I just heard the news about the passing of a true triathlon pioneer, Jack Johnstone. While I didn’t know Jack extremely well, he has had a very profound impact on my personal and professional life. For those of you who don’t know, Jack was part of the San Diego Track club and was responsible for organizing (read inventing) what many believe to be the world’s very first triathlon on Mission Bay. No grand visions in mind, it was meant to be little more than a fun and challenging diversion from traditional training.
Having grown up in San Diego in the mid 70’s/80’s myself, life was spent quite a bit outdoors. My family used to take me and my brother to Mission Bay on the weekends for some early morning exercise. My dad was an avid swim, bike, runner and always up for new adventures. So when he heard about the Mission Bay triathlon in the 70’s he just had to check it out. I never gave it a thought at the time…after all, I was only 7 years old.
I met Jack Johnstone for the first time in 1999 during production of our documentary, Triathlon Through the Eyes of the Elite. Documenting the formation of the first ever U.S. Olympic triathlon team naturally led us to research the sport’s brief history. From the 6-time Ironman legends, Dave “the Man” Scott and Mark “the Grip” Allen back to Julie Moss crawling across the finish line on ABC’s wide world of sports, we needed to show the world where triathlon has come from before we could show them where we were headed.
So, over 2 decades later, I was led back home to triathlon’s birthplace, my childhood home town of San Diego and Jack Johnstone. I sat with Jack in his home and he told me stories of those early days. We talked about the track club and weekend runs at Mission Bay and he reminisced about those very first triathlons. But when I told him my dad had actually competed, Jack pulled a dusty old folder off his shelf and opened it for me. A pile of old flyers, newspaper clippings and printouts. I wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to show me until he thumbed to a page that said “race results.” It was a list of the competitors and their results from the event on Mission Bay way back when. And about three quarters of the way down the list, there it was...Steve Feller...my dad. Awesome! I think it was at that moment that a true connection was made between Jack and me.
The rest of the day, we spent filming as we walked and talked with Jack at the original race site on Mission Bay. He described the race to us, pointing out the swim start and finish and bike/run path. You could see the pride he felt in having played a role in the birth of such an amazing sport.
I never saw Jack again after that meeting but my time spent with him will never be forgotten. He truly helped me understand the roots of the sport and allowed me to connect even closer with my dad as I forged ahead with Endurance Films.
Check out this great clip on the history of triathlon featuring Jack Johnstone along with triathlon legends, Mark Allen, Dave Scott and Scott Tinley.