As Good as Gold: The inspirational story of Justin Zook
A sold-out crowd of spectators filled the Aquatics Centre at Olympic Park in Stratford, London on Sep. 4, 2012. The 2012 Paralympics were into its fifth day of competition, and fans filed into the natatorium in anticipation of the men’s 100-meter backstroke final in the S10 division.
Following three preliminary heats earlier in the day, the eight best swimmers from seven different countries came out from the tunnel. Justin Zook, the United States’ lone representative in the race, entered fourth. Zook’s broad shoulders and sculpted upper body still stood out underneath a grey Nike Team USA jacket and t-shirt. His head, shrouded by a hood and a USA brandished swim-cap, didn’t waver from looking straight ahead — it was time to focus.
He removed his hood and hurried towards the stage where three of his seven competitors already stood. As he walked, he took deep breaths as the music from his white headphones flowing through his ears psyched him up for the forthcoming competition. Zook had just come off of a personal-record 1:01.11 time in the preliminary round, and was looking for more. He was looking to add a third gold-medal in the 100-meter backstroke to his collection.
After the eighth and final swimmer was introduced, the Paralympians made their way to their respective starting blocks. Zook physically stood out from the rest of his competition. At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, the Springfield College graduate resembled a NFL defensive lineman more than a swimmer. With arms like tree branches and a cut torso, Zook looked like someone who lived in a weight room.
He used that overwhelming strength to his advantage.
The swimmers took their positions in the water, and at the sound of the starting gun, sprung themselves backwards with the explosiveness of a rocket being launched. They were off.
Zook finished the first 50 meters in third place — just 0.38 seconds behind first-place Michael Anderson of Australia. But after the turnaround at the wall of the pool, Zook began to take over. His upper body did the majority of the work. His arms flew like the propellers of a speed boat, with each stroke shooting him forward through the pool. As he swam down the final stretch, each stroke was met with a stronger, more vigorous swing of his arms.
As the final meters approached, Zook’s lead looked secure. He touched the wall in a time of 1:00.1, a new world record. Upon realizing he won, Zook simply pointed towards the crowd, followed by two swift fist-pumps into the water. He had captured his third gold medal in as many finals appearances (his first two coming in Athens, 2004, and Beijing, 2008). But Zook’s medals and victories weren’t necessarily due to a natural talent which he was born with. The victories were forged on the back of overcoming something else he was born with, a diversity most top-flight athletes don’t have to face in order to achieve success.
Zook was born on October 16, 1985 in Chicago. But something stuck out immediately about him. He was born missing half his right foot, and without functioning growth plates in his right leg.
“The growth plate in my hip was the only one that really worked well,” Zook explained. “So bone growth from there was really stimulated by surgeries.”
These surgeries which Zook has undergone — over 30 of them — are not exactly your typical surgeries. The first technology which was developed to aid the disability which Zook faced coincidently came out right around the time he was born. Essentially, a halo device goes around the patient’s leg with pins going into the bone. The patient then twists the pins on their own (Zook added that it reminded him of the erector sets he played with as a kid) which pulls the bone apart a very little amount each time it’s turned. Over the course of three or four months, the process would lengthen the bone, sometimes up to two-and-a-half inches.
The surgeries helped Zook grow when his body couldn’t on its own. He had a few surgeries in Chicago, but after moving to Minnesota at the age of 5-years-old, the majority of his procedures were done by Dr. Mark Dahl. Zook still had to undergo physical therapy to make sure that the surgeries didn’t affect his mobility. This resulted in water therapy.
“I kind of started swimming because I hated physical therapy,” Zook said. “They had me going like four times a week, driving 25–30 minutes a week to see the doctor. We had talked to the doctors and they said we could do water therapy.”
As it turned out, Zook didn’t enjoy water therapy either, but he had to do something with his time. So, he was enrolled in a regular swim class. The results weren’t encouraging.
“I couldn’t make it one length of the pool, I almost drowned. My mom told me she wanted to jump in after me,” Zook laughed. “But you know, I started swimming and I met good friend immediately. By age 7, I was pretty good.”
By age 8, Zook was winning state championships in his age group.
As he got older, Zook’s disability was starting to catch up with him. When he was younger, Zook could get by more on his strength. But without the use of his right leg in the pool, he was slowed down.
“When I turned 11 and 12, you could see I was pretty far ahead of kids my age — but then people started catching up,” Zook said. “People told me to try swimming with a disabled sports organization to see what it was like.
When he was 11, Zook swam in his first disabled sports race. It was a youth meet, but the results were good for Zook.
He was asked to stop swimming in those meets because he was so fast.
“They said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to have to swim in the open’ which is what I would consider a regular meet now,” Zook explained. His disability, which had begun to hamper him in the water now had him facing adults in the pool because he was too good.
His first Paralympic “open” championship came when he was 11. The championship was held over 1,500 miles away from Minnesota. The venue for the race was unfamiliar at first, but although he didn’t know it at the time, it would become a place called home in just a few years.
