From athlete to coach: Johnson finding groove

Jamie Glenn/Daily Mining Gazette Houghton’s Erik Johnson (right) gives last-minute instructions to his team before taking to the pool during a meet earlier this season.

HOUGHTON —  For the past five seasons, the the Houghton Gremlins swim teams have been led by their head coach Erik Johnson. Johnson himself was once a Gremlins swimmer, so he speaks with his team, it is often from a place of knowledge, since he can relate to them thanks to his own personal experiences as a swimmer at Houghton.

Houghton alum has found his strategy for working with the teams to be a simple one, his swimmers are a family, which leads to a team-first mentality.

“I swam for Houghton, which was a great experience for me growing up,” said Johnson “Then I was fortunate enough to go on and swim for Alma College and then I coached some club swimming over in Rudyard starting in 2008. I’ve been pretty much with swimming since I started.”

Johnson discovered a love for the pool early on. The pool has driven his life decisions ever since. He wants his swimmers to find their love of the pool in a safe space, so the family theme makes sense.

“Swimming has always been a big part of my life,” he said “I’ve always coached. It’s always been family. We raise the team to act as a family and to look out for each other.

“That’s kind of what I think I’ve brought to the program and (is part) of the expectation. That kind of drives that point home to kids (and has been part) of the big success that we’ve seen with sportsmanship and the program growing in numbers.”

While those who do not spend their time around the pool might see swimming as an individual sport thanks in part to the way it is covered in the Olympics, the truth is swimming is also very much a team sport, especially at the high school level.

“Swimming is a team sport,” said Johnson. “You’re not going to do very well in swimming individually if you don’t have a good team around you. I always had a good team around me and I try to get the team to buy into that early. We start out talking about what you can do for the team, not what you can do individually.”

While so much of sports is about what an individual or team accomplishes, Johnson tends to use much smaller measuring sticks to help his athletes realize their dreams of improving with every swim.

“It’s not just (about) success in the pool or on the board for these kids,” he said, “it’s (about) what they’re going to get out of this that’s going to help them be successful after their years with the program are with us. Without that team (behind) you, it becomes a lot more difficult to get up for 6 a.m. practices or to get your butt kicked at practice for three months to have success in February.”

One thing that sets Houghton’s program apart from others that Johnson has been around is the supportive culture he has nurtured. Teammates are always cheering each other on in between events and that is not something that can be found in every program.

“If you looked at the end of the pool, every single kid of mine was up and cheering,” he said. “That is, to me, the lessons and things that they’ll remember more than any of the times or places that they end up taking at (events). When they can see success with that, (they will find anything is possible).”

Opportunities have come full circle for Johnson, who is thankful to be giving  back to his hometown team. In gathering knowledge and experience from those who came before him, Johnson works hard to leave a mark that is his own.

“I never really thought that I would get the chance to get back and get to do what I’m doing,” he said. “To give back to the program that gave me so much and to keep it moving forward is something that I cherish a lot. It’s not something that I try to take lightly. I always try to bring things that I think are going to improve the program, help kids be successful.

“I try to pull from the past coaches that I’ve had. I try to set examples that they set for me. I try to take the best of all the coaches that I’ve had. I was fortunate enough to have some really good coaches in my life and those are the people that I remember the most so I try to be that person for those kids (to) set the goal example for them.”

Johnson quietly sets the bar high for his athletes and is excited to see them complete their leap over it, forcing him to reset it higher regularly.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to let them make the choices that their going to make and then hold them to that high standard that you’ve set at the start of the season,” said Johnson.

Johnson can not do it alone. He is thankful to the parents who help keep things running smoothly.

“In swimming, they’re constantly helping out at meets, volunteering for stuff,” he said. “They’re timing at the meets. They’re getting the kids to practice (and) bringing snacks for the kids so they aren’t starving.

“You have to have expectations for the parents and set standards for them as well. It’s been a challenge to get to where I am now where I’m more comfortable with all that stuff.”

It takes a village to raise a team, but the long nights and early mornings are worth it for Johnson who wants his team to learn valuable life lessons that they can apply to life after high school.

“Swimming is a grind,” he said. “It always has been. It can be frustrating and it can be tiring.

“It’s hard to get into that cold pool a lot of days in the winter when it’s dark and you don’t see the sun because your at school before it’s up and you leave practice when it’s down.”

With a schedule like that, it would be easy for his athletes to burn out. He has worked to add in things to help get their minds off the long, cold winter outside.

“We try to incorporate some fun stuff,” he said. “I don’t separate based on skill level, everyone’s in the pool at the same time trying to build that camaraderie.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that if you have an ego when it comes to coaching and (are) out for yourself and your win record, (you don’t really win). I can’t coach like that. I’ve always checked my ego and left it in the sock drawer, because I’m not there for me, I’m there for them.”