March 1, 2017
By Jake Maier
Jamaica is a sprint country.
The list of short-distance athletes that call Jamaica their home is impressive. Among them are Usain Bolt, the reigning “fastest man on earth;” Asafa Powell, a one time world record holder; and two-time olympic gold medalist, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
This past December, Notre Dame’s Justin Plaschka added his name to this list of elite Jamaican sprinters. Plaschka, however, does not flash his speed on the track, but rather in the pool. At the FINA World Swimming Championships (Short Course), held in Windsor, Ontario, Plaschka set three Jamaican national records in the 100 butterfly, 50 butterfly and 50 backstroke, making him one of the fastest Jamaicans in water.
This was not the first record-setting performance for Plaschka, who holds the top marks in the 50 freestyle, 100 butterfly and both the 200 and 400 freestyle relays at Notre Dame, but it was by far the most meaningful.
“It is an honor to be able to say I did this for my country.” Plaschka remarks. “I am so happy that I have been able to get where I am and I want to continue to get better. Seeing my name up there with some of the greatest Jamaican athletes pushes me to work harder. I want to make an even bigger impact.”
Plaschka was born in the United States, but he is only a first generation American. His father is from Germany and his mother was born in Jamaica. While he was in high school, Plaschka decided to take advantage of his familial roots and obtain dual citizenship. United States laws only allow for its residents to have citizenship in one other country, however, so Plaschka had to choose. The decision was a no-brainer.
“I felt much closer to the Jamaican side of my family,” says Plaschka. “I’ve gone on many trips to Jamaica and I spend a lot of time with my mom’s family. Most of them moved to the United States so I see them often, which has helped me to become very in tune with my Jamaican heritage.”
For any swimmer, the ultimate goal is to swim in the Olympic Games. As the the season evolved in the spring of 2016, an opportunity to represent Jamaica later that summer in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, became a real possibility for Plaschka. Sadly, a bit of bad luck and Olympic sanctions prevented him from making the dream become a reality.
“I missed the Olympic A-cut by three-tenths of a second, which would automatically allow me to participate.” explains Plaschka. “Jamaica is still considered a developing country in the eyes of the Olympic committee so the team can only bring one male and one female swimmer that has a B-cut. Those spots on the team are usually chosen based on seniority within the national team.”
Despite losing a spot on the Olympic team, Plaschka was determined to prove himself worthy and did so at the FINA Swimming World Championships this past December. He registered a 52.31 in the 100 butterfly to smash the Jamaican record by four seconds. He wasted no time setting two more records in the 50 butterfly (23.92) and the 50 backstroke (25.01).
“I was actually surprised I broke the 50 fly and 50 backstroke records,” says Plaschka. “Breaking the 100 fly record was a goal I had been working towards. As soon as I finished the race I knew I had done it because my coaches and my team were going crazy. In the other two races, I didn’t even know I broke the record until I talked to my coaches after getting out of the pool.”
After falling short in his goal to compete in Rio, his most recent accomplishments have eased the disappointment and filled him and his family with pride.
“It was such a relief to finally get the records,” he explains. “It was something I had been working for and finally achieved it. To be able to swim the fastest time by a Jamaican fills me with a lot of pride and joy. My mom has always been a role model for me and I wanted to make her proud by just competing for Jamaica and I was blessed enough to do so much more.”
Plaschka is very passionate about representing his country and loves giving back to those that support him. The national spotlight has already presented him with some new and unique experiences.
“I was surprised when I got my first fan letter in the mail,” he says. “A little boy wrote to me explaining that he was a huge fan. I wrote him back and gave him a signed picture of me and a swimming T shirt. He replied with a picture of him wearing my shirt and holding up the autographed photo I sent him. It was just awesome to know that I had kids and fans looking up to me and having the chance to show my gratitude.”
Representing Jamaica in the next Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 remains Plaschka’s top goal, but currently he is focused on representing his university. As an accomplished veteran on the team, he has taken over more of a leadership role.
“As an upperclassman on the team, I don’t approach meets or practices, or even the day itself differently,” he explains. “I try to be encouraging to guys who have bad days. I’m not a very outspoken guy so I try to lead by example and show a great work ethic in and out of the pool.”
The 2017 ACC Championships presents an imminent challenge for Plaschka and the Irish swimmers. Last year, he was the runner-up in the 100 fly with a time of 46.37 and led the 400 free relay to a second place finish with a 43.05 leadoff split. He is looking to improve not only his individual performance, but the team’s as well.
“Our team goal is to surprise a lot of people. Most people don’t think we are as strong a program as we really are. We are a team that wants to show that we can compete and we will be bringing the heat.”
While he has numerous accomplishments under his belt already, Justin Plaschka’s career is just beginning. The future will be exciting as he continues to etch his name into history as one of the fastest Notre Dame swimmers and as a legendary Jamaican sprinter.
Update: Since the completion of this story, at the ACC Championship, Justin Plaschka finished second in the 50 freestyle to olympic gold medalist Ryan Held of North Carolina State University. He registered a time of 19.38, a new school record for the event. Plaschka also earned two bronze medals as part of the squads that earned third in the 200 medley relay and 200 freestyle relay.
Jake Maier is a senior at the University of Notre Dame and the Assistant Director of Student Writers for Fighting Irish Media, working closely with the Track and Field, Swimming and Diving, Basketball and Baseball programs. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Maier is majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and will attend medical school upon graduation.