Sandy Zimmerman knows exactly who she is and why she is here, but that wasn’t always the case.
A former Gonzaga women’s basketball player, Judo national champion and now a physical education teacher on the Fairchild Air Force Base, Zimmerman is a role model in many aspects of her life, one who believes in the power of everyone.
“I have a heart for helping others reach their full potential and helping others grow and learn,” Zimmerman said. “Not just in their subject matter, but as human beings.”
Growth is something Zimmerman is well versed in. She was raised near Tacoma in poverty and on welfare. She even spent time in the foster care system. It wasn’t until she moved away from Spokane at the start of high school that she began to see the potential for something more.
Zimmerman fell in love with the game of basketball and earned herself a full-ride scholarship to GU.
“It was really a ticket out of poverty and out of a rough life,” Zimmerman said. “I got a great education, God was wonderful to me and it just really opened doors and helped me change my family tree. I’m just so grateful that I was able to become a part of the Zag family.”
Zimmerman graduated in 1999 with her teaching certificate and accepted a PE teaching position, the same one she works to this day. That wasn’t, however, the end of her athletic journey.
Six years ago, Zimmerman was at home with her husband and three kids taking a rare chance on channel surfing in hope of finding something they could all watch.
“It was one of those fate things,” Zimmerman said.
"American Ninja Warrior" (ANW) flashed across the screen and instantly they were hooked. ANW is an extreme televised obstacle course that tests the endurance and strength of unrivaled athletes through a series of courses and ends with a $1 million prize. Few have actually made it all the way through to the end, the real challenge is seeing how far you can go among some of the country's best athletes.
Zimmerman knew she had to do it. After running through the emotions of deciding to do something as seemingly crazy as ANW, she only wanted it more.
“Something in my soul was just saying, this is where you’re supposed to be,” Zimmerman said. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I couldn’t shake it.”
After being accepted onto the show, Zimmerman competed twice but her runs were cut short both times due to injury, a misplaced hand or lack of strength. She had to stop and ask herself if she was really meant to be there if she just kept failing.
In 2019, Zimmerman slammed her hand down on the red buzzer. She had conquered the warped wall, made it through every grueling obstacle, to become the first mom on ANW to complete the course.
Her mindset had completely changed that round, it was no longer about the buzzer, she just took it one obstacle at a time. She carried that mindset with her to the most recent season of ANW in which she made it to the first night of the finals. Unfortunately, her run was cut short but she knows that won’t be her last time on the starting platform and she also knows why.
“If you can find your ‘why,’ your motivation is cut in half,” Zimmerman said. “If you can figure out the real reason you’re doing it, it really cuts the workload in half.”
Zimmerman found her “why” her freshman year at GU. She remembers she had just finished basketball practice and she heard a voice in her head telling her she needed to share her story.
“Immediately I was like, no way,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a sad story, I don’t want to share that story.”
A few weeks later she heard the voice again. At the time, it was too painful. Zimmerman didn’t feel healthy enough to feel anything but humiliation and shame for what she had been through and where she came from. Then, after competing in ANW, she heard the voice again. This time she listened.
“When I finally had the courage and confidence to not shut it down right away, I kept listening,” Zimmerman said.
She had the courage and confidence to hear out the voice in her head and what she learned is that her story, as painful as it is, has a happy ending.
“And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, it does,’” she said.
Zimmerman knew then people would benefit from hearing what she went through.
“Did I go through a lot as a kid? Absolutely," Zimmerman said. "I have been sexually abused, physically abused and emotionally abused. I have family members that were incarcerated, had mental illness issues, drug abuse issues, you name it. But what I’ve discovered is everybody is going through something, and everyone needs to see that however dark those days are, there is hope at the end of that.”
Zimmerman has found an outlet for her wisdom and it happens in her own backyard. Backyard may be an understatement because in it, her husband Charlie has built their very own ninja gym complete with over 40 obstacles. It’s here Zimmerman holds classes for everyone ages 7 and up and even trains a group of kids that compete in ANW Jr. and events like it across the country.
Lisa Hoxie met Zimmerman in 2016 after signing her son Daniel up for a class. It wasn’t like any other sports practice she’d ever seen.
“There’s like a core group of adults that just keep coming with their kids and staying,” Hoxie said. “When we could just drop off the kids, we don’t because we love being a part of what’s happening and we love helping Sandy.”
Zimmerman designs each class with 60 to 70 obstacle combinations and the kids spend three to four minutes at each one while the parents help reset everything, Hoxie said. At the end, there is a mini competition and a champion of the class is crowned.
“The way Sandy coaches though, it doesn’t become all about the one who wins,” Hoxie said. “She always takes time to talk about a child that accomplished something they were afraid to do. And, she always relates it to a life principle.”
There’s always an opportunity for a lesson at the Ninja Fortress, as her backyard has been dubbed, and that’s what Hoxie believes makes it so special.
“She’s a teacher, and that doesn’t leave her at all,” she said. “She has a way with kids who have everything against them. That leadership brings out the best in all of us.”
Tara Smith also has a son who trains with Zimmerman in the Ninja Fortress. For them, it's more than a sport it’s a family.
“There are a handful of us that have only children and that during quarantine has been rough,” she said. “But these kids, these are his siblings.”
While Zimmerman is prepping the kids for their competition she hasn’t lost sight of her own. Her next goal for ANW is to be the last woman standing, and who knows if she’ll stop there.
“The longer I stay alive and the further I make it on the show, it gives me a platform to get the message out there,” she said. “That we never have to stop dreaming. It doesn’t matter our age, it doesn’t matter our gender, don’t put limits on yourself. If people don’t laugh at your dream, it’s not big enough.”