The Paralympics take place every four years right after the Olympics and are held for those with physical disabilities but who still have tremendous talent and ambition. Springfield College alum Justin Zook has become something of a star at these games and took home a gold medal at the 2012 Paralympics back on Sept. 4 in the 100-meter backstroke in world-record fashion.
“I am not quite sure winning the gold medal has really set in yet, I am still a bit in shock,” said Zook in an e-mail. “Being able to look up into the crowd after I won and point to my family and then over to my coach on deck is a moment I will never forget.”
Already the Paralympic record holder, Zook entered the pool looking to defend both his 2008 and 2004 gold medals in the 100 back. In third after 50 meters, Zook started to catch up to the leader, Michael Anderson of Australia, in the latter half.
Anderson faded and it became a two-man race between Zook and Brazilian swimmer – and world record holder – Andre Brasil of Brazil. As they went into the wall it was Zook who touched first, breaking the world record with a time of 1:00.01, just one tenth of a second ahead of Brasil.
“Life has thrown curveballs at my coach [Tom Frankie] and I over the last 12 months, but we managed to put everything into the right race at the right time,” said Zook.
A 2008 graduate of SC, Zook was born with non-functioning growth plates in his right leg and is missing part of his right foot. Over the years, that leg has been operated on more than 30 times and lengthened by about 18 inches.
“Justin was one of the most talented swimmers in college history,” said Springfield swim coach John Taffe, who is entering his 24th season. “He was able to compete at the same level as most able-bodied swimmers without much use of his lower body when he swam.”
Zook almost did not make it back to the peak of his sport, however. At the World Championships in 2010, Zook placed fourth in his signature event due to what he believes was a change in mindset.
“I think the pressure of winning became the only motivating factor I was relying on between 2008-2010,” recalls Zook. “I went into World Championships in 2010 in the best shape of my life, but just figured the idea of winning could motivate me enough to get out there and perform well.
“A significant portion of swimming is the idea of hating to lose, not wanting to win. At one point all I cared about was winning but before my race I looked at Tom with tears in my eyes and told him I was afraid of losing.”
That is when everything clicked for Zook. Once he rediscovered that mindset everything took off and the history books will tell that story.
One thing remains unclear in this story: will this be the last time we see Justin Zook defend his Paralympic title? Even the man himself is unsure.
“If my body could hold up training the way I have been the answer would be yes without any hesitation, but unfortunately that is not the case currently,” said Zook. “I have a somewhat serious shoulder injury I need to get figured out and then I will start thinking about getting back in the pool.”
Hopefully he can get himself back into the pool and can continue representing his family, his country and, of course, Springfield College at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio Di Janeiro.
Back on Alden Street, Zook’s name remained on the record board at Linkletter Natatorium until Josh Ernst broke his 200-meter backstroke record last winter with a time of 1:54.72.
Watch Justin Zook take gold at the 2012 London Paralympics.
“Justin took control of his swimming and his outcome,” said Zook’s coach, Tom Franke. “He earned the gold medal because he possessed the right attitude, executed the right strategy, and exhibited mental and physical toughness over the second half of the race. Outside of his lousy head position on his start, everything he did was a perfect race and I was just happy to watch it.