Boys Swimming and Diving: Zemke honored by state again
Brainerd head boys swimming and diving coach John Zemke talks about his award-winning season.
BRAINERD — Don’t be fooled by his awe-shucks personality. John Zemke knows what he’s doing.
At least the Minnesota high school swimming and diving community believes he does.
For the fourth time in his career, Zemke was voted the Class 2A Boys Swimming and Diving Coach of the Year.
This year’s award, however, capped off maybe one of his best seasons so far.
Zemke’s 2021-22 resume includes Section 8-2A True Team and Section 8-2A team titles. Brainerd set section records in both the 200-meter medley and 200 free relays. During the season, Brainerd posted a 7-1 dual meet record losing only to Alexandria the Class 1A state runner-up. Brainerd finished seventh at the state True Team meet and sixth at the Minnesota State High School League’s state meet, the highest in school history. Brainerd qualified five swimmers in seven events for this year's state meet. The meet was highlighted by five different swims in the championship finals and four All-State swimmers.
“He’s gotten this award before and it’s a so very well deserved award for him,” Alexandria head swimming and diving coach Kathleen Walker said. “He is highly respected among all of the high school coaches across Minnesota, college coaches alike. He turns out consistently intense competitors on his team year after year after year. It’s a meet that Alexandria always goes into with anticipation and some anxiety probably. I’m not surprised that he got it.”
In his acceptance speech, Zemke acknowledged the loss to Alexandria with a tip of the hat to Walker.
“He’s a great friend of mine and I would love to sit in the stands during one of his practices and watch him coach because I learn something from him each time I talk to him,” she added.
The last time Zemke won the Coach of the Year award was April 9, 2020. He was sitting in the comfort of his own home and had to watch the banquet on his computer because of COVID-19. Upon learning he won the award he walked upstairs to where his wife was sitting and told her the good news. She said “Great.”
This time: “Yeah, she was pretty excited,” Zemke said. “We attended the banquet this year and it wasn’t virtual so she was there and it was special to have her there. I don’t know how excited she was to sit through the two and half hour banquet, but she was definitely excited when she heard my name.”
Zemke was nominated along with Eden Prairie’s Kelly Boston, Minnetonka’s John Bradley, Edina’s Scott Johnson, Spring Lake Park’s Greg Kugler and Lakeville South’s Rick Ringeisen.
I get to witness daily how good he is to our kids and how incredible of a program he runs.
2009 Brainerd High School graduate and current assistant swimming coach at Miami University of Ohio Jake Larson said the award is deserving for Zemke as a coach and a mentor.
“Just what he’s given back to the Brainerd High School swim team and the community through community education swimming in the summer and working with the boys’ team in the winter, there’s probably not a better coach in Minnesota as far as high school swim coaches go.
“His guidance and leadership through high school when I swam with him helped me find my fit at St. Cloud State University. That continued guidance even while I was in college coming back and swimming with him over the summers is a big reason why I’m where I am today. I personally owe John a lot for his guidance.”
Larson admits to stealing much of what Zemke did as a coach for his own practice schedule. Despite knowledge of technique and preparation, Larson said Zemke’s biggest gift is setting the right culture.
“When I swam, not only was it the six-lane pool, but every practice two lanes were going toward the divers,” Larson said. “There were like 50 guys on the team one year so now you’re talking about spreading 50 guys across four lanes and those weren’t ideal practice situations. So the culture you set up and get the guys to buy into is way more important than any training you could do.”
That culture helped nullify any high expectations this year’s team may have felt. Zemke knew, with as much talent returning to his roster Brainerd would have a target on its back. He didn’t change his approach to making his athletes better.
“The expectations were obviously there with so many guys coming back, but, honestly, it felt like any other year,” Zemke said. “Alexandria was always kind of on the radar as far as the conference. For the section meet, we knew all the teams coming back, but we didn’t know how Sartell was going to perform at the section meet. We just did our thing and stayed in our own lane. It was just business as usual and things worked out quite well.”
Jack Freeman couldn’t repeat the sentence “We’re lucky to have John Zemke in Brainerd.” enough. The Brainerd High School activities director said he can’t wait to see what Zemke can do with a new pool facility, which just opened Wednesday.
“He’s the definition of a transformational coach,” Freeman said. “I got to overhear a past parent come up to him Wednesday night at the pool dedication and say what an important person he was in their child’s life when he came through the swim program. It just speaks volumes about the impact a coach has on a kid’s life. John is proof of that.
“We have such incredible coaches and he’s another example of an incredible person in a very important role. I get to witness daily how good he is to our kids and how incredible of a program he runs. To see him be recognized at the state level is so well deserved and really special.”
Recent Warrior swimmer Cade Rosenwald first met Zemke while hanging out with teammate and Zemke’s son Lance. Rosenwald’s initial thought was he was scary because he was the big high school coach. Over at least six years that feeling finally changed.
“He meant a lot to me,” Rosenwald said. “He was my one and only high school coach so he was very important in giving me goals and giving me things to strive for in the sport. You can pretty much talk to him about anything. Around the pool, he’s pretty funny. At meets, you can talk to him like he’s a friend. He’s a very likable person when it comes to coaching.”
Zemke said he tries to connect with his athletes by simply listening and finding out what they’re interested in other than swimming. He said asking his athletes how their day went is a simple, but effective way to build a relationship with them.
It was Rosenwald and the fellow state meet performers who provided the biggest surprise for Zemke this season. It was at the Class 2A State meet and not one, but both Brainerd relays advanced to the championship finals. Not one, but both placed fourth some of the highest finishes in Brainerd history.
“We were hoping top eight,” Zemke said. “But to have two of those finish fourth that was the biggest surprise. And also our individual events that placed at state. Mason Kuepers being in the top eight for the 100 freestyle and those 50 (meter freestyle) guys. Having those two guys (Rosenwald and Thomas Ruhl) in the championship finals and almost having three in the championship finals was very unexpected and something we certainly would have never talked about at the beginning of the year.”
And Zemke and his coaching staff do a lot of talking A lot of evaluating and reevaluating during the season. It’s a cohesive group between assistant coach Carl Schirmer and diving coach Owen Trout.
“Trout and Schirmer, we’ve been together a long time,” Zemke said. “This is my 31st year of swimming overall and we’ve been together for 29. They add so much to our program with knowledge and help in other things like looking at things from a different perspective whether it’s lineups or different situations. They’ve been a big part of all the success we’ve had along with Dan Anderson and Steve Pelkey at the middle school level. Those two men alone have over 80 years of experience coaching swimming. When you have two men like that working with kids on stroke and technique and they’re both excellent at it that’s just great for the program. I’m hoping they’ll stick around for as long as I’m around.
“And it doesn’t stop there. The YMCA Dolphin swim team has been an important part of the success that we have had through the years.”
While this is Zemke’s fourth time winning the award, he said they’re all special.
“We’ve never finished higher than sixth as a team at the state meet and to receive an award, to me, means so much because my peers, the coaches of the state vote on this, and they think I’m doing a good job,” Zemke said. “They understand the situation in Brainerd without having a club team and they realize that if our kids are performing at that high of a level then we’re doing something right. I think that has meant the most and it always has.
“I appreciate my other coaches. Not just for the award, but for the camaraderie that we have. We’re all friends. We all know each other. I’ve learned so much from other coaches.”
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.