Swimmer overcomes small size

Daily Sports Writer
Published January 28, 2004

“If you were to tell Sara to walk on water, she’d
definitely give it a good try,” women’s swim coach Jim
Richardson said. “That’s how she is. I’ve never
met a more determined person.”

Standing at 5-foot-4, senior captain Sara Johnson is about a
half a body shorter than most of her competitors. Due to her
height, she has been forced to work harder than most other

“A lot of people told Sara that she wouldn’t be able
to swim at the Division I level because she was too short to be
successful,” Richardson said. “But I think she has
proven them all wrong.”

Johnson insists that her height doesn’t bother her.
Instead, she takes pride in overcoming a difficult obstacle in the
sport of swimming.

“My height disadvantage has become part of the fun in
winning,” Johnson said. “It has made me work harder and
enjoy beating people more.”

Johnson began swimming at the tender age of four when her older
brother and sister joined a swim team near their home in West

The coach, who was nervous that the child would drown, made
Johnson sit on the pool deck most of the practices to do dryland
training. When she did get into the water, Johnson was forced to
wear a lifejacket.

“The coach told me that Sara was in over her head, both
literally and figuratively,” said Johnson’s mother,
Diane. “But she was pretty intent on staying on the team and
kept working at it.”

Eight years later Johnson won a U.S. state title at the age of
12 and after that moment she never looked back.

In high school, Johnson was a four-time Michigan state champion
in the 100-yard backstroke and chosen as Michigan Swimmer of Year
in 1999 and 2000.

“I watched (Johnson) swim for a long time before she
decided to come to Michigan,” Richardson said. “She
came to our swim camps, and I followed her swimming through YMCA
Nationals. She struck me as a fearless, hardnosed and driven
person. One of those people you put in the pool, show them a
workout and get out of their way.”

Johnson suggests that her determined personality is equally
divided between her parents.

“I get a lot of it from my dad because he was a college
athlete,” Johnson said. “But as far as the control and
desire to fight to the bitter end, I get that from my

Johnson’s father, Larry, attended Michigan and played
football under the legendary coach Bo Schembechler from

“I did have some influence in her decision,” Larry
said. “But in the end, it was her first, second and third
choice to go here.”

Like her high school career, Johnson’s time as a Wolverine
is also decorated with impressive accomplishments.

At the 2003 Big Ten Championships, Johnson won the 200-yard
individual medley with an NCAA automatic qualifying time,
Boilermaker Aquatic Center record and personal-best time of

“I was ecstatic after the race,” Johnson said.
“If someone would have told me that I would swim that race in
that time, I would never have believed them.”

Richardson attributes much of Johnson’s success to her
analytical outlook on swimming technique, skills she may get from a
double majoring in engineering.

She tries to be very efficient with every stroke and breaks down
each segment of every race and finds ways to maximize her

“It’s tough managing a double major and
swimming,” Johnson said. “But it keeps me organized. I
couldn’t drop swimming because it’s a huge part of who
I am.

This past weekend marked Johnson’s last meet at Canham
Natatorium and a closing to four impressive years at Michigan.

“Being on the team has been the best experience of my
life,” Johnson said. “I would be lost without it. I
can’t believe it’s ending.”

On Saturday, Johnson and the rest of the Michigan swimming and
diving team will compete at Notre Dame for their final dual meet of
the season.