At age 12, Joe Zemaitis set a goal that was very out of character for a typical 12-year-old kid. He wanted to run the Iron Man at the youngest age allowed in the race. Six years later at age 18, Zemaitis set the Hawaii Iron Man 19-and-under course record and was the youngest person ever to finish the race in less than 10 hours.
Zemaitis started swimming for a summer league in Virginia, and then joined a club team in Potomac Valley when he was 7 years old. In addition to swimming, he ran cross country through high school and eventually competed at Lake Forest College, where he was a two-time captain of the varsity swim team and a three-time captain for the varsity cross country squad. Following his collegiate career, he raced triathlon internationally, both at the amateur and professional level.
As a side hobby, Zemaitis started to coach summer league swimming, while he pursued a career as a professional triathlete, but felt like something was missing. In 2002, he started Swim Neptune with 15 kids and one pool. In just four short years, the club grew to the point where Zemaitis could not continue to compete and coach.
“I had more fulfillments and joy in watching the athletes I trained reaching their own goals more than I did in achieving my own,” said Zemaitis.
It was then that Zemaitis decided to pursue his love of coaching and stopped competing triathlon professionally to commit to Swim Neptune fulltime.
Zemaitis not only uses goal setting for himself, but attributes it to his main coaching philosophies. As an athlete, he knew that when he felt like quitting or was no longer enjoying the sport, it was because he lost sight of why he was doing it.
“My coaching philosophy really comes back to goals,” said Zemaitis. “These kids are tougher than they think. If they learn how to set goals and channel that energy into getting what they want, I have the ability to take them where they want to go.”
Early in his coaching career, Zemaitis saw the same fire that he once had for competition in a 7-year-old boy. Braxton Bilbrey, one of Zemaitis’ athletes, told his coach of a goal – he wanted to swim from Alcatraz to the city. Bilbrey got the idea after reading an article in Splash Magazine about a 9-year-old boy who made the swim. Zemaitis, who had made the swim several times during the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, committed to training the young athlete over the next six months.
“Is 7 too young to swim from Alcatraz?” said Zemaitis. “Yes, in a million cases, but in this one instance, I knew this kid could go do it.”
Braxton Bilbrey made the estimated 1.4-mile swim from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park in 47 minutes to be the youngest ever to accomplish the feat.
In addition to the swim, Bilbrey wanted to raise awareness for water safety. Unable to find a charity that was interested in supporting his efforts, Zemaitis started the Foundation for Aquatic Safety and Training.
“The foundation is all about kids saving kids,” said Zemaitis of FAST. “We have a club full of kids who feel more comfortable in the water than out of the water, so what better ambassadors for water safety in our community than a group of young swimmers.”
The Alcatraz swim became an annual event for the foundation and, just last year, raised over $25,000 to support water safety and drowning prevention programs in Arizona.
Swim Neptune continues to develop under the leadership of Zemaitis. In just over 10 years, the club has grown to over 500 members and is one of the most successful swim clubs in Arizona with seven state championship titles to show for it.
“It is not about winning or the points,” said Zemaitis. “It is about doing things right, and pursuing your goals with everything you have. Results are going to follow and take care of themselves.”
For more information about FAST, please visit http://thefastfoundation.com.