Graham Johnston

Olympian and Comonwealth Games gold medalist

Graham Johnston had the following podium finishes at major championships: 1st in the 1950 British Empire Games 1650 yards Freestyle, 1st in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games 1650 yards Freestyle, 2nd in the 1950 British Empire Games 440 yards Freestyle, 3rd in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games 440 yards Freestyle, 3rd in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games 4×220 yards Freestyle Relay (with Dennis Ford, Peter Duncan, and Billy Steuart).

The Internationals Swimming Hall of Fame article on Graham begins: Many say that Johnny Weissmuller was the greatest swimmer who ever lived. He set records that stood for dozens of years. Today we have a man who has been setting records for dozens of years. He holds Masters Age Group records form 100 meters to 1500 meters as well as many open water world records. When he sets records, he doesn't do it by a tenth of a second or even by as much as a second or two; he does it by minutes.

Graham Johnston (born 10 July 1930) is one of the Johnston brothers from Grey College in Bloemfontein, who competed in the Empire and Commonwealth Games where he won the 1500 m freestyle on both occasions. He also competed at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, swimming the 400 and 1500 freestyle, and 4x200 freestyle relay, where South Africa finished 7th.

Today Graham is one of the world's foremost Masters swimmers, inducted into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in 1998. Read his profile in the US Masters Swimming website here.

Don Johnston swam at the 1948 London Olympic Games, making the semi finals of the 400m freestyle - below with Transvaal freestyler and now Cambridge professor Dr. Les Klenerman

Graham and Donald's father JA Johnston of Bloemfontein


Click here to read an article and photos about Graham at the 2013 Masters Championships.

Graham Johnston's Competitive Edge Keeps Him Swimming -- July 11, 2012

Courtesy of: Swimming World Magazine/Bill Collins

HOUSTON, Texas, July 11. GRAHAM Johnston didn't reach his goal of breaking the Masters world record in the 1500 freestyle last week at the United States Masters Swimming long course nationals, but he's lucky he got the chance to race at all.

After a 400 IM race five months ago, he felt shortness of breath and pain in his chest -- more intense than the usual sensations after completing one of the most grueling swimming events. Doctors discovered a blocked aorta in his heart and promptly inserted a stent to keep blood pumping regularly.

Johnston, 81, was able to get back in the pool and train for nationals shortly thereafter. In addition to the 1500, Johnston won five more individual events last weekend and helped the Masters of South Texas win one relay and place second in two others. It was one of the few championship meets in which Johnston did not break a national or world record, finishing a minute slower than Divano Giulio's world record of 24:40.69 in the mile.

"I'm happy that I can still get into the pool and train at the top level," he said, "and I enjoy swimming so much that I don't want to give it up."

Johnston's swimming history begins in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where as a teenager he made good on his dream to continue his swimming career in the United States. After selling his belongings and accepting some money from his mother, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean and became the first South African swimmer to compete for an American university, earning All-America honors for the University of Oklahoma from 1951 to 1955.

Johnston's time at Oklahoma helped get him a spot on the South African Olympic team for the 1952 Games in Helsinki, where he competed in the 400 and 1500 freestyles, as well as the 800 free relay. After competing at the highest level of the sport, Johnston quit swimming at 22 years old. Masters swimming wouldn't be conceived for another 17 years, so Johnston and his wife Janis went to South Africa, where Graham sold mining equipment. After two years, the Johnstons returned to the United States. Johnston made a lucrative career selling heavy equipment to miners and farmers all over the country before settling in Houston.

Johnston was invited to a Masters swimming competition shortly after the organization was founded in 1972, but he refused. The bug bit him in 1973, and Johnston made his Masters swimming debut at the 1973 nationals in Santa Monica, where he was summarily defeated by Bumpy Jones, who would become a friend and rival.

"I have a great ego and I'm competitive in just about anything I do," Johnston said. "I was confident I could win (at Santa Monica), but in the first two races I was whipped down to third place."

From that moment on, Johnston was on his way to becoming a Masters legend. Throughout his career as a Masters swimmer, he has broken nearly 90 Masters world records across seven age groups. Eight of those records still stand in the 70-74 and 80-84 age groups. He was inducted into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in 1998.

He's made a name for himself in open water venues as well, becoming one of the oldest swimmers to traverse the Strait of Gibraltar at age 74 and the first man over 70 years old to complete the 3.5-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim in less than an hour.

And, in 1995, he swam in the chilly waters from Robben Island -- the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned -- to the shores of Cape Town in South Africa in a little more than two hours, becoming one of the fastest to do so.

