Cal swimming's secret weapon is also its inspiration

BERKELEY, Calif. -- The California men's and women's swim teams have combined to win seven NCAA championships and six Pac-12 titles in the past decade. Prosperity has become a fixture at the Spieker Aquatics Complex, which floats in a sea of smiles, high-fives and in-race shouts of encouragement these days. More than halfway through the 2015-16 season, both squads only have one loss each, so the good times are rolling.

A multitude of factors have fueled the Golden Bears' success. They've been recruiting at an elite level -- Olympic sensation Missy Franklin, who recently finished her two-year career here, is the most famous example. Combine that with excellent coaching by respected leaders David Durden and Teri McKeever, and the recipe for muscle-flexing performances is there.

There may be another component of the Bears' winning formula, though. One that isn't as readily visible.

It resides in the presence of 14-year-old Jack Zembsch, a local swimmer who Cal honorarily recruited in 2014. Zembsch was born with metatropic dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism that gave his spine, as his mother Kim describes, the consistency of a wet graham cracker. The disorder stunted his growth and pushed him to the verge of becoming a paraplegic, until at age 7 he successfully overcame a pair of treacherous surgeries designed to straighten his body through the insertion of titanium rods.

"You can mess this surgery up," Kim says. "A small mistake can tear the central nervous system cord. Most kids older than Jack who have had old, traditional surgeries are paraplegics."

But Zembsch pulled through the entire ordeal. Now he's poolside at every Bears home meet.

"Jack is such a wonderful spirit," Durden, head coach of the Bears' men's team, says. "This is a grind-it-up sort of sport. You have to enjoy the grind and the hardship. What we're doing is nothing compared to what he's doing. It inspires you to keep moving forward. The attitude that he has is tremendous. You want everyone to mirror that and mimic that."

Zembsch still cannot stand upright. He must fly to Delaware every six months to undergo surgeries to extend the length of a vital titanium device in his back. He has undergone 12 such operations (and counting) since the major ones in 2009, but has managed to make the cut for his Moraga, California, swim team, the Waves. Zembsch also plays golf and is the coxswain of his middle school crew team. But swimming is his favorite sport, so he cherishes his opportunity to be a part of a premier NCAA program.

"It's very invigorating," Zembsch says. "It's inspiring. I was expecting all the [Cal swimmers] to just be friendly and polite. But it's been like a real friendship, not a fake one. There's nothing worse than someone faking it, because it's quite obvious when they're just doing it to be polite. That's why being sincere is so important."

The Bears did indeed make Zembsch's introduction to the team -- facilitated by Team IMPACT, a Boston-based organization that has matched more than 800 children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses with college athletic teams -- as genuine as possible. Cal "recruited" Zembsch, gave him a tour of campus that included a one-on-one chat in both head coaches' offices, and held a ceremony during which he signed a national letter of intent.

The Bears outfitted Zembsch with "national champions" team gear, and he's now part of pre-meet introductions and the post-meet high-five line. This past Saturday, that involved a greeting from Arizona State's Bob Bowman, best known as the coach of Olympic legend Michael Phelps.

"Being around all these great swimmers and coaches inspires me to work my hardest," Zembsch says. "I want to be the best person I can possibly be."

While Cal has striven to deliver the most enriching experience possible for Zembsch, it's apparent that benefits travel both ways here. Bears swimmers rave about the positive effect that Zembsch's infectious curiosity and energy has on their program.

"It's definitely a two-way street," senior Kelly Naze says. "It's taught me that life is not about a swimming time; it's about a journey. Just Jack's pure passion for life, that's really encouraged me to reach out and do other things than swimming. Sometimes, I worry that we don't communicate to him that he does so much for us."

Fellow senior Nick Dillinger echoes that sentiment. He remembers a time Zembsch snuck off the bench during a meet. When the swimmers spotted him a few moments later, Zembsch was playing the drums for the Cal band. There are also stories of Zembsch performing magic tricks for other children in the hospital when he's checked in for one of his frequent procedures, and Dillinger repeats them with a smile.

"For me, it extends beyond swimming," Dillinger says. "Jack goes outside of himself to improve the situation for everyone else."

Improving his own situation has been anything but a cakewalk for Zembsch. His hips were not abducting normally when he was 3 months old, so his parents took him for X-rays.

"Thirty minutes later, a whole bunch of doctors descended on the room and said, 'Nothing about your son is normal,'" Kim Zembsch says. "It was a mystery for a while until we found an expert who diagnosed it as a very rare bone disease. One in 10 million. You're 10 times more likely to find conjoined twins than Jack."

Jack Zembsch's body began twisting and curving. His back reached a 110-degree angle by age 6, and he had a hard time breathing and keeping food down.

"At some point, his lungs were going to outgrow his body," Kim says.

Two extremely delicate surgeries would be required. Only one doctor, William Mackenzie at Delaware's Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, had ever successfully performed them on children with metatropic dysplasia. The first involved cutting Zembsch's ligaments and tendons to release the spine. That was followed by a 10-week waiting period during which he hung in constant halo traction to stretch his body. This increased capacity for Zembsch's lungs.

The second operation attached titanium rods to Zembsch's rib and hip bones. These were designed to improve the angle of his body, but their insertion was dangerous because of the fragile vertebrae composition associated with the condition.

Zembsch went back into the halo brace for five weeks afterward. At the time of release, he hadn't felt gravity for 100 days, so Zembsch had lost almost all muscle function and had to learn to walk again. He eventually resumed swimming, managing a practice schedule around the biannual operations to extend the rods in his back.

"I don't get nervous before races," Zembsch says. "I have this way of just handling it. I handle a ton of nerves with my surgeries, so I think that's where it comes from."

Reaching the point of competing was a challenge in and of itself. Maureen Bettis, a private swim specialist, worked extensively with Zembsch to build a modified freestyle stroke that emphasized heavy rotation so he could breathe. After three years of hard work and plenty of frustration, Zembsch was able to complete a full lap -- and thus cleared to race for the Moraga Waves.

"I'm not as fast as the other kids," Zembsch says. "So I just focus on popping my time. There's euphoria that comes with that. There's pride in the achievement."

The joy and satisfaction that have come from swimming have carried over to other facets of Jack's life. His father, Mark Zembsch, was a coxswain on the United States national crew team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, so seeing his son perform that same role with success -- albeit on a lower level -- has been particularly rewarding for the family.

"It has all been coming together recently," Mark says. "Jack's allowed to be competitive and fearless. And that allows him to be the best person he can be with every challenge that he has."

Those trials have extended out of the sporting realm, as Zembsch has applied confidence that he has found through swimming and crew to his school's debate team. And in a visit that underscored the Cal swim team's appreciation of the persevering presence Jack brings to the pool, Dillinger recently attended one of those debate competitions.

"It's more of what Jack's giving to me than what I'm giving to him," fellow Bears swimmer Celina Li says. "I've gotten back so much. He always has a smile on his face, exuding this positive energy that makes each and every one of us better."