As a swimmer who is particular strong in long distance events, Lawrence High senior Stephen Johnson has always embraced the grind of whatever goal he is striving for.
Johnson inched closer and closer to being a state champion throughout his high school career before claiming gold in the 200-and 500-yard freestyles in February at Topeka Capitol Federal Natatorium. While the state meet marked the end of Johnson's high school swimming journey, the LHS senior has been anxiously waiting to begin another chapter of his career.
Johnson officially turned to the next page in his swimming career on Wednesday in the LHS library when he signed his national letter of intent to the University of South Dakota.
"Ecstatic," Johnson simply said while summing up his emotions. "I'm going to a school that I know I'm going to enjoy, and it's really good to see all of these people come here and support my choice tonight. It's really exciting."
While Johnson is looking forward to swimming for the Coyotes, he plans to remain close with several friends, family members, coaches and teacher from Lawrence despite venturing more than 300 miles north to Vermillion, South Dakota. The first speaker at signing ceremony shares the same love for Vermillion and Lawrence. Chris Davis was Johnson's American history teacher at South Middle School, and is also a South Dakota alumnus.
Davis dug deep into the University South Dakota history books to give everyone at the ceremony some insight on the venue Johnson will be swimming his home meets.
"I went to the school and coached there in the late 70s into the late 80s — the good ol' days. It's home to the world famous DakotaDome," Davis said of the home of the Coyotes, which partially built by the Lawrence-based Harris Construction. "Back when dome stadiums were coming on the scene, USD was an early adopter and began working on it in 1978 and had it open in '79. I was a sophomore in college back then, still had hair, what a sight."
Johnson is excited for the opportunity to experience some of his own memories in the DakotaDome. Prior to Johnson putting pin to paper to make it official with the Coyotes, Lawrence High coach Kent McDonald and Ad Astra Area Aquatics coach Patrick Norman highlighted some of the accomplishments of the South Dakota signee.
Johnson earned second-team all-state honors as a freshman and sophomore before being tabbed to the first team in his junior and senior campaigns.
"He had an outstanding all four years at Lawrence High," McDonald said.
While Johnson took a lot of pride in representing the Lions, he also built lifelong friendships with his club teammates while being coached by Norman.
"One of the things we all know about Stephen is that he's a really fast swimmer, but one of the things that really sets him apart is his high-quality character. He's certainly one of the best teammates that we have on our team," Norman said. "I'm sure that his teammates at Lawrence High would say the same thing. He also races with a tremendous amount of heart and a tremendous amount of grit. No matter what the race is — 100 breaststroke or 500 free or 200 free. Whatever it is, he goes all in on it every single time."
After Norman and McDonald spoke on behalf of Johnson, the standout swimmer signed his letter of intent. Johnson then got to open an early graduation present from his mother, which he expects to get plenty of use of.
"Sweats. I'll take some more sweats. And I'll take some more sweats," Johnson said as he pulled out each of the three pairs out of the bag.
Although Johnson knows that he'll need plenty of layers up north, there is one place he'll be able to stay warm, and he'll be spending a great deal of time there.
"Thankfully the pool in the dome is heated," Davis said.