When the Gonzaga University Zags play their basketball games on TV, as they will at 1 p.m. today, I am often more interested in the crowd, because there are so many Spokane folks there. And I look for the cheerleaders, a habit that started when Rhiannon Fabian cheered the team on during its 1999 Cinderella run to the Elite Eight.
As Zag fever grows contagious once again in our community, it seemed the right time to tell Rhiannon’s story. I first met her in 1998 when I taught a journalism class at GU. Rhiannon was my class star. She possessed brains, beauty and kindness. She later did an internship at KHQ and at the Inlander and excelled at both.
In the spring of 2001, when Rhiannon was a senior, she told me she was planning to marry Mike Nilson. Mike had been one of the team’s star players in the 1999 run to history. When he ruptured his Achilles tendon just as tournament play started the next season, a groan was heard throughout Zag Land.
Rhiannon, who graduated with a 3.97 GPA, wouldn’t be pursuing a career in journalism, she told me, but instead would follow Mike overseas as he played basketball.
She sensed my disappointment. I reacted like the Julia Roberts character, Katherine, in “Mona Lisa Smile.” Katherine, an art history professor at Wellesley College in the 1950s, encourages women to use their full potential. One brilliant young woman gets into Yale Law School, thanks to help from Katherine. The student gives up this opportunity to get married. When Katherine protests, the student reminds her that true freedom for women means the freedom to make their own choices.
Mike was picked up by a pro team in Düsseldorf, Germany, and the newly married couple moved there in the summer of 2001. Rhiannon worked as a teacher’s aide in an international school and the couple hung out with Ryan Floyd, another ex-Zag, and his wife Sundei. It was a good time.
The couple returned to Spokane in March 2002, thinking they’d only be here a few months before returning to Germany for Mike’s second season. Their bags were packed for Düsseldorf when they learned the team had lost its sponsors.
They made the decision to stay in Spokane, though as a bright, energetic duo, they could have settled anywhere. “When we were in Germany, this was the one place we missed,” Rhiannon said.
Mike landed a job as strength and conditioning coach for GU’s sports teams. The former business major also opened up, with two partners, U-District Physical Therapy and Institute of Sports Performance near downtown Spokane.
I met up with Rhiannon there Thursday. She coordinates the front desk in between studying for a master’s degree in education. Her work in Germany with young people opened up her true calling – teaching. Rhiannon will student-teach at Arlington Elementary School in northeast Spokane in January.
Rhiannon, 25, was just as I remembered – smart, funny and gentle in spirit. During her years in the Zags limelight, she’d wink when the national sports cameras focused on GU’s cheer squad, hoping her mom would catch it in Helena.
“We were part of something that was great, that was bigger than us,” she said. “I still miss it.”
During halftime now at GU games, she meets up with friend and former cheerleader Dorcey Earle. They critique the current cheerleaders – “in a nice way” – and share their dream to coach cheerleading together someday.
But Rhiannon doesn’t live in the past. She and Mike are too busy building their future. They are escaping the destiny of some former star athletes, and their spouses, who never quite adjust to life outside the limelight, who fade to bitterness as the memory of past glory fades.
Life is more cruel to former athletes than we talk about. Their magic time as heroes passes so quickly and then they get dunked back into oblivion. Education and a sense of community provide a safety net. Rhiannon and Mike have both. We are fortunate to have them back among us.