U.C. Santa Barbara Drowning: Water Polo Player Dies In Pool Swimming Laps

In Santa Barbara, a 19-year-old water polo player and active lifeguard has died by drowning. But what happened to Nick Johnson that caused him to succumb while simply swimming laps in an ordinary pool alongside the Santa Barbara High School swim team?

The initial coroner’s report gave the cause of death as “accidental drowning,” a vague verdict that leaves Johnson’s family and friends in Santa Barbara bewildered. How could a young man, a highly conditioned athlete, just drown during a swim he’d done thousands of times in his short life before?

“His display of relentless hard work made lasting changes to the work ethic of the athletes in his class and in the classes behind him,” said Johnson’s Santa Barbara High School Swim Coach Mark Walsh. “Years later, when you see one of our kids jump in the pool first or a kid push himself to his limit, you’ll see a piece of Nick.”

Pushing himself to his limit was an everyday occurrence for the Santa Barbara swimmer. He took up the physically grueling sport of water polo when he was in high school with the Santa Barbara Aquatics Club before attending U.C. Santa Barbara — which has one of the nation’s most competitive water polo programs.

U.C. Santa Barbara had just begun spring break Monday but instead of partying, Nick Johnson kept swimming, joining the high school team with which he once competed, at its morning practice.

Somehow during the routine swim he lost consciousness. Investigators have no idea yet why he would black out, nor do they know how long he was at the bottom of the pool before three Santa Barbara High School swimmers spotted him and pulled him out, attempting CPR before an ambulance rushed him to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Early reports said that the Santa Barbara water polo player had a seizure in the water, but the reports are not confirmed. Toxicology tests are now awaiting results, but those are routine in any instance of an apparently healthy person who dies unexpectedly.

Johnson was one of the top lifeguards in the Santa Barbara Junior Lifeguards program, according to city director of aquatics Rich Hanna, making his death in the water even more puzzling.