Moments after touching the wall in his final race at the Speedo Junior National Championships in Minneapolis last August, Adam Zimmer had to hurry to get out of the pool area.
He had a flight to catch.
“He literally finished swimming junior nationals in Minnesota and we put him on a plane to Africa,” Adam’s mom, Denise, said.
The Missoula Big Sky senior, who gets just a two-week break from swimming all year, chose to spend his free time helping others. For 15 days, he and other high school students from around the world helped offer basic health care to the different villages that make up the larger city of Cape Coast, Ghana.
Drawing blood or administering malaria tests takes hard work and dedication, not to mention a steady hand and an attention to detail. At a leprosy camp in Ghana, Zimmer put his listening skills to work, too, while providing treatment and comfort.
“I actually felt like I was helping and they really appreciated it,” Adam said. “We didn’t speak the same language which was tough, but it was awesome.”
It’s those skills that have helped Zimmer flourish as both a person and a swimmer on this side of the pond.
Upon returning from the western gulf of Africa, Zimmer was thrust into the college recruiting scene. He took solo trips to Kentucky, Indiana and eventually Duke University. It was a process Adam had some familiarity with, though. His sister, Kate – once a standout swimmer at Missoula Big Sky, too – now swims at LSU, and she helped Adam in the recruiting process.
“She always inspired me,” he said. “I saw her do all these amazing things – make nationals and get a college scholarship; it’s always something that I’ve looked up to and wanted to accomplish myself.”
And now he has. In November, Adam signed to swim at Duke. Zimmer, a 4.0 student, landed an opportunity to continue his illustrious swimming career and a chance to pursue his interest in the medical field.
The Blue Devils reeled in one of the best swimmers the state of Montana has ever seen.
The two-time high school All-American is the state record holder in the 100-yard breaststroke and 200 individual medley – two of the most technical races in the water.
“It’s a timing stroke and timing strokes are the toughest to do and do well – not everyone can do the breaststroke,” said Helen Houlihan, the coach of all three Missoula high school teams. “A lot of people just don’t have the tools to do it and Adam’s got those.”
Zimmer’s ability to grasp new techniques and quickly apply them in the pool has helped the senior take seconds off his times each season. He set the state-record in the 100 breaststroke at last year's state meet, touching the wall in 56.05 seconds. That broke his own record-setting time from 2015 (56.42).
He shaved off another 0.38 seconds from his 2015 state-best time in the 200 IM. Zimmer finished the race at 1:52.55 to win state in 2016.
At the Speedo Winter Junior Nationals on Dec. 7-10, Zimmer topped his record-setting time in the breaststroke. He swam a 55.46 – his fastest time ever – finishing seventh overall out of 100 of the nation’s best swimmers.
His time is already within the automatic All-America threshold (56.09), although All-American times must be raced at the state meet.
Now heading into the thick of the high school swim schedule, Zimmer said he felt as strong in the pool that day as he ever has.
“I usually get really nervous for these meets, and maybe always don’t perform my best, but this meet I was relaxed and just wanted to go out there and swim my best times,” the three-time breaststroke and two-time IM state champ said. “I mean, I know I’ve been working hard all season, and I was just confident in the work I’ve put in so far.”
That work started at a young age when both Adam and Kate, three years his elder, began to swim as just a means of exercise.
The two – who were both student body president at Big Sky (Adam is currently co-president) – took to the water well. They soon started to be each other’s biggest competition.
“I remember the first time he started beating me,” Kate said. “He was pretty young, and finally he started beating me – we were so competitive – and I’d get really angry at him. It was really funny.”
The siblings also became each other’s biggest fans. Although the two swam different races – Kate is still the girls' state record holder in the 100-yard butterfly (56.07) – they were always in the pool together. Sometimes it wore on them.
“… I was zoning out and eating (cheese) slowly, and she started freaking out at me in the car for eating my cheese too slow," Adam said.
“He was eating it really annoyingly,” Kate interjected.
“So we got in a cheese fight – she almost kicked me out of the car,” Adam recalled, laughing. “She’s kicked me out of her car on the way to practice so many times.”
“It’s because we trained together so much, we spent every day together,” Kate added.
The time spent in the pool, though, paid off. The two credit the tutelage of former MAC head coach and Olympic champion Dave Berkoff for planting the seed to their swimming success.
“I remember when I was 13, (Berkoff) sat us down to talk to us about Olympic trials and all this stuff, so we always learned to dream really big,” Kate said.
Berkoff points to the Zimmers’ time they’ve put in as the reason for their success.
“… I think they understand that when you’re serious about something and you want to get better at a sport like this which takes a lot of individual work, you can’t cut corners and you cant make mistakes that other kids make,” Berkoff said. “They’ve really learned from that and I think it makes them better humans in the long run.
“Swimming is just part of this journey they’re on and it really gives them a lot of discipline and structure in their lives that I think they can take with them wherever they go and the next things they do in life.”