Zach Shattuck competes in men's 100 m Breaststroke SB6 during day 2 of the Para Swimming World Championship Mexico City 2017 at Francisco Marquez Olympic Swimming Pool. on December 3, 2017.
Just six years ago, if you had told Zach Shattuck that he was on his way toward becoming a world-class swimmer, he wouldn’t have believed you.
“It did not (occur to me),” he says now. In fact, before 2014, “I had never competed competitively in swimming.”
Today, the 24-year-old world championships and Pan American Games medalist is staying at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, training twice a day with the goal of making the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Swim Team. And while most elite athletes make it to the USOPTC with a decade or more of training under their belts, swimming wasn’t even on Shattuck’s radar until his first year of college.
“It’s definitely like a sport that you’re not really supposed to just jump into when you’re 18,” he laughed.
It’s not that Shattuck wasn’t a very active kid — he was. And it has nothing to do with his dwarfism. Despite being shorter than average he grew up playing every sport he could get involved in, even making the freshman basketball team after a school counselor discouraged him from trying out.
“I basically grew up playing sports,” he said. “Soccer, basketball, wrestling were like the main ones growing up.” At age 7, he told his dad, “I’m gonna be the best dwarf athlete of all time.” Then, he became a county champion in wrestling. And not only did he make it to the varsity level in soccer, but he was made a team captain.
So why did his swimming career start so late? It was simply a matter of chance. At 18, Shattuck had just been accepted into Frostburg State University in his native Maryland, when he decided to participate in the World Dwarf Games, an international competition held once every four years. There, he joined a swim competition “just for the fun of it” and did well. That’s when he decided to talk to the Frostburg State swim coach about joining their team.
Shattuck was grateful for the opportunity to compete at the college level.
“To be able to compete in college as a little person in any sport was like ... I was happy,” he said. “Because that’s what I love to do. I love to compete. I love sports.”
But first, he had to get over a pretty big learning curve.
“I grew up having a decent understanding of the water,” he said.
Shattuck spent countless hours at his family’s cabin in West Virginia and was comfortable in the water. But he didn’t know how to do a flip turn, and only knew a few strokes. Shattuck didn’t let that stop him. Just a year after joining the team, he broke an American record at a college meet.
When Shattuck looks back at his career now, that meet sticks out in his mind.
“That was sort of like the first moment where my coach came up to me and he was like, ‘Yeah you’ve got a shot at this,’” he said. “That was like the eye-opener.”
Suddenly, the Paralympic Games became a possibility, and his swimming became more serious.
“All of a sudden people are talking,” he said. “You sort of realize that it’s become a big deal and you’ve sort of reached that big stage.”
Shattuck medaled at the 2015 Pan American Games and the 2017 world championships, and competed at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. From there, it was clear that his next stop would be Tokyo.
Today, he’s hard at work, hoping to earn his ticket there. He’s isolated at the USOPTC, where he spends his days training, eating, napping, and hanging out with his teammates.
“The goal for 2021 is just to make the team,” he said. If he could make it on the podium at the Paralympic Games, that would be icing on the cake.
He has loftier goals in mind, too. He would like to make it to the 2028 Games in Los Angeles in some capacity — whether as an athlete or a coach. And he wants to make a difference for people with dwarfism. Shattuck credits his short stature for motivating him to be competitive as a kid.
“I think that’s been a driving force for me since I was a little kid,” he said. His whole life, he said, he’s been “Proving everyone wrong.”
To this day, he still proves everyone wrong, by raising awareness of what people with dwarfism can do, in the water and on land. Living with dwarfism, “you sort of live the same life as anyone else,” he said. “You just live in a different altitude basically.”
But he says his biggest goal to prove to kids like him that they can do it, too.
“If I can have records now that are broken in 10 years by someone who watched me swim, that would prove to me that I did something impactful on someone else’s life,” he said. “I proved that there was like opportunities for kids with dwarfism to go out and do whatever they dreamed of doing, even if they didn’t think it was possible.”