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Local swim coach Clayton Joyner dies

By Bryan Flaherty
Members of the Falls Church swimming community gather to remember "Coach CJ" at Holmes Run Acres pool, where Joyner coached for 11 seasons. (Photo provided by Greta Michaelsen)

Members of the Falls Church swimming community gather to remember "Coach CJ" at Holmes Run Acres pool, where Clayton Joyner coached for 11 seasons. (Photo provided by Greta Michaelsen)

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.”

Clayton Joyner celebrating a victory at Holmes Run with co-head coach Kristin Pugh at Holmes Run Acres pool. (Photo provided by Kristin Pugh)

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.

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14 Responses to “Local swim coach Clayton Joyner dies”

  1. Colin says:

    Well said Bryan, thanks for sharing this.

  2. Hassan says:

    Well written. You could use every happy adjective in the dictionary and still it would fall short of the happiness Clayton brought to all of us. Love and Respect forever Brother Clayton.

  3. Suzan says:

    My heart goes out to Clayton’s family and friends. My kids learned to swim at Holmes Run Acres pool, and though I didn’t know Clayton personally, reading this has brought tears. What a gem! and what a loss to the whole community!

  4. Rob says:

    RIP Clayton

  5. Dan Seliskar says:

    Wow, what a shock. In the brief time I knew him on the high school deck, it was clear he cared about his kids and always went the extra mile for them. He stood out, even as part of the dedicated VHSL coaching community that way. He will always be remembered for his passion for the sport and for his contributions to NoVA swimming. God bless.

  6. Michael Atalla says:

    So sad. I swam for FCHS and swam and coached for the Hurricanes (a considerable amount of time ago – think counting on fingers and toes). I had no idea the teams had grown so much. When I was captain of the Jaguars team, we had 4 men who could compete and 4 guys who could barely finish a race and that was the entire team. The school barely knew there was a swim team. Holmes Run was always such a great community pool. I loved my time swimming and coaching there. I hate that I’m reading such tremendous news about my old teams in an article focused on such sad news. My respect to his friends and family. Sounds like a great guy.

  7. Darcy says:

    Bryan, you captured Clayton’s spirit ( and his smiles) in your article, Thanks

    Nancy, Kristin and Jana, my thoughts and prayers and with you. Be proud that he had such a positive impact on so many, he made more of a difference in his life than most who live to be 90!

    In my mind he will be tearing around on his bike throughout Camelot, smiling, waving and saying hi as he would speed by. God Speed to you Clayton, you will be missed!

  8. Nancy D. Joyner says:

    I am so grateful to everyone for their prayers and kind thoughts about my son Clayton. Coach CJ, as he was known, had a gift for inspiring young people and for instilling in them the thrill of competition coupled with good sportsmanship. He always wanted to win, but not at any cost. Integrity mattered. He wanted his swimmers to grow up with a love of the sport and a desire to do their best in all things.
    He urged them to “Live the dream.” This will be his legacy.

  9. Scott Brown says:

    Prayers to his family and friends. RIP Clayton.

  10. Rich Gordon says:

    As the Head Coach of Holmes Run from 1991-1997, I can speak from experience that it was indeed a special place. They were my extended family. It’s nice to know that Clayton seemed to foster that spirit and bring it to the next level. His family is in my prayers. I’m so sorry for this loss. To Holmes Run, Falls Church High School, VLAC, and especially his family, I send my condolences. Those that knew him should be thankful for the experience. Take what he taught you and make a difference yourself. Well written Bryan.

  11. Mary Goff says:

    I met Clayton while he was at VCU with my daughter and found him to be the most delightful young man. He came to my home many times and was always a gentleman, even on the nights they may have over indulged. He was a friend that all could count on and was so special to my daughter. I fell so blessed to have known him and to have watched him turn his dreams into reality, not a trait you find in many people his age. As a parent I can’t even begin to know how his family is feeling, and you are all in my prayers. In his very short time here he touched more people then most of us will in a lifetime. Clayton you Rocked it and lived it … Now go swim free with the angels!!!! You will NEVER be forgotten. Xo

  12. Daniel Archibald says:

    Words can not express how sad I am for Nancy and the rest of Clayton’s family and friends. I am truly shocked at how this could happen to such a vibrant young man. My condolences go out to everyone at this time that knew and loved Clayton. I hope you rest peacefully in Heaven with your dad Clayton. You will always be remembered to me as the little guy that couldn’t stop moving or talking when I watched you as a kid. It is nice to know you managed to touch so many people in your short time here and for that your memory will live on for many years to come. RIP little man.

  13. Joanne Almonte Mason says:

    You captured his life and spirit beautifully! Well written, Bryan. May Clayton rest in peace.

  14. Johari Rashad says:

    I never had the pleasure of meeting Clayton, but I know his mother, Dr. Nancy Joyner. She is still active in sports so I can only imagine how much she must have supported and inspired him. His flame in this world was short, but his light and the warmth of his personality will continue to inspire all of the young men and women he worked with. Nancy, I’m keeping you and your family (which includes Clayton’s girlfriend) in my prayers and will ask my church to pray for you at our Divine Worship service this weekend.

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