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.”)
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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.”