Johnny Johnson Blue Buoy Swim School

Safer Water Series: Episode 1: Johnny Johnston & The Blue Buoy Swim School

We started the summer with our drowning prevention series. We featured stakeholders, some school owners, researchers, industry experts, and so on to bring you critical messages about drowning prevention and things you can do. But the reality is is that drowning prevention and water safety are not seasonal issues.


It's not something you pay attention to when the weather starts to turn warm, the ice melts, and so on; there are documented accidents over ice, in bathtubs and small volumes of water and pools, lakes, oceans, and so on. So now we transition the series to water safety, and we're going to be talking with several experts on the subject and learning what they do because of the dangers are.  


And what we know from our drowning prevention series is that drowning happens quickly and is when you're not looking, you're not paying attention. So as we transitioned to water safety, our first episode is with Johnny Johnson from the blue boy swim school in California. We're going to talk to Johnny about his passion for open water, drowning prevention, water safety, and what he does is at his swim school.


Welcome, Johnny. 







Below you will find an unedited transcript of our conversation. You can find the Youtube link next to the text or by clicking here

Thanks again for, for giving us your time. So, um, I want to start by just building a little profile. I know you're really well known in the some school industry, but I still want to take some time to provide some context on who you are and so on and so forth.


So, um, the blue boy swim school is not just, it's not just a business for you. It's it's a life's work literally from being a swimmer, to being an owner and, you know, something we'll get to a little later on, but also an international swimming hall of fame inductee as well. So tell me a little bit about the blue boys swim school on your journey to the point where you were.


Well, you touched on it briefly. A blue boy was founded in 1956 by Mellon doors Maxwell. And I joined their swim team in 1958 and swam for about a year and a half. My father was in the Marine Corps, so we were stationed here in orange county, California at the time. So that was my introduction to competitive.


And it led to, uh, a six year career, nothing glorified. I never broke a minute in a hundred free, but I always like to claim that, uh, one of my students has the fastest, a hundred meter freestyle swimming history. So that's Jason Lee, Zack from the Beijing Olympics, but blue boy has. Probably taught a quarter of a million people.


And the, the mission statement basically is that within each student, we want to provide the ability to preserve their life in the water, to enjoy their life in the water, and then to become as proficient as they want to become. Okay. Give them that opportunity to fulfill their potential. So it ties right in with what you're talking about with the water safety water competency.


And I think we've had a very successful formula over 65 years. Like you mentioned, I was on the swim team. I started teaching in 1967. So this is beginning my 55th year. And I've had now half a dozen, third generation families that I've had the honor of teaching the grandparents when they were children and then their kids and grandkids.


So it's been a incredible journey. And like I say, it's, it's a passion. I love being outdoors. I love being in the water and I love working with children and people. So. 


That's brilliant. And that is the ultimate honor. When you have third generation families coming back, you know, like that's speaks volumes to what you guys provide.


Um, I know that, um, one of the things that, and you, you wrote me, um, in response to my invitation was making the distinction between. Safe and safer around the water and it's really important. So can you elaborate on why is that so important to understand? We need to use the word safer and not resigned to safe.


That was the basis for our development of the safer three drowning prevention program. And it's based on the, the idea that there is always risk. And when I look at drowning prevention, I, I try to look at the underlying causes and what is the 30,000 foot view of this global problem? And what are the common, oops, common elements that will, uh, allow us to come up with prevention strategies that are truly effective.


And it starts with the understanding. There's always risks. There is no quote safe. That means you're free from the risk of injury or harm or even death. So you can have a safe, swimming experience, much like you can get in your car and drive across town and have a safe journey. But it doesn't mean there wasn't risk around.


And the reason I feel this is important. So much of the challenge in prevention is getting the audience to change their behavior, to actually engage and become proactive. In coming up with the prevention strategies, they hear the safety tips like supervision, you know, There's no question that's critical, but it's also the one thing that fails in virtually every child drowning.


So it's going to happen, you know, supervision breaks down we're human. So what are the other areas that we can recognize risk? That's always there. Well, water is always providing, you know, an element that you can drown in. So what we wanted to do with the safer three was try to come up. Common elements.


