with 523.10 points. Mo competes in the Pacific Diving Association, which operates out of the Cerritos Olympic Swim and Fitness Center. 

Johnson continues to rave about the number of good kids he has coached over time and keeps in contact with. In fact, he chuckled when talking about updating his calendar so he can remember the 400 or so birthdays. He says it the kids, along with the assistant coaches and parents, that keeps him coaching.

At 70, Johnson says he isn’t sure how much longer he will continue to coach at Whitney. He hasn’t decided, but it won’t be too long before he retires.

“It’s going to be traumatic to even think about it,” Johnson said. “Even with these weeks right now, or this week, not seeing the kids is strange, and I miss them. We’ll see. I’m not exactly sure, but it’s been a great ride. That’s for sure.”

As far as the immediate future, Johnson would like to expand the girls water polo program. He says the swimming program keeps excelling and the girls junior varsity team was “unbeatable last year”. He would like to see the tradition carry on.

“I like stressing to these kids, they’re all students, but to let them know that they’re student athletes after they’ve been on these athletic teams,” Johnson said. “[I want to] keep the program going with confidence and to build the girls water polo team because it was a really good start and we have a lot of potential.”

When Johnson retires from Whitney, he still wants to continue to teach swimming. He is also actively involved in bodysurfing and formed the Chubascos, a bodysurfing club that consisted of Cerritos aquatic youngsters that now ranges from teenagers to those in their 80s. This summer will be the 13th Annual Bodysurfing Championship on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier in which Johnson and Day will be a part of. Day has competed in previous bodysurfing championships and the two of them are looking forward to the World Championships in Oceanside in August.

“He has touched the lives of thousands of Whitney student athletes over the past 34 years,” Day said. “He’s the kindest, most selfless and genuine human being you’ll ever come across. He puts his players before himself, always. Many times, he uses his coaching stipend to cover suits for those that can’t afford them and pays for much of the teams’ banquets when costs rise above.”

Day also stated that he would be wrong not to mention Paul McManus, who was a teammate of Johnson at Warren and has coached alongside Johnson at Whitney and in club. He says those two complement each other well. 

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