“Funny enough, my first Paralympic open championship was held at Springfield College,” Zook said. “We laughed later on when we were looking at schools because I had already swam in that pool.”
But between his early teens and the time he enrolled at Springfield College, Zook put together quite the impressive athletic resume before he was even a legal adult. In his early teens, Zook was racking up world championship appearances left and right. By 14, he was trying out for the 2000 Paralympics held in Sydney, Australia.
“I got food poisoning, barely could swim at all,” Zook explained in regards to the tryouts. “I ended up missing the team. I was the first alternate.”
Zook added that it would have been a great honor to make the team at the tender age of 14, but with his high school swimming career just beginning, there was a lot going on in his life.
“While it was a disappointment, I had other goals.” said Zook.
Those goals may have been more modest at the time than what Zook ended up accomplishing, but by his senior year at Maplegrove High School, he was on the national map as an All-American, swimming against able-bodied athletes. The next step for the aquatic standout: college.
Zook wanted to study sports management, which in the early 2000s, wasn’t an incredibly popular major nationwide. He wanted to work in the business side of sports, something few schools with sports management offered at the time. There were four schools on his list which had the desired program, as well as a swimming program which he found suitable. One of them was a small school in Western Massachusetts which he had a level of familiarity with: Springfield College.
“After I had come out and met with coach Taffe [Springfield College’s swimming coach]. And I really loved the campus,” Zook said. “And I had knew I always kind of wanted to go to a small school, and it was pretty easy choice once I came out there and realized the degree I could get.”
So it was official. Zook was set to enroll at Springfield in January of 2005 as a sports management major, and as part of an impressive recruiting class for the men’s swimming program. What set Zook apart from his fellow peers was he was entering the program with a gold and bronze medal already under his belt — both of which he won at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, just months before his enrollment.
“To be quite honest, the word expectation is something that I never use,” Coach John Taffe said of Zook joining the program with such international success. “Because with any athlete, it’s not about what you’ve done prior to getting here, it’s about what you want to do once you’re here.”
The gold medalist Zook first met his new team when the Pride were training down in Florida. He made an impression early, when his team was doing dry-land practice one evening.
“A lot of people on the team whine and complain about the different things we do at practice,” Taffe explained. “We were doing some practice and people were complaining, and Justin said ‘hey, I’ve got one leg, and I’m doing fine with these things,’ and everybody kind of shut up.”
While Zook made a strong first impression out of the pool, he did the same inside the pool. His goals at the beginning of his freshman year were to score a point at the NEWMAC Championship later in the season. Not only did he do that, but he helped lead Springfield College to its first ever NEWMAC title.
“That was one of the better recruiting classes that [Taffe] had had,” Zook said. “And we set a lot of records, but there wasn’t as much pressure on myself, more that we knew what was being expected out of us as a group…it was a good year to come in, obviously.”
After an impressive splash his freshman year, Zook went on to be the foundation of a strong swimming core for four years. He raced against able-bodied swimmers his entire time at Springfield, and was still one of the best swimmers in the region. He set the program record for the 200 meter backstroke, which has sense been broken.
Zook faced a separate obstacle during his college years aside from the disability, too. He sporadically was missing time with his team and in the classroom for different world championships and swim meets. For Zook, he said that wouldn’t have been possible without the support and understanding of Taffe.
“I honestly couldn’t ask for much better handling of my career there,” Zook said. “In terms of, John knew everything that was going on with me.”
“The one thing we knew that was in place that there were certain times here where he was going to have to go compete for the United States during the middle of our season,” Taffe explained. “Which was obviously something we were very supportive. But interestingly enough, he was more concerned about missing time with the team.”
Zook found a way to balance a competitive collegiate swimming career, a student life and the workload of an international athlete. While he would miss meets, practices, finals and class, Zook’s mind was always focused on his team back at Springfield College.
His laser focus was just one of the traits which kept Zook so competitive at Springfield — his work ethic was the other.
“He made the people better around him just by bringing his lunch pail to work every day and giving his best effort,” Taffe said. “He was one of the hardest working people. And he didn’t do it verbally — he did it by his actions.”
With the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of talented Paralympians will be flocking to South America — Zook will not. His days of breaking records and winning medals in the pool have come to an end following his retirement. But, Zook has transitioned roles, as he’s now an assistant swim coach, teaching and educating younger swimmers.
His legacy at Springfield College however will always remain the same. Past the hard work, the dedication, and of course the talent in the water, it’s been the same thing which has kept Zook competitive from age 6 in water therapy all the way to London in 2012 — an undying will, toughness and fierce determination.
“He was one of the toughest people I ever met in my life,” Taffe said. “No one can truly imagine the kind of experiences he’s already gone through. Never mind the difficulty with his lower body, but think about the surgeries he’s had to go through his whole life. Every time somebody was experiencing something, all they had to do was look to their right or their left and see Justin. I don’t think anything anybody was experiencing was remotely close to what Justin did.”