Like I said, there's three common elements to every drowning. There's always water. There's always a person and there's always a response or lack of one. So in crafting the safer three, we thought, okay, let's use this concept. There's always risk, but we can recognize it and we can reduce it. The risks that we look for.


Are common to every drowning in three elements, three areas, water people in response. So if we can use that as a basic formula. Getting people to buy into the concept that, okay, there's risks. What can I do to reduce it? Now you can have them look for the risk in their lives and those three elements and craft their own drowning prevention message.


That's pertinent to them. For example, 97% of the drownings globally occur in seven countries in Southeast Asia. And it could be in the neighborhood of, you know, 300, 400,000 people. So. The three common elements can be used there. Uh, you could go to a little remote village in south Vietnam and see that the children are at great risk because they're being left with an older sibling while the mom goes to the market and they can topple into the river.


You've got kids that are trying to cross rickety old bridges going to school, but you can apply things like Dr. Julia Gilchrist from the CDC did years ago on a trip there, they went into one such village. They recognized where the risks were. One, the supervision part, they found that these kids were getting into trouble by themselves when the moms all went to market.


So they came up with a water watcher. They had one parent that would stay in the village, watching the children while the others did the marketing in wood shop. They learned that many of the kids or most of the people really didn't have swimming skills or water competency. So they found a secluded area of the river and set aside at a calm place where they could learn the water skills learned to float to get back to the school.


And they put up barriers along the river bank that was very steep that use bamboo poles to make fences. So that's basically creating safer water by preventing, falling in off the bank, safer kids by teaching them to swim and providing supervision. And then it was easy enough to teach them some CPR skills.


So here's a remote area where you're thinking in our civilization and the third word I forgot. The ma what do you call us? The Western world, where we've got all the backyard pools. So, yeah, it's the same formula applies to a backyard pool as it does to a remote village in Southeast Asia. It's, where's the risk with the wall.


Where's the risk with the people and where's the risk with the ability to perform rescue techniques. So that's basically where we came from with a safer three and we can get into a lot more example of the tremendous number of factors that can go into a drowning worldwide at any point in time. And it's literally in the middle.


Yeah, absolutely. And those that's three great pieces that you broke down in terms of being able to identify the risk, identify the soup, I guess, supervisors and so on and so forth, and then have a response plan as well. Right? So this is great messaging in terms, and these are things that people can take.


Like you're saying, regardless if they're in a pool throughout a river or they're on a boat or whatever, they can use this formula to. Wherever they are around water. So that's fantastic. Um, you've transitioned safer three to stop drowning. Now, now that's a national organization. 


That's correct. Yeah. W when I was president of the us swim school association at one of our strategic planning meetings, we charged ourselves with coming up with a national drowning prevention message of which there was really the red cross different local organizations.


There was nothing that was really. Tying into what people would use. And that was the big problem. And again, why we came to the safer three, hopefully to get people, to buy into the understanding that they're all at risk. Uh, we've decided to make us separate organization from the swim school association that could reach out to, to all ask effects of aquatics.


And we formed a 5 0 1 C3. It was originally the swim for life foundation, but there's a lot of confusion with, is this just a swim organization? So we changed it to the safer three water safety foundation. And there were still confused. It shouldn't because let's say for three was what does that mean? We changed it to stop drowning now, which is pretty self-explanatory.


And then we can get into what the stop drowning now methodology and programs are, and it basically revolves around the safer three. 


Fair enough. And how is that? Because we, when we kicked off our drowning prevention series, we started with a panel discussion and, um, we had that Lisa from the not Lisa. Oh, my goodness.


She's going to absolutely hate because I forgot what her name, Melissa. Excuse me, Melissa. Yeah. Um, uh, from she's done in Arizona and PA. Yeah, exactly. Right. So, so she, she brought us some context from what goes on south of the border and stuff like that. And, um, and anyway, Um, I'm curious, like as a national organization, how, how is the message being spread from coast to coast?


