Darien cancer survivor wins race across sound

Scott Johnston with his boat coach Mike Gill and EMT Rob George. the boat with them

Scott Johnston with his boat coach Mike Gill and EMT Rob George.

Darienite Scott Johnston knows how to survive a struggle. He defeated cancer a decade ago, and this summer, he conquered the Long Island Sound.

He went from barely being able to walk to winning the SWIM Across the Sound race, beating Ironman competitors and English Channel swimmers, fighting currents and headwinds across a 15.5-mile stretch from Port Jefferson, N.Y. to Black Rock, Conn.

“It was a lot longer than I expected,” said Johnston, who finished in nine hours and 20 minutes, about 21 minutes faster than the second place swimmer.

Of the 16 solo swimmers who entered the race, only seven finished. Liz Fry, an open water swimming world-record holder, said this race was the “toughest” of the SWIM Across the Sound races she’d seen.

“The combination of a head wind and outgoing tide made the waters very choppy, with two-foot wave heights,” she told The Darien Times. “For five hours, the swimmers felt like they were swimming in a washing machine.”

Fry is director of the event, which is held annually by St. Vincent’s Medical Center Foundation to raise money for providing cancer education, screening and prevention programs at low- or no-cost for the uninsured and underinsured.

Johnston, 39, appeared reticent to talk about his accomplishment, choosing instead to focus on why he swam in the first place. He and his wife, Julie, and his father-in-law, have all been diagnosed with cancer in the past.

“All the support around the cancer treatment itself was immensely helpful,” Johnston said about his own experience. “It actually saved my life.”

The swimming event raises around $300,000 annually for support services, according to organizers. Johnston raised more than $5,000 through fund-raising efforts — money that will go toward providing the same kind of assistance that helped him in his darkest hour.

“The cancer came with a horrible depression,” he said, recalling his experience while living in California. “When you have people looking at the whole problem, and not just the cancer itself, looking at every thing around it, it makes a huge difference.”

Johnston’s reticence to sing his own praises for winning the race was balanced by his wife’s enthusiasm for such a feat.

“I’m just so proud for Scott,” said Julie, who recently celebrated her 13th anniversary with her husband. “As his wife, I’m proud of the fact that he, 10 years ago, could barely walk, and now he’s coming in first in this extraordinarily grueling race.

“He’s doing this to help others,” she continued. “I’m just very proud. And thankful.”

After the race, Johnston kept his win under wraps, much to the chagrin of his coach Jamie Barone, an accomplished swimmer who won a national championship relay race with 22-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps in 2006.

“He’s such a cool character, he didn’t even tell me he won,” Barone told The Times.

Barone was later congratulated by one of the race organizers, who informed him that he had coached the winning swimmer, which was news to Barone.

“I told [Johnston], ‘You left that detail out’,” Barone said, laughing.

To prepare for this race, Johnston connected with Barone, who is Chelsea Piers’ swim team director. Barone had noticed Johnston swimming “some ungodly amount,” as he trained himself at the Stamford facility’s pool.

“He was here religiously, I saw him all the time,” Barone recalled. The two began working together, and Johnston said his coach helped him hone his stroke efficiency, which enabled him to swim a pool length using less energy.

Johnston had always been a swimmer, having played water polo for Brown University. Sometimes a person with a long history of swimming can be difficult to coach, Barone said, but not Johnston.

“He did a fantastic job,” Barone said. “It’s one thing for me to tell somebody to fix something, it’s another for them to implement it. Making changes can be hard — he’s been swimming all this time, I thought changing would be tough. But he did a fantastic job… He could feel what he was doing wrong and change it.”

The race required Johnston to stop every 20 minutes to refuel. He’d tread water while someone in a boat would toss him a carbohydrate-heavy drink. Then after about three hours into the race, a craving kicked in.

“Oddly enough, I start to crave Fig Newtons,” said Johnston, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich.

There was a point in the race when the winds are currents were so bad, the swimmers were essentially swimming on a treadmill. The boat crew even told Johnston that their GPS was not working, to prevent from killing his spirits.

“They didn’t want to tell me I wasn’t moving forward,” he said.

Getting to the finish line, he wasn’t sure where he was in the mix.

“I never really thought about not finishing,” he said. “Once you’re kind of in that mode, it’s tough to get out of it.”

His wife, Julie, said Scott was the fourth or fifth to finish the race, but she didn’t realize that those ahead of him were either relay swimmers or others who had given up and were then boated the remaining distance and allowed to swim the last leg.

“Then I realized, ‘My God, he’s won’,” she said.

Fry, the event director, said “Scott is a tremendous inspiration for all of us.”

“It is a tribute to his strength and commitment,” she said. “Scott deserves a great deal of recognition for his accomplishment as a swimmer and fundraising.”

Johnston, who works at Google in Manhattan as a director of project management, moved to Darien from California five years ago with his wife and son, Nicholas. The couple welcomed their second son, Elijah, earlier this year. They moved here to be closer to Julie’s father when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“Each year, the SWIM has many participants that are cancer survivors,” Fry said. “The solo field alone had three. Moreover, many of the participants have family members or friends that have been helped financially or through support programs by the SWIM. Sadly, these numbers are growing.”

Living with cancer, Johnston said, “you just feel it’s all over.”

“You feel like you’re alone in this,” he said. “Anything that takes away those every day worries… is a good thing.”

What’s next for the sound-swimming winner? He’d like to take on the 21-mile English Channel swim and the 25-mile Manhattan marathon swim. But the meaning behind the SWIM Across the Sound event is tough to top.

For Johnston, what he appreciated most of the event was not only being able to help provide support services for people who can’t afford it, but also the metaphor behind the race.

“I think it’s kind of symbolic in terms of what people are going through,” he said. “You’re suffering for nine hours in this case, but it’s very short compared to the kind of discomfort you’re living with, going through this treatment. I like that idea.

“It’s almost as though you’re going through the discomfort for people,” he said.


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