Joe Zemaitis is an inspirational athlete, coach, teacher and author from Arizona.
“As a coach, I was motivated to help swimmers because I believe every child has a core genius, a natural talent, something he or she is particularly good at. In almost every child’s life there is someone or something that brings out the very best in them.
For the kids that’s what the Foundation for Aquatic Safety and Training – FAST – is all about: kids saving kids. Both the lives of the swimmers involved and the lives of the high-risk children they reach with our drowning prevention message are changed forever. FAST Talkers and FAST’s Water Safety for Refugees programs are helping make Arizona water safer for children. We also sponsor major media events designed to keep the drowning prevention message in the media spotlight all year long.
I am passionate about health and education issues and using sports to help kids excel in life.”
Whether it is writing a book (Joe’s Rules) or becoming the youngest person to break the 10-hour mark in the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championship, Zemaitis has always been on the go, physically, intellectually and creatively.
The head coach of Swim Neptune explains, “We train hard so the impossible become imaginable and the imaginable becomes achievable. It is a lesson that I learned in life that has extended far beyond water’s edge.”
Most recently, the 38-year-old developed the concept of the Triple Crown of Stage Swims, a three-event series for solo marathon swimmers that requires the successful solo completion of a lake stage swim in Arizona, a river stage swim in New York, and an ocean stage swim in Hawaii, three completely different challenges that stretch across the United States.
Last year, both he and Devon Clifford pioneered the achievement with Zemaitis completing the trio of swims a few months before the 28-year-old Clifford. He explains, “This challenge encourages swimmers to attempt three very different and incredibly compelling events that represent some of the best that our sport has to offer.”
They are the first swimmers to complete the Triple Crown of Stage Swims, a three-event series for solo marathon swimmers that requires the successful solo completion of a lake stage swim in Arizona (SCAR Swim Challenge), a river stage swim in New York (8 Bridges Hudson River Swim), and an ocean stage swim in Hawaii (Au I Na Mokupuni Ekolu Endurance Challenge Invitational), three completely different challenges that stretch across the United States.
Zemaitis talked about his career:
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What are the ten swims that you wanted to originally do?
Joe Zemaitis: Two years ago, I made a list of ten swims I wanted to do: 8 Bridges, Molokai Channel, Loch Ness, Maui Channel, North Channel, Lake Tahoe, Ice Mile, 40 Bridges, Tsugaru Channel, and Cook Strait. I have the first four done, planning on the next 3 this year, and the others further down the road. The list is getting longer, not shorter as I find more cool swims to add quicker than I can complete the ones on the list.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: If you had 2 years to focus on swimming – and nothing else – and had an unlimited travel budget and no other cares in the world, what swims would you do?
Joe Zemaitis: This is something I haven’t really thought about because I plan everything to fit in the financial and time constraints. I guess I’d say attempting to do a swim of at least 10K in 100 countries in the two years. Unlimited travel budget and no other cares in the world—that sounds about right. Also, a 10K+ swim at Point Nemo—that would be amazing.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You wrote a book called Joe’s Rules. What audience are you trying to reach with this book?
Joe Zemaitis: I wrote the book over ten years ago as a way to encapsulate my philosophy of kids and sports. The audience is intended to go far beyond swimming. The subtitle is How Every Parent Can Help Their Child Excel in Life-Through Sports. So the target audience is parents who want what is best for their kids.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You nearly won a Rhodes scholarship. What was your goal at that time?
Joe Zemaitis: I set long term seemingly impossible goals before I even knew what I was doing. I finished the Hawaii Ironman at age 18 as the result of a goal I set when I was 12. I entered college with the goal of winning one of the hardest scholarships t-the Rhodes. While I didn’t get it, I enjoyed the pursuit and found solace in knowing I put in a full effort to get what I wanted. It definitely helped keep me on track in college. I finished my freshman year with a 3.85 GPA and met with a dean about what I would need to do to have a shot at the Rhodes Scholarship. He said, “Well to start with you better not let your GPA drop any lower.” That was the wakeup call I needed.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You train your swimmers to do the impossible. What are some of your favorite workouts – for your different age groups?
Joe Zemaitis: Our workouts are really geared for speed, so it’s pretty much the opposite of what I do when I train. Swimmers need to train the way they want to race. My ‘races’ are long and (relatively) slow so I train long and slow. In age group swimming around 70% of the races take about two minutes or less. If you want to go fast you have to train fast. Many of our sets are front loaded with the hardest effort and/or shortest rest in the beginning of the set. This challenges the swimmer to maintain technique and speed under stress and fatigue.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How do you coach adult (masters) swimmers differently than young (age group) swimmers?
Joe Zemaitis: It’s completely different. The masters group I coach is pretty low key and a small, really fun group of swimmers at different levels. The core of the group has been together for over ten years. I swim the workout with them and have talked all of them into doing the Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge swims at least once (and some seven times!). The Age Group swimmers who I coach are top level swimmers pursing Sectionals, Junior Nationals, and Olympic Trials. Their training is more specific to the events they are pursuing and much more intense.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How do you coach open water swimmers differently than pool swimmers?
Joe Zemaitis: I really don’t coach open water swimmers. I coach a lot of pool swimmers who are trying open water and who do our annual Alcatraz/Golden Gate Bridge swims. So the open water races they are doing take less than half as long as our typical practice. It’s not really training for open water as much as it is acclimating to the challenges and new experiences of open water. The training occurs in the pool. We will go to the lakes around Phoenix 6-8 times over the winter in water that’s 50-60°F so it’s good training for what they are expecting in the San Francisco Bay.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How do you prepare for ocean swims living and training in Arizona?
Joe Zemaitis: I do nearly all my training in a 25 yard pool. I just have to work with what I’ve got. It’s tough in the summer when it’s hard to keep pools under 85°F with the Arizona heat. When I’m preparing for a major channel swim I’ll shoot for weeks of about 50,000 yards. I’ve always thought that swimming is swimming. If you do the right kind of training in the pool it will translate to open water. So far it’s working out pretty well. You have to work with what you’ve got. So until we have an ocean in Arizona I’ll have to improvise.
Joe Zemaitis: People have been mistaking John for my twin my whole life. It bothered me that people thought we were twins when I was 12 and he was 9. It doesn’t bother me anymore. John has always been bigger, stronger, and faster than me. He achieved much more than I did in the pool with Senior National cuts and a Division 1 swimming scholarship. I’ve got the endurance edge so it works out really well as we do nearly all our swims tandem. We have very different approaches to training and we don’t train together — you should talk to him sometime about his training, it’s a fascinating approach — but what we do works for each of us and the tandem swims have been a lot of fun.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Do you have any future books or long-range grandiose projects or plans that you can share?
Joe Zemaitis: Out of the water I’m working on and 1100+ day streak of running at least 20 minutes a day. It’s a great mental challenge since 20 minutes isn’t enough to break you down and no matter how tired/busy/etc. I haven’t yet had a good enough excuse to miss a day. I’m training to run the Boston Marathon in April so that should be another fun endurance challenge to kick off the year.
John and I are working on fleshing out some long-range plans and projects. It mostly involves doing fun swims in cool places. Not at the point where we’ve got enough to share just yet, but will let you know as soon as it is ready.
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