Are people adopting it? Um, what resistance are you 


meeting? Well, the, the challenge is who's your audience and what's your message. And again, Taking that 30,000 foot view, I was more concerned with just people grasping the concept and not shutting out half of the community. Because for example, in orange county, we created a task force for drowning prevention and the initial drive was to put up signage and it was children drown without a sound.


And that was the big campaign. But at that same year, we had the largest number of people that drowned were senior citizens. So now it's okay. Never swim alone. So again, it's so hard to target a specific segment of the population, but if you use this. Formula of the safer three, you can reach everyone because you're asking them to take a look at their situation, to create a personal recipe for prevention.


That's going to use that formula. So it doesn't matter if they've got a senior citizen that is not worried about children getting into the pool. They don't care about fencing around their pool, which they should have anyway, but it's again, Ascertain, who are you going to reach? And what are you going to tell them?


And that's always been the problem. So regardless of what national organization it is there, they all tend to get too broad. And not able to focus it down to the family level where we have to make the difference. And the challenge, again, as I was saying with the safe versus safer is people don't believe it will happen to them.


They're in a state of denial. It's, uh, it's not something they want to think about. I mean, the thought of losing a child or a loved one to drowning is just hard to imagine. So they don't think about. And, you know, if they've got a backyard pool and they don't have kids yet, it's not a worry, but as soon as they get neighbors to come over, now, the risk level goes way up.


Back to safe and safer. I mean, the risk is constantly evolving. You know, we talk about, uh, kids taking swim lessons and being able to develop safety skills. Well, obviously they're very at risk early on, you know, we teach a lot of toddlers under the age of three and usually by the time they're three, we have them capable of falling in getting back to the side or actually swimming across the pool, doing, you know, a very competent.


But now the parents think, oh, they're water safe, you know? And there we go. Again, pool safe, water safe. There's always room. What's happened now is the kids have enough ability to enjoy water activities. And now they're into a whole new area of risk that's based on behavior and the decisions they make.


And then whether they're supervised because the parents now think they know how to swim and they don't see them jumping off the patio, cover into the pool and missing and hitting the deck anyway. So yeah, it's a monumental challenge. 


Yeah. And you know, it's really interesting about what you just kind of led into is, you know, one of the things I was telling about, um, the five episodes we did on drowning prevention is that everybody that we interviewed had a story about somebody that they knew that called them after the fact saying, I should have listened, I should have been better.


I should have done more. Or they had somebody that. Um, was in a situation that was able to be the response that you're talking about. Right. But the response was not planned. It was somebody, you know, turn their back for a moment and something happened and thank God somebody was there and saw it. Right. Um, so, and I'm hopeful that, you know, interactions like this and we, because we can share it on social media and hopefully more and more people will, will pick it up if we just stay succinct and to the point and identify what water it is.


Who the people are and what the response is going to be your three pillars. Right. And focus on that, that I think we got a really powerful message out. Um, I, myself, like in what really kicked this off for me, it was that like, I'm a lifelong swimmer swam my entire life. I have twin three-year-old daughters.


We were at the pool, um, for swimming lessons. Uh, one of them was walking around the pool. I wasn't paying attention. She stepped on a puddle of water, slipped on her bum and went right into the pool because she was in swimming lessons. Thank God. She was able to get herself back up to the surface and so on and so forth.


But like if I hadn't heard her take a breath. Like, I wouldn't have, like, it was that quiet. It was that silent. And it happened that quickly, like you're saying, right. So that's what made this really real for me is going through that experience. Right. And I think that, you know, hopefully we can avoid anybody else, you know, going through.


Experienced and feeling that level of fear and so on and so forth. Um, but at the end of the day, you know, thank you for what you do and you know, like the passion kind of exudes from you and so on and so forth. I want to turn for a moment to, you know, call it the legacy because you're one of the things that, um, In doing research for this, like you've had a lot of people go on to achieve things after coming out of your program.


And you mentioned Jason Lee, Zach at the beginning. And that was one of the reasons, one of the names that I wrote down as I was preparing the show notes and the plan and so on and so forth. Cause you know, everybody remembers if you're a competitive swimmer, you remember the Canada France? Sorry, the.


