Clayton Joyner might be gone, but to the swimmers at Holmes Run Acres Pool, he’s all around them all the time.
Thunder shakes the sky when their former coach jumps up and down, his enthusiasm rippling across the pool to push his swimmers just a bit faster. Lightning strikes when he shouts quick bursts of encouragement to keep them motivated. Even clear weather is Clayton, his upbeat demeanor shining down on everyone at once.
“I just feel like he’s still here,” said Julie Surette, an 11-year-old swimmer for the Hurricanes.
Joyner, a co-head swim coach at Holmes Run Acres for the past 11 years, died May 5 following a massive heart attack he suffered two weeks earlier. He was 29 years old.
Few were as affected by Joyner’s death as Kristin Pugh, who began coaching alongside Joyner at Holmes Run Acres in 2003. Pugh also teamed with Joyner to coach at his swim club, Victory Lane Aquatics, and at their alma mater, Falls Church High School.
Pugh and Joyner were yin and yang, known around the swimming community as an unbreakable tandem that couldn’t be pried apart. Both received offers to coach other summer swim teams over the years, but the two opted to split their salaries so they could stay in the Falls Church community they loved most.
For about two weeks Pugh wrestled with the idea of not returning to the pool this summer, unable to imagine coaching without Joyner by her side.
“Walking that path to the pool without him being there still doesn’t feel right,” Pugh said. “This is the first time in 12 years that I’ve been on the deck without him. That’s a really stark reality that I kind of had to put out of my head. It’s pretty tough.”
Pugh returned not only to provide support for the kids, but also to keep Joyner’s legacy alive. She knew he would be disappointed if the team didn’t continue to chase its goals with the same vigor and flair their old coach used to lay down every day.
As Joyner used to say, “It’s not about falling. It’s about rising after you fall.”
About halfway through the summer swim season, it appears Holmes Run Acres swimmers are using their tragic circumstances as inspiration to reach new heights. Numerous swimmers are achieving personal best times, while some are breaking longstanding team and league records.
At the forefront of the record breaking is Max Cruz, a 12-year-old making a name for himself with some impressive swims in recent weeks. Cruz opened the season by shattering a 50-yard butterfly Northern Virginia Swim League record that had stood for nine years, then lowered that mark the following week by nearly half a second to 26.67 seconds. He also broke the league record in the boys’ 11-12 50-yard freestyle by a hundredth of a second.
Cruz lives with his parents in Northern California for most of the year but resides with his grandparents in Virginia during the summer months. He was devastated to learn about what happened to Joyner, the coach who used to tell him he was destined for greatness. Processing the news took time, but now the rising sixth grader uses Joyner as motivation before every race. He mimics a sign across his forehead before launching himself into the pool, a nod to the bandanas his old coach used to wear all the time. Cruz has one of Joyner’s old bandanas stowed away for safekeeping.
“He was my hero,” Cruz said. “He’s the one who inspired me to swim, and he told me that he’s always believed in me. He’s the reason I’m where I am. I’ll always be in debt to him.”
At Divisional Relays on Wednesday, Holmes Run Acres finished third out of six teams in Division 7 with 162.0 points. It’s a solid accomplishment for a program that sat all the way back in Division 16 when Joyner first started coaching there. In their first season in Division 7 last year, the Hurricanes finished the summer in second place. Joyner was so excited he went out and got plaques made for the team.
“I think we’ve definitely improved,” said Casey Tripp, 11. “I know my sister and I have dropped so many seconds on every stroke just because we’re swimming for him. We’re like, ‘I need to get to that wall just for Clayton.’”
Joyner’s strength as a coach wasn’t just in motivating his top swimmers to set new benchmarks, it was in getting the best out of every swimmer on the team, regardless of ability.
“I’ve never been really good at swim. I just did it because I’ve always liked it and have friends on it,” said Lynné Workman, an 18-year-old who chose to come back for her final season of eligibility. “But he still just made me feel like I was wanted here and made me feel like my swims mattered even though I didn’t pull in with first or second place. That was something great about him. He made everyone always feel important.”
Several swim teams around the area have demonstrated support for Holmes Run Acres and the Falls Church community this summer. Mosby Woods and Woodley made banners covered with hand prints, while Stuart High made a Team Joyner banner for their rivals at Falls Church. More than that, coaches, parents and kids have gone out of their way to offer hugs and condolences.
“It’s pretty astounding,” Pugh said. “You can’t even fathom how much strength people have given me because of their own actions and unselfishness. I have to do something for that. I owe that.”
Joyner meant something to people all over the county. He coached the Robinson Rams to a sweep of the girls’ district, region and state titles in 2010, then convinced Pugh to join him at Falls Church to honor his father, Christopher, who died in 2011. During his three seasons with the Jaguars, Falls Church swimmers broke 21 of 24 school records, including his own 400-yard freestyle relay mark that had stood since 2002.
In 2008, Joyner founded Victory Lane Aquatics Club, beginning his dream of building a new powerhouse on the club swim scene. What began as a ragtag group of 13 swimmers has turned into a sanctioned USA Swimming and Potomac Valley club with 10 times that number.
Joyner’s influence took shape at his memorial service at St. Philips Church, where the crowd filled past capacity and spilled into the parking lot.
“It was just the way he would light up a room and how enthusiastic he was about swimming and getting kids better in general,” said Kevin Nolan, the Dowden Terrace coach who was looking forward to going up against his friend in Division 7 for the first time this year. “He tried to make everybody a better person.”
Holmes Run Acres currently holds a 1-2 record in Division 7, a situation that Joyner would respond to, according to Pugh, with something like, “We need to step up and make some moves!”
To everyone at Holmes Run Acres, Joyner was known as the most quotable guy this side of Ron Burgundy. Some members of the team have a section in their phones called “Clayton Sayings,” still a source of giggles at swim practices today. Swimmers didn’t always understand the meaning behind “No dice!” or “1 ... 2 ... Get some!” but it never failed to get them pumped before a race.
As the summer marches on and meets build in importance, Joyner’s presence will remain with the swimmers he helped inspire. They can still hear him, his shouts and quotes filling their ears wherever they go. All they have to do is look up.