ACTON — Sixty-seven swimmers and divers lined the deck of the Acton-Boxborough pool for the moment that many of them knew was going to be as difficult emotionally as it was important to honor their late coach.
Prior to Tuesday’s season-opening meet against Brookline, A-B co-head coach Kristi Pucillo read off the accolades of Jeff Johnson, a list that could have lasted for hours.
Johnson directed the boys’ swim program at A-B for 41 years, and the girls’ team another 16. His legacy also included introducing young swimmers to the sport in the towns through the Patriot Swim Club.
Johnson died unexpectedly at age 74 in mid-February, two days before his Colonials competed in the Division 1 boys’ state championships. When the moment of silence passed in his memory, each of the 27 Brookline swimmers and divers, and their three coaches, presented their A-B counterparts with a single yellow rose in a gesture of condolence and solidarity.
“We thought it was wonderful,” said A-B senior captain Sydney Antes. “After coach died, so many teams opened up their arms to us, and wrote us letters, and said they were dedicating meets to us. It just means the world to us. You never really know how much someone impacts a big group of people until they’re gone.”
The effect Johnson had on A-B swimming, in particular, was immense. He won more than 500 dual meets, 13 Dual County League titles, 10 North Sectional crowns, and nine state championships. Johnson was a five-time Globe Boys’ Swimming Coach of the Year, two-time Globe Girls’ Swimming Coach of the Year, and was inducted into the International Swim Coaches Hall of Fame.
The A-B boys’ swimmers competed with heavy hearts in the immediate aftermath of Johnson’s passing. But the 40 members of the A-B girls’ swimming-and-diving team — many of whom swam for Johnson at the Patriot Swim Club since they were 8 years old — started this season with a void at the A-B pool that could only be partially filled with the pictures of Johnson and his wife, Marj, that dotted the bulletin boards around the pool deck.
“It was really hard,” said junior Isabella Korbly, a two-time Globe All-Scholastic in the backstroke.
“Definitely different from all of the past years that I’ve gone into the season with him. We’re all swimming for coach now. That’s what he’d want us to do. We have to stay strong, and swim for him, and carry on his legacy.”
While Pucillo declared before the meet that Johnson would have been happy with the Colonials regardless of the result, A-B pulled through for a 97-87 victory over the strong Bay State Conference challenger.
“Coach will always live on forever in our hearts and in this pool,” said senior Casi Glejzer, who swam for Johnson for nine years in youth and high school swimming. “A bunch of us were very emotional coming into this meet. We knew it was going to be a hard one. But we all came together as a family and we helped each other through it.”
Gretchen Turner, who is coaching the A-B girls along with Pucillo, said some of the adjustments and challenges of this preseason have helped create a distraction from Johnson’s absence.
The A-B pool was closed for more than a week due to a chemical imbalance — forcing the team to practice at Concord’s Beede Pool and Wayland’s outdoor community pool in the cool September air.
The coaches added that, while Johnson had done all the planning for the boys’ state meet before he passed away, the girls’ program started in August without a script.
“He had 41 years [of knowledge] locked in his head,” said Pucillo, who coached diving under Johnson for the previous five seasons. “Our goal has been to kind of make coach proud. We’ve been working really hard to uphold all of his traditions and run the team the way he would.”
In their opener against Brookline, the Colonials competed in the meet with all their traditions intact. From singing along to the Miley Cyrus hit “Party in the USA” in pre-meet warm-ups, to the chants and cheers specialized to each event, to their competitive drive to victory, the Colonials believed they made the day one that Johnson would have wanted them to have.
“He’s always watching us,” Antes said. “You know he’s always going to be proud of you no matter what. And that’s the best feeling in the world to have a coach who loved you so much. He was a man of few words. But you knew he still loved you so much. We were his kids.”