Wasn't Canada, the USA, France relay, and Jason leaves. Zack's final leg against Ellie and Bernard. And, uh, in Beijing, that was, uh, an incredible race. The race, you know, like everybody still talks about it. What's it like having alumni like that, come through your program and come back and be examples for you.


You don't know it at the time. You know, Jason was three when I taught amen. And he come in for summer lessons until he was 12 and then my sons were on the same swim team. So it was fun watching him develop. And then, you know, he went off to college and we'd see him in high school. Cause I was coaching high school polo and swimming too at the time.


And it's just so wonderful to see. That growth and what they're capable of doing our slogan is great beginnings lead to great finishes. And we realize that every elite athlete has so many people that have contributed to their success. Family, coaches, teachers, everyone. We've carved out our niche. You know, we provide that foundation of love for the water.


We give them a, a solid understanding of balance and breath control and developing a feel for the water. We do a lot of work underwater, and I attributed that back to my mentor, Mel Maxwell, who really understood physics and movement in the water. We've had so many really neat stories. I mean, we've had now 10 Olympians or world record holders.


Uh, we've had another dozen or so that had gone to the Olympic trials. A couple of them were in the finals, but it's just exciting. I mean, Beijing, you know, we had another exciting race with one of our alumni. It didn't turn out quite as well as Jason's, but that was Michael Kavach with Mike. Yeah. Why Michael 


Cavett, Michael Kavach 


was one of your students.


He went to Tufts high school and he took lessons there. Going back to 84, Amy White was our first student that became an Olympian and she was the youngest member of the 84 team. She's silver meddled in the 200 back. But the thing that I love is that these. Great athletes that brought their children back to learn to swim.


Yesterday. I had Jessica Hardy's children in the water with me. My wife taught her to swim when she was three and her husband is also an Olympian, Dominic Mike tree from Switzerland. And I just can't wait to see the nature nurture development with those kids and they love the water, but, uh, we've got a neat story this year.


The. Fisher sisters on the U S women's water polo team learned at blue boy and their father was a 96 92 Olympian and a Stanford All-American Eric Fisher, but McKinsey and RA are just so wonderful about yeah. Spreading the word of, you know, learn to swim and that stuff they've, you know, helped with some of the things that we've done with water safety.


And this year, uh, Elise Williams is on the team and I thought her father and coached him when he was an age group swimmer. So blue boys got a connection there. And then another young man that I taught to swim when he was three and four. Um, I also swam with his mother at Lou boy. That's Gavin, a Royal. He was a two time Olympian for water polo in 96 and 2000.


And this year he's going back to the Olympics as the assistant coach on the men's water polo team. So he'll be a three-time Olympian. Again, the stories are just amazing. And again, Brittany Hayes is another medalist from Beijing and water polo and her children are at blue boy, and it's just. The legacy, like you say, it's, you know, we're not setting out to create Olympians.


It's just that we give them that opportunity. Orange county is such a Mecca for aquatics, synchronized swimming, water polo, surf, you name it. And there's opportunities for kids to do. Brilliant. 


Yeah. And like all those sports, like, you know, like you've coached the broad east coach, the full spectrum. You've done it all.


So is it just, is it, is it a love of aquatics or was it just the challenge of trying something new and jumping into a different. 


A little bit of everything, uh, have to share a little bit of my Canadian experience and talking about doing a little bit of everything in 1972, I took a, now a national association, winter water instructor, scuba instructor course at Simon Fraser university.


Oh no. And my wife. Eight and a half months pregnant with our second son, Eric and she audited the course and she actually got the dippy award on this. I have to share, this is my 




It was the deputy medallion that they gave the screw up of the day that had to get up every morning and do reveling and wake up everybody.


But everyone. A dual citizen. And he went into false labor and they were going to get a little Canadian and she didn't produce. So she got the dippy award


love Canada. That was one of the most memorable weeks we ever spent. And, uh, I taught scuba for a couple of years, I certified over 2000 high school students over a two year period. We would go into the schools and taught a lot of water safety with that. We actually performed rescue breathing live back then.


