For more than a week, members of the Falls Church High School and Holmes Run Acres swim teams have shared the same profile picture on Facebook: a wolf-head logo with a heart and the words “Team Joyner.” They did so in support of their coach, Clayton Joyner, who suffered a massive heart attack on April 22.
On Tuesday, those swimmers wore black.
Black, the color the Jaguars swim team wears against their rival Stuart High School; black, the color of the caps the Holmes Run Hurricanes wear during the summer season; and black, the color of mourning.
Monday afternoon Clayton Joyner, a 12-year coaching veteran in the northern Virginia area, died after nearly two weeks in intensive care at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
He was 29 years old.
“We’re shocked,” said his mother, Nancy Joyner. “It was so unexpected. He was so full of life.”
More than 200 people congregated at Holmes Run Acres pool on Tuesday night for a candlelight vigil to remember their departed coach and beloved friend. Friends and family shared stories for nearly two hours: tales of mischief from his high school years; his dream of building his swim club into an elite program; and a bevy of stories of how the young coach, a month shy of his 30th birthday, inspired and motivated.
“Clayton’s gift was motivation. He made you believe you could do it. He made you want to succeed,” said his mother, a sentiment echoed by swimmers, parents and friends on Tuesday night.
Joyner was the head swim coach at Falls Church, his alma mater, for the past three years, and had been building the program up toward a championship-caliber team in Virginia’s 5A classification. As a senior captain, Joyner led Falls Church to its second straight National District title in 2002.
“Clayton was one of the first coaches I sought out when we switched to Conference 13,” Jefferson Coach Ian Handerhan said. “Even when we were in different districts, he was a guy I gravitated toward on deck my first year.
“He was a very approachable guy, who always seemed to care about all the swimmers in the pool, not just his own. He was always having a good time and by extension so were his swimmers.”
This past season he led the Falls Church boys and girls squads to runner-up finishes in Conference 13 and the boys’ team to a fourth-place finish at states. It was the school’s highest finish at a state meet in school history.
“It’s the little moments when someone would need help that Clayton would say that one thing they needed to hear,” said Falls Church captain James Sturges. “All season he’s been saying, ‘1 … 2 … get some!’ It was his way of saying he wanted Falls Church to step up. That was his message to the team. That we’d always go after it.”
Falls Church swimmers broke 21 of the 24 school records during his tenure as head coach, including a record of his own in the 400-yard freestyle relay that had stood since 2002.
Prior to his work at Falls Church, Joyner coached the Robinson Rams to a sweep of the girls’ district, region and state titles in 2010. Swimmers in blue and yellow Robinson warmup jackets were in attendance Tuesday night, as were swimmers from other Conference 13 teams, whom Joyner had sought out during the season to offer words of praise and encouragement.
In 2008, Joyner founded Victory Lane Aquatics Club — whose wolf-head logo was designed by Joyner — with 13 swimmers. The team, in its second year as a sanctioned USA Swimming and Potomac Valley club, has more than 10 times that number.
“Clayton used to tell people, ‘Live the dream.’ That was his thing. Dream big and live it,” Nancy Joyner said. “His dream was to start his own swim club to help swimmers achieve their dreams.”
Joyner started his coaching career at Holmes Run Acres in 2003 as an assistant coach in the Northern Virginia Swim League, and he was named co-head coach with Kristin Pugh the year following. They coached 11 seasons together and led the Hurricanes to a combined 11 division and divisional relay championships. Holmes Run moved from Division 16 to Division 7 under their guidance.
In 2013, following a second-place finish in Division 9 the year prior, the Hurricanes were moved up to Division 7 — their highest division in more than two decades — and were seeded last. They finished second, winning three of five, to solidify their spot in the division for this upcoming season.
Before beginning his coaching career, he was a member of the Camelot Community Club swim team, from age four to 18, where he was a multi-year all star.
A memorial service at Saint Philip the Apostle Catholic Church in Falls Church will be held on May 17 at 11:30 a.m., followed by a ‘Celebration of Life’ at Holmes Run Acres pool.
“He loved a good party; so that’s how we’re going to celebrate his life,” said Nancy Joyner.
Joyner earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008 and a master’s degree in sports industry management from Georgetown University in 2010. He has taught as an adjunct professor in physical education at the Northern Virginia Community College since finishing his graduate work.
He leaves behind his mother, Nancy, his sister, Kristin Joyner McLellan and girlfriend, Jana Kuwano.
Joyner’s father, Christopher C. Joyner, died in 2011. He was a Georgetown University professor of international law and director of the university’s Institute for Law, Science and Global Security.