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Spokane’s American Ninja Warrior full of hope after losing her homemade course to toppled tree

UPDATED: Fri., April 23, 2021

Sandy Zimmerman stands on the stump of a spruce tree that took out her family’s backyard ninja warrior course during last Sunday’s intense windstorm.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Sandy Zimmerman stands on the stump of a spruce tree that took out her family’s backyard ninja warrior course during last Sunday’s intense windstorm. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

American Ninja Warrior Sandy Zimmerman is no stranger to hardship.

While in Los Angeles for the filming of the American Ninja Warrior Women’s Championship, a windstorm rushed into Spokane and toppled a spruce tree that damaged – maybe destroyed – her Ninja course at home.

She shed some tears. After all, it’s the course she and her husband Charlie Zimmerman have invested in for six years. It’s the course she trained on before each of her American Ninja Warrior seasons and the course she trains dozens of kids on each week.

An outpouring of support from the Spokane and Ninja communities has kept her hopeful. That network is something she’s worked to create.

Zimmerman was 13 when she won the youth national championship for judo. Accustomed to a life in and out of foster homes, enduring abuse and poverty, she came down from the podium with mixed emotions. She looked around at the second- and third-place girls with their proud families. Zimmerman realized her sensei was the only person waiting for her.

She said it was the moment immediately after that descent from the podium that her sensei sparked a profound shift in her self-image. He sincerely told her she could go to the Olympics.

“Inside, my conversation in me was just like, ‘Sensei, kids like me don’t dream dreams like going to the Olympics. Kids like me just try to get through the day and not get hit or get through the day and not go to bed hungry,’ ” Zimmerman said. “But the more I thought about it and let those words sink in, I thought, maybe it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you go through. Maybe I can dream big dreams too.”

Now, as the first mother in 11 seasons of American Ninja Warrior to get up the warp wall and hit the buzzer, Zimmerman is surrounded by support. She’s also a P.E. teacher at Michael Anderson Elementary and ninja coach in Spokane. As coaches were her “lifeline,” she knows she has always hoped to be that support in children’s lives.

As a teen, her dreams of going to the Olympics were dashed when, right before high school, her family moved to Ione, Washington – with a current population under 400. Without a dojo to train in, she felt blocked.

Still, she excelled as a basketball player, landing a full ride at Gonzaga when she was picked for the women’s team.

“That was my ticket out,” Zimmerman said. “My saving grace was sports in general. It gives you hope that things can be different.”

She spent the next decade dedicated to her work as an elementary teacher. Then, in 2015, her eldest son showed her an episode of American Ninja Warrior.

“I did think, ‘Gosh, if I trained I think I could do that.’ And I was in pretty good shape but this is a whole other kind of in-shape,” Zimmerman said. “It was a gut feeling, something I just couldn’t shake.”

It was a fragile dream when she brought it to a friend and fellow coach at Medical Lake High School, Teresa Raby. Raby jumped on it, immediately offering to do anything she could to help. That solidified the dream, Zimmerman said.

Her family has invested in the dream wholeheartedly too. Her husband ran a course in her place when she was injured during what would’ve been her third season of competing. Her three kids have all either competed or plan to compete soon, too, she said. Even her rescue dog, Koda, helps her train on their hikes.

After posting the damage to her course Tuesday, she said hundreds of people have reached out to either donating money or time.

“People really want to help. Like, ‘I have a screwdriver, can I help?’ ” Zimmerman said, smiling.

Zimmerman is disappointed to take a pause from coaching kids on the course but positive things will work out. She’s planning not just to rebuild it but make it better.

In dealing with the broken course as in training, she said her real skill is determination.

“My superpower is grit. I’m willing to stick with things and that’s it,” Zimmerman said. “I want people to get from my story what it means to chase your dreams and go big. It hasn’t been a smooth road but I’ve been able to do some incredible things.”

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