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Boys Swimming and Diving: Zemke gets coach of the year

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Brainerd swim coach John Zemke talks to the boys swim team before practice Nov. 27, 2019, at the Brainerd High School pool. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

It may have been the most anti-climatic win in John Zemke’s career.

At around 6:45 p.m. Thursday, April 9, Zemke was named the Minnesota Swimming and Diving Coaches Association Class 2A Boys Coach of the Year. He was sitting alone in front of his computer when the announcement was made.

“My two kids were down at the farm with grandma and grandpa,” Zemke said. “Kristin (John’s wife) was upstairs watching something else and I just thought I would tune in and watch for awhile. Little did I know.”

Because of COVID-19, the coaches association’s All-State banquet, which celebrates both boys and girls swimming teams, athletes and coaches was broadcast live over Facebook. At 6:14 p.m. Jen Marshall, the all-state banquet administrator, and Colm Griffin, the banquet master of ceremony, reported live from the Farmington High School Aquatic Center. Various awards were announced during a 34-minute video. The final award was for the 2A Boys Coach of the Year.

Eden Prairie’s Kelly Boston, Maple Grove’s Matt Caron, Amanda Forsberg of St. Louis Park, Linda Freeman of Rochester Century, Edina’s Scott Johnson, Chanhassen/Chaska’s Joe Mau, Kristen Philips and Robby Kendall of Minnetonka, Jeff Sanders of Minneapolis Washburn and Zemke had their names announced as candidates for the award.

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And the award went to Zemke. He then walked upstairs and told his wife.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m the coach of the year,’: Zemke said. “She said, ‘great’ and that was about it.”

Zemke’s award didn’t go uncelebrated, however, Brainerd activities director Charlie Campbell tweeted out at 7:06 p.m. “Breaking: Brainerd’s John Zemke named Class 2A Boys Swim Coach of the Year! Way to go, Coach.”

He added the hashtag notsurprisedtho.

“He’s an awesome coach,” said Brainerd High School graduate and current head Hopkins coach Jared Anderson. “He does a great job. It’s cool to see him get the recognition statewide for that.”

Anderson recalled his days as one of Zemke’s swimmers before graduating from Brainerd in 2009. He said even then he was a great mentor and now as a fellow head coach he’s an even greater mentor.

“I felt like training-wise everything he does is meaningful,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of teams and programs where they’ll swim a lot of yards and they’re in the pool a long time, but a lot of it is just kind of going through the motions. I think Zemke does a really good job of making everything meaningful. There is no garbage yardage. There is nothing in a practice that is just kind of a throwaway or just something to do. Everything you’re doing is to improve something specific or get better at something. That really helped me as a swimmer and is kind of the main thing I take away from him as a coach. Just have a reason for everything you do.”

Anderson said during the winter sports season he’ll text Zemke two or three times a week with various questions or insights. He said what separates Zemke and both Brainerd swimming and diving programs is the lack of outside help or interference compared to metro programs.

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“One thing you notice about the Brainerd program is you can see Zemke’s fingerprints on everything,” Anderson said. “A lot of the metro programs, the kids are coming in for the high school season, but then they are going off to various clubs. They’re getting a lot of coaching from a lot of different people. That can be nice and an advantage, but it’s also harder to tell exactly how much has this coach done and how much that coach has done. The Brainerd program you just know Zemke has built that program and the culture. it’s really been him, of course, my dad (Brainerd girls head coach Dan Anderson) and Hal Peterson at the Y. Those three and their staffs are pretty much the ones that build everything there. There is no secret about where the credit should go.”

Zemke had a different take on where the credit should go. Expectations were high for this year’s Warriors boys team, but even Zemke was amazed by what was accomplished. Two championship heat performances at the Class 2A State Meet and a runner-up finish in the Section 8-2A meet were just two highlights.

“We never thought at the beginning of the year that the medley relay, we were just hoping to maybe make it state, but for those four to be in the top eight and Tristan (Dawson) to be fifth in the backstroke and a couple of different school records, it definitely turned out to be a great year,” Zemke said. “It’s the kids. They are the ones who have to put the work in. They’re the ones who have to swim the races. I get to sit back and watch. They make a coach look pretty good when they go out and really perform. It’s one thing to have the talent, but it’s another thing to go out and perform at meets and be mentally ready to go. That mental part is so huge. Everyone talks about it, but it’s so true.”

Former Warrior and current University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire swimmer Michael Bylander had his take on what makes Zemke an award-winning coach.

“He really worked with all of his swimmers and cared about them and wanted them to do their best,” Bylander said. “He had his set of workouts that really helped develop us and then he always ended the season with probably one of the best tapers in the state.”

Zemke said the key was surrounding himself with great assistant coaches in Carl Schirmer and Owen Trout. The trio has been together for about 25 seasons and Zemke said that experience is invaluable.

“Coach Schirmer, he is such a rock,” Zemke said. “He keeps me from not getting too excited and staying on course. He’s talked me off the ledge a few times. Coach Trout does such a great job with the divers. We had so much talent on the diving team this year. Three of those kids are going on to dive in college. My assistant coaches are fantastic.”

This is the third time Zemke has been named coach of the year. Entering his 24th season, Zemke won the award in 2009 and 2018. This is the first time he’s learned about it on Facebook though.

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“Certainly hearing about it while watching it on Facebook was a little bit different when there is normally 600-700 people at the all-state swim banquet,” Zemke said. “It was a fun year and Thursday’s announcement was very unexpected. I never thought that would take place. Just to be nominated was quite the thrill.”

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John Zemke

Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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