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CEDAR RAPIDS — Ian Johnston hopes his tragedy results in someone else’s triumph.
The Cedar Rapids Prairie junior is using his gift for golf to help others battle substance abuse after the death of his brother to a heroin overdose last October.
Johnston began a campaign to raise funds for the Area Substance Abuse Council through the American Junior Golf Association Leadership Links program this year. As the Class 4A boys’ golf season begins Thursday, Johnston will continue to collect donations and earn money for each birdie he cards to help those fighting addiction.
Johnston has played all summer, raising about half of the $5,000 goal.
“It really means a lot, because I know I’m helping people with their abuses,” said Johnston, who received donations at AJGA.org. “It makes me feel good because I don’t want anyone else to pass away from this terrible thing. It happens to too many people.”
Johnston’s brother, 23-year-old Seth Carnicle, died on the same day as last season’s district meet.
He knew something was amiss when his father, Jeff Johnston, dropped him off to catch the team van and left abruptly without their regular goodbye. The uneasy feeling grew when he didn’t receive a response immediately after competition. The elder Johnston attempted to shield his son, delaying the tragic news until he returned home.
“We played and then afterward I tried texting him and he didn’t reply,” Johnston said. “We finally went home and I didn’t know until then when he told me.”
Carnicle was a patient at ASAC, a private non-profit corporation formed in 1962 that helps with substance abuse prevention and treatment in Iowa. It was an easy decision to choose the recipient of his charity efforts.
“My brother, Seth, used to go there a lot for substance abuse,” Johnston said. “We wanted to help other people who have the same problems.”
Prairie Coach Erik Columbus praised Johnston’s ability to transform adversity into an opportunity to educate peers about alcohol abuse and drug addiction.
“It’s probably one way he’s coping with it,” Prairie Coach Erik Columbus said. “He’s trying to make it a positive for others. It’s really neat that he’s doing this.”
Johnston and his family have already raised $6,000 through a GoFundMe account that helped with ASAC renovations in Carnicle’s name. In addition to the Leadership Links drive, Johnston has planned to talk to youth about addiction. Few can match Johnston’s character.
“He’s a great kid,” Columbus said. “They are a great family.
“Even if he couldn’t break 100, he’d still be one of the best kids to have on the team.”
Like many siblings, Johnston was close with Carnicle, despite about an eight-year age difference. They spent time together when they were younger, playing video games. Carnicle preferred basketball to golf, but Johnston said looked up to his older brother.
He has found a way to honor him, acknowledging him momentarily when he records a birdie.
“Sometimes when I make a birdie, I point up to the sky, look up and say, 'that’s for you,'” Johnston said. “A little celebration.”
Johnston has played throughout the country the last couple years and had another successful summer. He logged two top-10 finishes in the HurricaneJunior Golf Tour, including a runner-up performance at the TPC Deere Run Classic in Silvis Ill. He was ninth overall at the HJGT College Prep Series in Ohio and was 15th at the USGA Junior Amateur Qualifier in Ames.
The rounds he posted at Elmcrest Country Club — a 2017 district site — added to the summer fun.
“I had three rounds in the 60s, which is pretty special for me,” Johnston said. “Some of my lowest rounds ever.”
The growth on the course was tougher with his growth off it. Johnston sprouted 9 inches over the last year, standing about 6-foot-3 now. The growth spurt has affected his swing, forcing him to get refitted for his clubs more than once during that time. He has gained about 30 yards off the tee and is hitting his irons farther as well.
“All the angles change,” Johnston said. “When I was shorter, if my club face was open a little bit it wouldn’t affect me. Now, if it’s open a little bit if my swing speed is so much faster it will just go all over.
“I’ve been talking to my coach, Larry (Gladson), and we’ve been working trying to fix my swing. I feel like I’m pretty comfortable with my swing, now.”
Johnston is focused to finish the varsity season stronger the last two years. He has been in contention for a state berth the last two seasons, coming up short in the final holes at district.
“I want to try making state, because the last two years I’ve choked on the last two holes,” said Johnston, who wants to earn first-team all-conference honors. “Last year, to make everything worse for that day, I finished bogey, bogey and missed it by one. On the second-to-last hole, I got stuck behind a tree. That really hurt.”
Johnston admitted it would be nice to clinch a state berth with a birdie, serving as another tribute to his late brother.
It pales in comparison to his cause off the course, informing others on the dangers of addiction. A message he hopes to deliver so his loss wasn’t in vain.
“My dad told me this quote, when you play golf, the best way to get out of a bunker is to stay out of it,” Johnston said. “With drugs, the best way to quit is don’t start.”
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