ANDERSON — While swimming for Anderson High School, Kyle Johnson had gotten used to dominating the pool.
His senior year, when not dressing up as the Indian mascot for basketball games, Johnson was busy taking seventh place in both the 200-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly at the 2012 IHSAA state meet.
Adjusting to an atmosphere where a career-best time in the 50-meter freestyle put him 60th at the Big Ten Championships wasn’t easy.
“Going into IU after being one of the top swimmers in Indiana, it was incredible,” Johnson said. “I just was on top of the world. I never thought I would be extremely good, but obviously I wanted to improve. Coming in and being that good and that highly regarded from the coaches was nice, but then you go to the meets and boom!
“It’s a huge reality check from the people covered in hair going your fastest times, if not faster, and you don’t know what to do.”
But going into his senior season at Anderson, Johnson wouldn’t have dreamed he’d be swimming for IU head coach Ray Looze in Bloomington. In fact, archrival Purdue had been his hope.
At the state meet, IU associate head coach Donny Brush came up to Johnson’s mother and told her that he and Looze would love to have her son come down to Bloomington for a visit.
Johnson’s ACAC swimming coach, Todd Griner – a long-time friend of Brush’s – had tipped off Looze that Johnson was a kid they needed to take a look at, and the IU coach made a bit of a stretch and took his word for it.
“Todd said he had a lot of potential and said he was the finest young man he had ever worked with from a character standpoint and just somebody you really had to have on the team,” Looze said. “From a time standpoint, Kyle didn’t come into Indiana with any times that would be impactful, honestly, but Coach Griner and I are friends, and I respect his opinion and his wisdom, and everything he said was spot on.”
Johnson decided to pay Looze a visit, though he admitted he was really just waiting for the Purdue coaches to give him a call, and he would have been sold. Early on, though, he started realizing he may need to rethink his options.
Between Brush reaching out to his mom and getting a personal phone call from Looze, he started feeling a bond with the IU program, and once he reached Bloomington for his official visit, his love for the program only increased.
After hearing from Looze about what kind of impact and potential Johnson could achieve by choosing IU, Johnson talked further with IU associate head coach Mike Westphal, and Johnson made his decision.
“He was like ‘We know you’re fast. We want you to be faster. We want you to come here so you can get better’ and I was just sold,” he said. “I could have signed right there if they would have let me.”
But once practice started in the fall and Johnson was officially a Hoosier, things weren’t always so easy.
He realized that he had several years of hard work, dedication and focus ahead of him before he would once again be one of the fastest guys in the pool.
“I was kinda upset because I was always used to being on top of my high school team,” he said. “I got here and I was humbled pretty often during practice and during our little inter-squad meets. It just opens your eyes to things.
“You get to see people going times you never thought were even possible at some meets, and they do it, and they get out of the water and they’re not even tired, and you’re exhausted after your race, and you’re not even going that fast. It’s mind-boggling.
“Once you get used to it, you start to realize that you’ll be in that spot and you won’t have to worry.”
But Johnson didn’t let the intimidation discourage him from pursuing his dreams. Looze said that soon after Johnson arrived on campus, he knew that Griner had been right. He may not have the fastest swimmer in Johnson, but he was never going to be out-worked.
“Kyle has a positive chip on his shoulder,” Looze said. “Intangibles can really get you over the top. Kyle has all of those, and he’s worked just so hard to put himself in a position to help our team, and I really think he’s going to be able to do that as a sophomore.
“If there is a voluntary activity, you can bet your bottom dollar Kyle will be at it. There is no ‘voluntary’ to Kyle Johnson. He will be at everything.”
Johnson’s hard work managed to pay off in the end. At the Big Ten Championships, he swam career bests in the 50-meter freestyle with a time of 21.19 seconds to finish 60th and took 57th in the 100-meter freestyle with a career mark of 46.13 seconds. He also swam the 100-meter butterfly and took 35th with a time of 49.54 seconds.
But even with an eye-opening start to his college career and countless hours in the pool, Johnson said he’s even had some time to enjoy the perks of being a student athlete on such a lively college campus.
Sure, having a successful collegiate swimming career was what Johnson was looking for at first, but Bloomington hasn’t lost that family appeal he felt when he first met Looze and the rest of the IU coaching staff.
“It just feels nice to be in a place where no matter where you go, you’re recognized as an athlete, and you’re kinda idolized,” he said. “People will come up and talk to you and ask you how your sport’s going. It feels good.”
“It’s a good kind of different.”