Academics carried more weight than swimming when Chris Johnson began his search for a college last year by sending letters to 30 schools with the country's top psychology programs.
The list did not include Auburn or Texas, which have the top men's swim teams in the nation.
But last winter, those and other prestigious swimming schools entered the picture, as coaches began noticing Johnson's times from events around the country. And the attention made the Lafayette senior a little nervous. Nonetheless, Johnson signed last week with Auburn, which won the NCAA men's championship in March. Still, he remains in awe of the prospect. "I was hesitant to go to Texas because it's such a good swim school," Johnson said. "I was kind of intimidated. I liked Auburn because it was good like Texas but didn't have the intimidation factor. I guess the championship blew that whole theory to pot." Rockwood Swim Club coach Jim Halliburton has little doubt that Johnson fits. He views his top pupil as a prospective Olympian, if not in 2000 then 2004. After all, this is a 17-year-old who in December beat American record holder Brian Retterer in a preliminary heat of the 100-meter backstroke at the Kerr-McGee Pro-Am in Oklahoma City, then lost to him by .01 of a se cond in the finals. "When he was being recruited by Auburn, he asked me if he was good enough to go there," Halliburton said. "I told him to ask the Auburn coach, and his answer was `absolutely.' That made him feel a little better. He doesn't realize he's probably one of the three best high-school recruits in the country with his combination of events." Instead of swimming for Lafayette, Johnson spent the winter training with Halliburton and competing at various meets. In the process, the backstroke specialist sliced considerable chunks of time in several events. Most of his personal records are faster than the Missouri state high school records, including his times in the 100 backstroke (49.9) and 100, 200 and 500 freestyles (46.2, 1:39.9 and 4:32). Johnson's biggest improvement came in the 200-yard backstroke, in which he cut from 1:52 to 1:48, a time almost unheard of at the high-school level. Still, Johnson persists in his self-deprecation and wonderment over the chance to work daily with Auburn swimmers. "I look at their times and think they are so fast," he said. "It won't hit me until I get in the pool a couple of times and they smoke me. I'm kind of in awe of that. …