Life has slowed Johnston a little bit recently in his pursuit of excellence in the pool. In addition to the stint placed in his heart earlier this year, Johnston learned that his wife was going through the early stages of Alzheimer's, and caring for her means fewer trips around the country for meets.

But the goals are still there, including a possible run at that 1500 world record at a meet in San Antonio next month. And Johnston, who says he wants to swim "until I'm 105," says he'll never turn his back on the sport that gave him so much.

"If I remained in South Africa (instead of attending college in the United States), I would have been in some mediocre position and would not have been happy," he said. "Swimming opened doors to me that would not have been open in South Africa, and I'm so happy about that."

Click here to read an article and photos about Graham at the 2013 Masters Championships.



Reunited after 58 years


Jim Portelance and Graham Johnston reunited at the Victoria Crystal Pool on August 29/08 after 58 years.  They met in 1950 at the British Empire Games in New Zealand where they competed against each other in the 1650 yard freestyle.  Portelance represented Canada and Johnston represented South Africa.  Both lads barely made the finals, earning the last two qualifying spots but the race had a fairy tale ending with Johnston winning gold and Portelance silver.   Portelance, 76,  is a semi-retired doctor living in the West Shore of Victoria and swims three times a week with the Victoria Crystal Silver Streaks, a masters swim club with an average age of 70.  Johnston, 77, a retired heavy equipment sales representative, now lives and swims in Houston, Texas and is a member of MOST (Masters of South Texas) and last month competed in the US Masters Long Course Nationals in Portland, Oregon. Johnston, accompanied by his wife and athletic supporter, Janis, is visiting and swimming with friends, Dan and Jackie Eddy of Sooke, who he met at the World Huntsman Senior Games in Utah.  Portelance and Johnston swam a 2400m hour long practice session with the Silver Steaks, teasing each other with their speed and skill. They will next meet this coming October at the Huntsman World Seniors Games in St. George, Utah, competing in the 75 to 79 age group.



Still in the Swim of Things

At one time, OU had a very competitive swimming program, thanks in large part to a Graham Johnston-led gang of transplanted South Africans.
By Jay C. Upchurch

In the early 1950s, an era when American colleges and universities were populated overwhelmingly by homegrown students, Norman, Oklahoma, seemed an unlikely place for exotic transplants.  But that perception quickly changed when South African swimmer Graham Johnston arrived in August 1952, followed over the next six months by six of his countrymen.  Soon everyone associated with collegiate swimming became familiar with the University of Oklahoma’s dynamic South African connection.

Almost overnight, OU was in the vanguard of Southwest schools integrating foreign student-athletes into their programs.  The willingness of University President George Lynn Cross and Athletics Director Bud Wilkinson to internationalize the OU campus was revolutionary thinking at the time.

A half-century later -- 20 years after the University discontinued its intercollegiate swimming program -- Johnston still has in his possession the letter from OU’s swim coach, Joe Glander, promising an athletic scholarship that included room and board, books, tuition and $15 a month.  That letter resulted from several conversations between Glander and a young South African chap named Neville Price, a champion broad jumper who had joined Coach John Jacobs’ Sooner track and field squad after meeting Jacobs’ son at a 1951 competition.

Price and Johnston had become fast friends at the 1950 (British Empire) Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, and the two continued to correspond after Price wound up in the United States via a track scholarship to OU.

“Bud Wilkinson and Joe Glander were like surrogate fathers to me, even though Joe left OU the year after I arrived,” says Johnston.  “I didn’t see or talk to my parents for almost five years, so I looked up to those men quite a bit.  I can’t say enough about the way Bud Wilkinson treated me.”

While Johnston was largely responsible for the influx of South African swimmers, he credits Price with providing the initial bridge to OU.

“Neville was really the one who helped open the door for myself and a lot of other South African athletes, including the great group of guys who ended up at Oklahoma,” says Johnston, mentally dusting off a few memories that have been stored away for over 50 years.  “If he hadn’t gotten to know Jake Jacobs’ son, none of us would probably have ever set foot in Oklahoma.”

Actually, Johnston did not have to dig too deep to recall the period he describes as “the turning point in my life.”  In May 2005, he returned to Norman with Janis, his wife of 49 years, for her 50-year graduation celebration.  On that visit, the 74-year-old native of Bloemfontein, South Africa, reconnected with fellow countrymen and former OU teammates Lin Meiring, Peter Duncan and Mel van Helsdingen.

“We told stories and laughed straight through for two solid hours,” says Johnston.  “It was so wonderful to see my old friends and reminisce about the good old days.”

“Good” does not properly define the success OU’s swim team enjoyed during the decade of the ’50s.  The Sooners won the Big Seven Conference swimming title five of six years from 1952 to 1957, thanks in part to the talented South African contingent.