That was no one cared. You know, you, you actually did, uh, The live breathing with them in the demonstrations, but we, uh, had a great time teaching kids scuba. And during my umpteen years, I coached high school water polo and swimming got to coach both my sons and I even taught, uh, coach synchronized swimming for a few years with the tussle rock was with another hall of fame inductee, Don.


Who's in her nineties now and just incredible woman, but taught me so much about sculling, which I have applied to all my teaching. And I think as part of the early success we have with so many kids that they really have a great feel for the water. So, yeah. 


So with what you just said about the, the skills transfer from synchronous swimming and stuff like that is your program.


Is your methodology still evolve? 


I like to think we learn something new every day. You know, I've watched the technique of competitive swimming evolve. Uh, another Canadian Brent Hayden has a great series. And my son who's been teaching with us 30 years now is going to subscribe to his, his little clinic.


I just love the way he's demonstrating freestyle and teaching. And that's basically what we've been doing, you know, since Mel was still alive in the early eighties. So, but we're looking for the new subtle shifts, you know?


Uh, breaststroke is one that's always changing and everybody's got one stroke. Well, yeah, that's one that you're going to see the variety, but you know, the transition that you make from the very beginners and we teach the kids to pop up for a breath first, rather than rolling over. So breaststroke is the first stroke they learn and butterfly, but at what point do you start transitioning into the more streamline.


Uh, powerful type stroke with the whip kick rather than the old froggy kickers. And it's always fun to watch what they're doing at the high levels and try to piece together what you can do at the low levels and get that common thread that will be consistent all the way through and without, you know, sending the kids out for a disconnect and say, no, no, no, no.


Now we've got to do this. So always trying to find that even flow of developers. And it makes for a much safer kid too in the early days. 


No kidding. You've imparted a lot of information, but I really like those three pillars and I think that's something that we're gonna focus on and make sure we keep at the forefront of the things that we talk about, because it really are, there are three things that are adaptable to any situation you're in and that's really important.


Okay. Um, I want to finish off with, you know, um, an accolade. So, um, you were a recipient of the, uh, Virginia Hunt Newman, right? You know, inducted into the international sports hall of fame or swimming hall of fame. 


Disclaimer, there, I'm not an honoree that is strictly athletes and coaches that have typically achieved the Olympic level or world records, et cetera.


We were fortunate enough to be honored. My wife and I with the. The Harold Martin, every child, a swimmer award. And these are auxiliary awards that are given the night before the big induction ceremony to people from the hall of fame it's easily fused. And so the Virginia Newman award was also it's called a Paragon award, but it's, it's through the hall of fame and it was tremendous honor.


And I got to work with Virginia Newman for awhile. We worked together on that. Infant toddler course that from the U S homeschool association for that's grown tremendously, thousands of teachers internationally have taken this course that, uh, to help teach children in, uh, a sane, safer manner and with love and lots of positive reinforcement.


So, yeah, that was a true. 


Yeah, no kidding. I was, I guess my, my, before we get into our final thoughts, you know, like, I just want to know, like, what, what does it mean? Like, I mean, cause it is a high honor, like what does it mean to be recognized like that and you know, for your contributions to aquatics and safety and stuff like that?


Well, it's. It's humbling and it's a tremendous honor, and it's nice to be recognized by your peers and to have validation given to what has become my life's work. And, you know, people always wonder what their legacy is going to be, what would be on their tombstone. You know, it just, I like to think that I've made a difference and am continuing to make a difference.


And, you know, we joked around Cindy and I were recently given the lifetime achievement award. National drowning prevention Alliance. And there again, you know, it's well, not a lifetime yet, but, but it's wonderful to be able to work with people that are making a difference, whether it be in coaching, teaching water safety, in anything.


And we're very active in our community, trying to help with different organizations, helping different nonprofits. It's just great to that. Being able to play with kids in the water for 55 years has led to a position where, you know, some of these things are taking place and it it's it's honoring. Great honor.


