Justin Zook prepares to swimJustin Zook is a swimmer who won gold in the 100m backstroke (S10) and bronze in the 50m free (S10) at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games, gold in the 100m backstroke (S10) at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games and gold in the 100m backstroke (S10) at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Sharing the Experience

September 14, 2012

As I sit in the airport thinking about the last 24 hours I really came away from this experience with a few important things I want to share. We arrived yesterday at various times and from various locations, but came together as Team USA from the time we touched down in Washington, DC to the time we are all departing. Walking into the check-in area I was able to locate some of my Paralympic teammates. Not only was I able to recognize some of my teammates, I was able to see some of the Olympic athletes who I had the privilege to watch on television the month prior to the Paralympic Games.

 Justin Zook in Washington
Mariya Koroleva (synchronized swimmer) and I before walking through security this morning 

I was only separated from my team for a few days after arriving back from London on Monday, yet seeing them again immediately brought a smile to my face. One of the biggest things I learned after being part of Team USA is we truly function like a big family. Families laugh, cry, and argue, all in the meanwhile each family members knows at the end of the day they have another person to call when in need. During the reception at Union Station you could take a look around the room and see nothing but smiles. All the athletes and staff sat around sharing stories about the games and their lives since returning from London.

Waking up this morning at 6:00 a.m. was well worth what was awaiting our arrival at the White House. All the athletes gathered in the bleachers around 9:00a.m. in preparation for the President and First Lady to arrive. At 10:00 a.m. the moment arrived and President Obama, the First Lady, and Vice-President Biden walked in. The cameras started flashing and the applause went on for their entire walk up to the podium. Hearing Mrs. Obama speak was a great honor, as she was personable and funny with her speech. President Obama had the difficult task of following his wife’s speech.

One of the most interesting parts about watching President Obama speak was how he addressed the press conference. He did not just talk with his back at the athletes, rather he turned to the side while he spoke so we could all see his face. I think his actions showed a great deal of respect towards the athletes, but also showed his sincerity with his comments. In some ways President Obama appears in awe of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes, which is quite humbling to think about. The person, who is responsible for maintaining much of what this great country is founded upon, is genuinely proud of all the athletes’ competing for the United States of America. President Obama not only acknowledged us for our great achievements, but also delayed his entire schedule to stay and shake hands with each and every athlete.

 Justin Zook in Washington
 Athletes gathering in the bleachers prior to the President's speech

As I sit at the airport now awaiting my flight to Panama City Beach, I begin to wonder how many of us will get this opportunity again. Waiting in line to shake President Obama’s hand I happened to chat with Michael Phelps quick. He asked if I planned on continuing to train or if this was it, and my response was, “I am not getting any younger.” With that in mind, I want to thank the USOC and all the partnering organizations that made this last 24-hours possible. The 2012 White House visit will be the most memorable of my career and I am honored to be a part of Team USA!!!







Cannot Wait to Reunite with Team USA

September 13, 2012

Sitting at the airport I await my flight for Newark, NJ and then off to Washington, DC to reunite with my Paralympic teammates. The opportunity to meet President Obama is one I have not had, but am very excited about. Meeting him will certainly be an honor, and I am looking forward to touring the White House prior to his speech. Being address by President Bush on the White House lawn in 2004 is a memory I remember clearly to this day. The Olympic and Paralympic athletes do not often get the chance to meet; providing us this opportunity to connect with each other in a social setting only reinforces the equality the United States Olympic Committee is attempting to achieve between both Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

Looking back on the 2012 Paralympic Games is something I am looking forward to with my teammates. The Games were something different than I had ever experienced during my 14 years of competing internationally. The reception from the people in London was remarkable. Having 18,000 in the Aquatic Center every night is a testament to the passion the people of London possess for Paralympics. In all honesty, coming back to the United States is a shock and a bit of a reality check. No longer are people asking for my autograph or wanting to take pictures with me, nor is the television set being flooded with advertisements about the Paralympics and their participants. I am thankful for the increased exposure the U.S. team received while overseas, but realize the progress is not done and this weekend should be another chance to help increase awareness about the Paralympics.

I have only been back in the United States for 2 days now, but realize life has not changed significantly. I still have the same great family and friends, but have started asking myself what happens next. Fortunately, next is a four-day weekend filled with spending time with all of Team USA! Many of us were on different flights out of London and did not get to say proper farewells to one another, so the next two days will be a great opportunity to catch up quick and say proper farewell.  Tonight a reception will be held to honor all the Olympians and Paralympians for their outstanding achievements. The opportunity to share stories between Olympic/Paralympic athletes is the best part of the night. Swimming is one of the sports lasting the majority of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, so I know we all look forward to hearing what was going on in other sports.

Justin Zook 

Me and teammate/longtime friend Michael Prout (left).

One opportunity I have been blessed with is taking part in the Beach Party with Ryan Lochte (September 15, 2012) for the Mac Crutchfield Foundation. Mac suddenly passed away after drowning while playing outside in the rain. Mac’s mother, Maggie Crutchfield contacted me about the possibility in taking part in the event after she had seen one of the stories done on me when I was younger. After reading about Mac’s passion for the sport of swimming, and his loving personality, I realized this event is something I would be honored to take part in. The fundraising efforts go towards providing the financial benefit to swimmers who have the desire to swim in college, but do not receive scholarships.

Since World Championships in 2010, I remind myself each day how the real goal was never just about winning a gold medal. Sharing the glory with teammates and watching someone 10 years younger than myself win a gold medal and reflect back to 2004 when I won my first Paralympic gold is what makes the early morning training and time spent in the pool worth it. Funny enough, one of my favorite movies is Cool Runnings. During the movie there is a quote that really represents my attitude toward swimming over the last few years: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without the medal, you'll never be enough with it.” Being able to seize the opportunity to make a difference is what I think the next few years of my life will really be about. I want to help the younger Paralympic athletes get the attention and support they deserve.