The three-time gold-medal winner at the Pompano Beach Aquatics Center.
Justin Zook during practice with kids from the Pompano Beach Piranhas swim team.
Splashing through the water, world-record-holding swimmer Justin Zook glides past the competition. Mobility, speed, and power seem second nature for the three-time Paralympic gold-medal winner. Growing up in Minnesota, he was the fastest 8-year-old swimmer in the state. But ask him about that childhood, the one where he should have been celebrated for his unparalleled talent, and he’ll tell you he doesn’t remember it.
“I blanked out a lot of my childhood. As a kid, I got bullied quite a bit,” says Zook, who in the pool is in a class by himself, but on dry land has fought obstacles since birth. Born with an undiagnosed growth plate disorder, missing half of his right foot, and with a nonfunctional right leg, Zook has had 30 surgeries to lengthen the right leg more than 21 inches. “They would break the bone and then stretch it apart,” he says. “I grew up on and off crutches.
Intense physical therapy led him to the swimming pool. “I got in the water and I enjoyed it. If I didn’t have this disability, I probably would have never touched the pool.”
At age 28, Zook is now the fastest Paralympic swimmer in the world. Victories at the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Paralympics garnered him medals, world travels, and fame, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ryan Lochte and being invited to the White House to meet the president.
Just before the 2012 Paralympics, however, Zook lost interest—and for the first time in his life, he lost races, too. “I was so worried about the other people around me and how fast they were going, I forgot I was just supposed to go out and swim. When I was winning, it wasn’t really a sense of ‘How awesome’; it was something like, ‘Ah, I didn’t lose.’ There were parts of me that thought I should retire and stop swimming completely.”
The gold medal in 2012 may be his last. Zook moved to South Florida last year to be closer to his family (they relocated from Minnesota in 2004), and now teaches competitive swimming to kids with the Pompano Beach Piranhas, a club team that competes statewide. “It’s one of the main reasons that I’ve started to find the passion for swimming again. Getting to see kids enjoy practice, smiling and coming to the pool with their friends is refreshing. I forgot this was all supposed to be fun.”
Zook is putting his experiences to good use as a spokesperson for the Mac Crutchfield Foundation, which helps fund swim programs and the Special Olympics. He’s also starting his own foundation to offset the costs of highlevel swimming, targeting children with disabilities. “I realize how much money my parents had to spend. Swimming can really improve the quality of life for people with physical disabilities. In school, it was always, ‘He’s on crutches, he’s in a wheelchair.’ But in the pool, people just thought, Oh, he’s a really good swimmer.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARY JAMES