“We never lost a conference meet during my time at OU.  We won the Big Seven title every year I was there, and that says a lot about the quality of talent we had at the time,” recalls Johnston, who specialized in the free style 220-, 440- and 1,650-yard events.

Johnston earned All-America honors three times during his collegiate career and established several school records, as well as a handful of national swimming marks prior to his departure.  From 1952-56, the quick-finned, blond Sooner was among the world’s most dominant amateur swimmers.

The lone blemish on his résumé occurred during the 1954 Big Seven Championships, as the Sooners were seemingly en route to another conference swimming crown.  News that Johnston had mistakenly enrolled in only 11 hours of class credits for that particular semester came to light, thus making him a part-time student and ineligible to compete in varsity sports events.

As a result, the Sooners were stripped of the title, and two national records Johnston set during the meet were disallowed.

“That’s certainly not something I’m proud of.  Neglect on my part -- not knowing you needed to carry 12 hours to compete -- cost the team something special,” says Johnston.  “That would be the only thing I would change about my time at OU.”

It was a rare miscalculation on Johnston’s part, according to Meiring, who says his longtime friend’s hard work and attention to detail were always second to none.

“Graham has always been a fierce competitor.  Early on, he dedicated himself to be as good as he could be, and the truth is, he’s an amazing swimmer,” offers Meiring, 71, a retired ear, nose and throat surgeon in Oklahoma City.

Another former teammate, Bob Leonardt, offers a similar opinion.

“It was interesting to see how Graham kind of opened the door for the rest of the South African swimmers, but the thing I remember most about him was his dedication as an athlete.  His convictions ran very deep,” Leonardt notes.

So focused was Johnston that he twice transformed himself into an Olympian, competing for South Africa at the 1952 Helsinki Games.  Four years later, he again qualified for the South African team but chose not to compete in Melbourne because the dates—November 22 through December 8, 1956—conflicted with his final semester at OU.  Instead, Johnston completed his schoolwork and graduated with a business degree.

He married college sweetheart Janis Thompson that same December.

“Everything was going great in my life.  I was graduating, I was married to a great gal, and we had our entire lives ahead of us,” says Johnston.

The Johnstons moved to South Africa in 1957 when Graham accepted employment in the mining business.  It did not take long, however, for him to become disenchanted with his new job, and he began to look for opportunities back in the United States.

“It wasn’t a great situation.  South Africa was going through a considerable amount of turmoil.  We really didn’t want to start a family and not know what was going to happen next, so we moved to Chicago in 1958,” explains Johnston, who used every penny the family had to get back to America.

“We were in Chicago for a while when I got a job offer with a construction company in Oklahoma City.  I took the job, but before we could move, a better offer came in from a similar company in Houston.  We went to Houston, and it turned out to be a great decision.”

Johnston’s passion for the pool continued over the next 15 years, but he basically was retired from competitive swimming during that period.  In 1973 at the age of 41, he rediscovered the sport and dived back in headfirst.  Since then, Johnston has traveled the world competing in both open-water swim events and regular meets.  He has set dozens of world records in various age divisions and is showing no signs of slowing down.

In July, Johnston surged to five gold medals and three silvers at the 2005 World Masters in Canada.  One of his greatest aspirations is to become the oldest person to swim the English Channel, a feat he will attempt next year when he turns 75.

“We are all in absolute awe of Graham’s drive to swim after all of these years.  In all honesty, he has become world renowned for his performances,” says Meiring, also a member of South Africa’s ’52 and ’56 Olympic teams.  “Graham is a really nice, uncomplicated man with a constitution of iron.  That has carried him through and helped make him an amazing swimmer.”

At last count, 15 of Johnston’s world records still stand.  When asked the secret to his success, he quickly points to his healthy lifestyle and the unending support he has received from his wife.

“It’s been an absolutely fantastic journey, from my time at OU through the last 50 or so years.  I have an incredible wife and five wonderful children, and I’ve had the chance to pursue something I truly enjoy in life,” says Johnston, whose accomplishments were validated in 1998 when he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

He continues to work out in the pool for several hours almost every day and has set a rigorous schedule for himself over the next year.

“Probably no one alive has swum farther than I have.  That’s pretty amazing to think about,” laughs Johnston, who is retired from the construction business, but still coaches swimming in his spare time.

“But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still a lot of oceans to swim and records to break.”

Jay C. Upchurch is a regular contributor to Sooner Magazine.  He also is editor-in-chief of a new independent publication devoted to OU sports, Sooner Spectator, and sports columnist for the Oklahoma Gazette.

December 1955

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