Disabled swimmer wants gold

Jeremy Taff

It took only five years for 12-year-old Justin Zook to be the third-best long-distance swimmer in the world. And while he dreams of getting sponsored, he says he has much more work to do.
Going into the U.S.A. Swimming Disability Championships at the Aquatic Center last weekend, Zook ranked third in the world for the 1,500 freestyle for his disability classification.
Zook has one leg longer than the other, and half of his right foot is missing. After his second surgery when he was 5 years old, his parents decided it was time to install a pool in their back yard so he could rehabilitate his leg. Since then, they haven’t been able to get him out of the water.
“He’s been much more comfortable in the water than on land for a long time,” said Stuart Zook, Justin’s dad.
At the Aquatic Center on Sunday, Zook won his division and broke his own American record by more than 23 seconds with a time of 19:52.64.
He will jet off to New Zealand for the world games in October.
“I just want to get a medal,” Zook said humbly as he pondered the possibility of snatching a sponsorship from Gatoraid. “I like it, but…”
But Zook’s ultimate goal is to make the Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia in the year 2000.
“He was the state champ against the best able-bodied swimmers in the state this March,” Justin’s coach Erin Anderson, a University alumni and swimmer said. “The crowd gave him a standing ovation.”
Justin practices for two hours in the early morning six days per week with a day of rest on Sunday — unless he has a swim meet that day, which happens twice per month.
“Sometimes I think it’s a form of child torture,” said Jeanine Zook, Justin’s mom. “But he wants to do these things, so we let him.”
The 1998 International Paralympic World Swimming Championships will be the second ever held; the first took place in Malta in 1994. Fifty-five nations and 585 athletes are set to participate.
Zook said he will not be taking the month-long vacation from swimming he usually takes from mid-August to mid-September. Instead, he’ll be preparing for the competition.
“He usually beats me to the pool,” Anderson said. “He hates to miss practices.”
One aspect of his sport that Zook is working on improving is his turn. He is unable to bend his leg on the turn, which can sometimes cause him to lose time.
Most of the time, however, Anderson said Zook is a fish in water.
“Lots of days I forget he has a disability,” she said. “I think he does too.”