Congratulations. Well deserved. Um, so w w we've covered a lot. Final thoughts. If you can leave anybody or you can leave anybody listening, watching, whoever's gonna pick this up, um, with some things that are, you know, what you said was pretty potent and your message came across very clear. But if there's some things you can say about, you know, um, you would want people to remember what would they be?


Well, let's take it right back to the water safety and the concept of the safer three. If people will realize that there is always risk whenever you're in, on or around the water, it never goes away. The risks can be very small. Or it can be monumental. It's important for us to buy into that and ask the question.


What can I do to reduce that risk? Or where's my risk. Okay. What's the risk. However you phrase it, but people have to take the initiative too often. They're waiting for someone to give them their brochure. Of safety tips and they said, oh, well, venture pool, we don't have a pool. You know, teach your kids as are my kids are pool safe.


They've had lessons, but then they go to the river and they get swept away in a current because they've never had any concept of moving water where they go to the beach and get caught in a rip current. So again, where's the risk with the water in your life, with the people in your life and with the response capability in your life and realize.


It's water anywhere. You may not have a pool at home, but grandma might have one. There's certainly one at the hotel. When you go on vacation, if you go to the beach, there's no fence around that pool. You need to know where the lifeguards are. You need to know all these things. I mentioned that, you know, this is kind of a, not succinct, but you talked about all the different things that go into a drowning anywhere in the world.


One of our keynotes at a drowning and national drowning prevention conference. Was, uh, a professor from a school in Colorado and going into the talk, she was talking about the synergy of what's in the room and how we all have to work together. And she thought it'd be interesting to have a, numerologist try to calculate the potential number of factors that could go into a drowning event anywhere in the world at any point in time.


And that's considering everything. And he came up with 12 million and you go ahead and craft your drowning prevention message, covering all of those. But again, virtually every one of those 12 million factors could fall under the umbrella of the safer three, whereas the risk with the water, with the people and with the response, and then you can laser it down to individual families.


It can be a community or whatever, but again, where's the risk. 


Brilliant. Well, I think that's a fantastic way. Leave this off because the message is clear. It's concise and it's directly to the point. So, you know, I thank you very much for sharing your time with us. I really appreciate it. And you know, for what it's worth by camera, it's fantastic to meet you.




nice meeting you too. Jason is so much nicer than just an email. 


Yeah, absolutely. I, again, thank you so much. And a big fan of Simon Sinek as well. Tell you that. So very 


good. Yeah. That was where I got the brainstorm that, you know, we got to move the needle and we got to start with the why. And that's the safer three message.


There's always risk instead of telling them what to do, we need to have them ask what can we do? What can they do? So, alright, you got 


it. Well, awesome. Well, listen, thank you very much. You have a great day. 


Blue boys swim school was established in 1956. With the original location in the city of Santa Ana, California, shortly thereafter, additional locations were opened in Newport beach, on Balboa island and in the city of Anaheim, not far from Disneyland, these schools were leased.


And in 1965 here in Tustin melon, Doris Maxwell realized their dream facility. They had envisioned two pool. A small pool where children could have extended play time after their lesson with shallow water chance to explore and discover their new found abilities. Gradually getting deeper, going from 18 inches down to four feet of depth, wide, shallow steps gave out great teaching area and the warm water provided a wonderful learning environment for young children.


And for teachers. Moving to the outside pool. They cater to larger classes with our stroke technique classes for higher level swimmers, but also for adult classes and just older children in general, both pools are kept at the same warm 90 to 93 degree temperature. The outdoor pool is a wonderful feeling of being outdoors.


Welcome to blue boys, homeschools offsite scheduling office. We're located in the center of historic old town testing, just above the wooden Indian bar. At blue boy swim school, you will be treated as a cherished family member. This is evident by the growing number of second and third generation children who come from far and near.


They loved their some classes as a child and will accept nothing less for their own children and grandchildren, lupus commitment to excellence in instruction, service, truck, customers, and community, as well as employee relations is the reason why blue boy is one of the oldest and most successful schools in the United States.


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