Friendly swimming rivalry leads to 50-plus year friendship

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Bob "BJ" Janis (left) and Greg Bonann were paired up as high school swimmers by their coach in 1968, and have been good friends ever since. Contributed photos.

Two Malibu Masters swimmers inspire others through dedication and friendly rivalry

It has been said the greatest gift in life is friendship. Two Malibu men have it in spades with a deep friendship lasting more than 50 years.

Greg Bonann first met Bob “BJ” Janis around 1968 at Palisades High School, when Bonann was a sophomore and Janis a senior. 

“He was a magnificent swimmer on a magnificent swimming team at Pali High,” Bonann recalled of Janis, “I was just a 10th-grader. I didn’t really have any right being on this team. They were all so good. It just so happened they had an open spot.” 

Coach Pete Nelson, whom Bonann called a big part of his life, paired him to swim with “this guy” pointing at BJ.

“‘You swim with this guy and you’ll be OK,”’ the 40-year Malibu resident remembered of what the coach told him. “He put me in Bob’s lane and reluctantly Bob adopted me. I was overweight and slow and couldn’t do a flip turn. BJ was just one of many good swimmers on that team. Bob was an All-American that year. It was like Mutt and Jeff, but I improved enormously because of Bob and my coach. I didn’t realize just how good Bob was because he beat me all year long in every single race but by the end of the year we were in the city finals together. Then I realized he was one of the best swimmers in the whole city. No wonder I never beat him.”

Janis graduated and went off to college, but the two met up again as lifeguards a few years later and started swimming together again too. Bonann still serves as a lifeguard at Zuma Beach, his 54th year. 

“Doing anything for 54 years is pretty good,” he said and then when asked how many saves he’s made responded modestly, “The better question is how many you’ve lost. It’s zero. We don’t count saves.” But Bonann did say anyone lifeguarding for decades has probably made thousands of rescues.

The two swimmers “dipped in and out of each other’s lives for 54 years,” according to Bonann, who served as one of the groomsmen in Janis’ wedding. Over the years, there were other weddings; life moved on. 

“We all got in and out of trouble, but we ended up back in the pool three days a week going through life together,” Bonnan said. “It’s been wonderful having him swim next to me all these years and every decade or so one of us is better than the other for 10 years and then the other guy gets good and then the other takes over.

“It’s just wonderful. We push each other and encourage each other. We’ve been through a lot of pools together.” 

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LA City Swim champion Bob Janis (left) and coach Pete Nelson are shown together in 1967. Contributed photo.

The two swam in the Palisades for nearly 25 years and then at Pepperdine for another 25 in the Masters swim program with the late legendary coach Nick Rodionoff, finally ending up at Malibu High School. 

“Nick was a wonderful coach,” the two agreed.

Janis and Bonann said they “push each other. One of us is constantly trying to be better than the other and that’s what makes us both good.” And the two inspire their pool mates.  

Today they agree they’re about evenly matched. “I’ll win a few. He’ll win a few,” Bonnan said.

The men swim distance races, typically their favorite since high school, the 400 (16 lengths). 

“Whenever there’s a 400 in our workout, we look at each other and go, ‘ah sh**. Here we go again. We’re going to have to kill each other.’” Bonnan said. “I swim the hardest against Bob and I’m sure he swims the hardest against me. Whoever wins earned it.” 

Bonann says he likes to jokingly tell his friend, “BJ, you may beat me in this race but it’s gonna hurt you.” 

The two swim the 400 in about 4:12.

Janis is a coach for the Masters program for a few dozen swimmers at MHS and Bonann subs. The group swims three mornings a week at the community pool before the crack of dawn at 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. “because many of us work” the two said. 

Along with lifeguarding Bonann and is also the co-creator, producer, and director of “Baywatch.” “We swim to keep in shape for lifeguarding.” 

While the longtime Malibu resident has never competed in a Masters meet, Janis has won national Masters’ championships. 

“He is Mr. Consistency,” Bonnan said. “You can count on Bob day in and day out. He’s dependable. There are a lot of people that have great ability, but BJ is the master of the two most important abilities: reliability and dependability and that’s what he’s been for me for over 50 years.”