Swim Coach Completes Mission, Raises Bar

Sophomore Lila Vera set two school records last season as a freshman. Courtesy of LBHS boosters.

Whatever happened at CIF finals this past Thursday, May 10, in Riverside, it can’t diminish what swim coach Kari Johnson has accomplished at Laguna Beach High.

A former swimmer at Mission Viejo High, Johnson took over the boys and girls teams four years ago with one overriding goal: to bring legitimacy to what many had always believed was merely an off-season conditioning program for water polo players. “I think we’ve transformed it into a serious swim program,” she said, but “there’s always room for improvement.”

Johnson has guided both teams to four straight league titles during her tenure. “Every year at league they surprise me,” Johnson said.

Last season she led the girls to a runner-up finish at CIF finals, equaling their best performance ever at the season ending meet, a standard they set in Johnson’s first year at the helm. The boys took fifth, which also was a school best.  “They’re not just water polo players that swim. They really have transformed into dual sport athletes,” said Johnson. “I think they finally believed me that they were capable of placing well at CIF.”

The 2012 CIF Swimming and Diving Championships are in the books, and if the seedings were any indication of how well the teams would do, the Breakers may still be celebrating another record year. “I think anything’s possible,” said Johnson this past Monday.

Senior Billy Wild was the number one seed in the 100 yard butterfly at CIF.

The Breakers entered CIF prelims last Wednesday with a huge contingent of athletes, having qualified at least one swimmer for every one of the 22 swimming events, except the girls 200 individual medley. Laguna was seeded first in seven of those events for having recorded the best time in division III during the season.

Senior Melena Masson logged this year’s top time in the 500-yard freestyle (5:12.84), while senior Billy Wild earned the number one seed in the 100 butterfly (51.98). Freshman Erik Juliusson was also tops in the 100 backstroke (53.81). Wild’s and Juliusson’s marks were school records set at league finals, where Juliusson also set a new school standard in the 500 freestyle.

The girls 200 and 400 freestyle relay teams were seeded number one, and Johnson said both 200 medley relay teams, which also set school records this season to earn top seeds at CIF, had good chances of winning CIF titles.

Since 2009, Johnson has seen 10 of the 11 school records on the girls side fall, some more than once. Only Annika Dries’ 50 freestyle mark set in 2008 remains. And six of the 11 boys records are held by Johnson-coached swimmers. “It’s just amazing how much these kids accomplish in four years and how determined they are,” Johnson said.

Both teams have a great deal to look forward to in the near future. Yoshi Anderson and Masson are the only seniors on the CIF team. Rising stars like Lila Vera, who set school records in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke last year as a freshman, was seeded second and third respectively in those two events this season.

Freshman Makenzie Fischer, seeded seventh in the 200 freestyle, and sophomore Jenna Knott, 15th in the 100 breaststroke, should also spell future success for the girls.

Wild’s dominance in butterfly and contributions to the relay teams will be missed, but Juliusson, whose potential has Johnson excited, will keep the boys competitive for a few more years. “His technique is just great,” she said. “I can only see him getting better.”

This year’s team has a special place in the young coach’s heart, especially the seniors. “These are the kids that were freshmen my first year. Here we are four years later,” she said, her voice trailing off with emotion.

“The athletes have done everything I’ve asked them to do,” said Johnson. But to maintain momentum going forward, “The younger kids need to live up to what my seniors have been doing the past four years.”

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