Paralympic swimming

Justin Zook, an intense competitor, finds his calling in swimming

 

Overcoming a disorder in his right leg, Justin Zook found his calling as a competitive swimmer.

dneal@MiamiHerald.com

The ocean, it’s often said, doesn’t care. That lack of sentimentality or prejudice extends to most forms of water. No pool cares that Justin Zook canters toward the blocks with a club foot and a right leg that’s more like a twig than his left leg or massive upper body.

The pool welcomed Zook during his boyhood and adulthood as a place of healing and competitive exaltation. The pool has been home whether in Minnesota where Zook grew up, Beijing, London or Montreal, site of August’s International Paralympic Committee World Swimming Championships, where the Pompano Beach resident will swim the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke.

Zook’s international swimming résumé already includes a world record in the 100-meter backstroke in the S10 class, gold medals in that event at each of the past three Paralympics Games, and the 2002 and the 2006 World Championships.

(The IPC classifies swimmers by impairment. According to the IPC website, Zook’s S10, SB9, SM10 class “describes the minimal impairments of eligible swimmers with physical impairment. Eligible impairments would be the loss of a hand or both feet and a significantly limited function of one hip joint.”)

In return for the pool’s hospitality, Zook is almost evangelical about the sport, which demands extreme devotion from its practitioners anyway. He’s now the head age-group coach at Pompano Piranhas swimming club after spending a year at Miami Country Day Aquatics.

His eyes light up at personal bests or just progress from his charges. E-mails from Zook usually include the line “just keep swimming” from Finding Nemo.

That’s pretty much what Zook, 27, has been doing since he began undergoing surgeries to correct the growth-plate disorder in his right leg. And there were many surgeries — 30 to date, 25 of them before 18, at St. Paul’s Gillette Children’s Hospital in Minnesota, where the Zooks moved when Justin was a toddler.

Searching for an activity that provided exercise without unduly pressuring the leg, the Zooks decided to try swimming when he was 6 years old.

“I don’t know that we ever gave Justin a swimming lesson,” Stuart said. “My biggest fear was could he make it from one end of the pool to the other.”

Justin could and well enough that Stuart recalls two coaches telling him by the middle of the week, “He really can do this, and he’s pretty good.”

Justin said, “I won overall state titles when I as 8 and 10. I was very good when I was younger.”

This despite not being able to kick and having to take time off after each surgery. Also, the metal halo placed around his leg needed to be adjusted every two hours. That wasn’t conducive to good sleep, good school (“A 10-year-old on Vicodin isn’t the most attentive in class,” Justin said) or good swimming.

Still, Justin became a good student and an excellent swimmer. Part of that is that other than the right leg and foot, Justin possessed a deep well of talent: He played baseball for several years along with swimming.

“He was big then,” Justin’s father, Newport Property Ventures Chief Operating Officer Stuart Zook, said. “He kind of looked a like a little Bamm-Bamm [from The Flintstones]. He had bigger biceps than me.”

Also, the Zooks refused to take a coddling approach at all to Justin. Jeanine Zook said doctors told her when kids have no control over major things in their life, you have to give them control over as much as you can if you want them to become independent.

“I’m so appreciative to my mom,” Justin Zook said. “I’d have that halo around my leg and would say, ‘I’m thirsty.’ She’d say, ‘Well, you better scoot over to the kitchen and get a glass of water.’ ’’

Jeanine Zook said, “He couldn’t say, ‘I can’t do it.’ Figure out a way to do it. You can’t do it the way some others do, you just have to do it a different way.

“He was such a persistent kid.”

Though the inability to kick eventually limited Justin in mainstream swimming competitions, he began competing internationally in IPC events at 12. He swam at Division III Springfield College while getting his sports management degree and got his MBA in sports business from Florida Atlantic two years ago.

Justin is setting up a foundation for helping give financial support to kids with disabilities who want to swim. According to his father, Justin began talking about the foundation when he was 15 or 16.

“After each surgery, he’d be in the hospital for three days,” Stuart said. “He saw so much. He, by far, had the least problems of anybody there.”

Justin said, “I was lucky. I had parents who made incredible sacrifices to give me the opportunity to do what I’ve done. I could never repay what they’ve done for me.”

Read more Other Sports stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
WWE superstar John Cena grew up a huge Hulk Hogan fan. Cena and Hogan are two of the top talents in WWE history.

    WWE Hall of Famer Hulk Hogan inspired WWE superstar John Cena who now inspires others

    Like many WWE fans growing up in the 1980s into the 1990s, John Cena was a Hulkamaniac.

  •  
A large Goliath grouper nestled into the Bonaire shipwreck off Jupiter.

    OUTDOORS

    Outdoors feature: Goliath groupers make recovery but harvest remains on hold

    Dropping into the roiled, murky waters 60 feet deep off Jupiter Inlet on Monday, I heard the annual spawning aggregation of Goliath groupers before I actually saw it. Below me, I could barely make out the wreck of the MG 111 or the mottled, gentle giants that show up each year between late July and mid-October to keep their species going. But the Goliaths already had seen our group of divers and weren’t too happy about our visit. They emitted loud, bass booming noises that sound a little like gun reports – probably to alert each other and to warn us not to get too cozy.

  • Fishing report

    Captain Glyn Austin of Going Coastal Fishing Charters out of Sebastian reported that catch-and-release fishing for snook with live baits and artificial lures day and night has been outstanding in and around the Sebastian Inlet all the way north to the Patrick Air Force Base. Redfish and a few permits are biting in the Sebastian Inlet and are being caught on small blue crabs. Along the beaches, tarpon, bonito, jacks and sharks can be targeted all the way to Port Canaveral. These fish have been feeding along the big baitfish schools. Offshore reef fishing has been good for cobias and mangrove snappers up to 12 pounds.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category