By Mike Max

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Justin Zook has spent much of his life in the water. Now, he’s passing on what he’s learned as the swimming coach at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School.

He’s already had a few years of success, restoring respect among the team and winning big competitions.

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“With the boys, they had won three meets collectively between 2011 to 2014,” Zook said. “My first year, we won six.”

The coach has a strong background in swimming, of course, but there was a lot of adversity throughout his career. A genetic issue in his leg has led to 32 surgeries.

So his days competing included three trips to the Paralympics, where he found a thrill he had not envisioned.

“I didn’t really know what to expect going into it, in my first games in 2004,” he said. “We had 8,000 people in the stadium. Then in 2008 it was about 10,000. Then in London, every night was sold out.”

We already had an idea of Zook’s future in the pool, because 18 years ago we featured him on WCCO as a young boy who had already completed 20 surgeries and was already making a splash in the sport.

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Even back then, Zook was a tenacious competitor who wouldn’t let his disability change his calling in life.

“When I was little, lots of doctors said I wouldn’t be able to walk, or I might need glasses or I wouldn’t be able to play sports,” he told us back then. “I still try. I don’t just give up right away.”

Maybe that’s why he’s seen so much success as a coach — adversity is never an excuse.

“We really have nothing to complain about when we see what he’s done with the circumstances that he’s in,” Armstrong swimmer Harrison Collins said. “It’s really humbling.”

“We had a lot of kids who didn’t necessarily know what they’re capable of,” Zook said. “I firsthand got to see that if I put in enough work, I could succeed long term.”

That’s why he says being a coach has been so fulfilling — it pulls together everything that he loves.

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“I’ll be honest, I love coaching high school a little bit more than I thought I was going to,” he said. “If this could be a job that paid the bills and I wouldn’t have to do anything else, then God, I would really love it.”

Mike Max