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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Finding balance: Spokane gymnast Rylin Zimmerman navigates grief, pandemic to land full-ride scholarship at Sacramento State

By Charlotte McKinley For The Spokesman-Review

Heartbreak and frustration?

Rylin Zimmerman has overcome both with hard work and dedication.

The Spokane gymnast, who lost her father and a big chunk of her decorated high school career during the pandemic, still managed to earn a scholarship in the sport she began competing in as a toddler.

Zimmerman, 18, will head to Sacramento State University this fall on a full-ride scholarship – a rarity for local gymnasts – where she will study kinesiology with intentions to become an athletic trainer someday.

“You have to work for what you want, and it doesn’t just come easy,” Zimmerman said.

She’s coming off an appearance at the USA Gymnastics Development National Championships in Mesa, Arizona, this weekend, where she competed against some of the best Level 10 gymnasts in the nation.

Zimmerman, who started in gymnastics when she was 4 years old, has been training and competing for Dynamic Athletic Center in Spokane for the past six years, where she achieved Level 10 status this season.

At Level 10, athletes are past the basic handstands or cartwheels.

“You’re doing things without your hands. You’re flipping and twisting multiple times when you get to Level 10,” Dynamic Athletic Center gymnastics coach Melanie Bixby said.

Level 10 athletes, when they compete for colleges, compete against former Olympians such as Suni Lee, who won the women’s all-around gold medal for gymnastics in the 2020 Summer Games.

“They’re all (at) a very similar level, especially at (Division I),” Dynamic Athletic Center owner Adana Harris said.

As a multi-year regional champion, competing against former Olympians on the collegiate level does not intimidate Zimmerman, even after having one of her competitive seasons stripped away from her due to the pandemic.

Going from a full-time student at Central Valley High School and training 20 hours a week to “nothing” was a shock to the routine Zimmerman had built as an athlete.

Nothing, though, was as shocking as the loss of her father in December 2020.

“That happened right before Rylin’s season last year,” Bixby said. “So now we’re coming off a COVID year. And now we’re also entering a competition season, where she’s in the midst of being recruited, where she feels the pressure of ‘I have to do well’ for the schools to continue pursuing her.”

For Zimmerman, it was especially hard as it was her father that introduced her to gymnastics, having been a gymnast himself.

Zimmerman navigated that grief by leaning on her coaches and family for support.

“I think it’s important to have an environment where the kids are not just here, but they have a supportive environment where they can talk, (and) they can have bad days,” said Harris, noting that some sports do not allow that freedom.

That support was essential as she continued her pursuit of the ultimate goal – a full-ride scholarship.

Unlike many of her peers, Zimmerman’s family was able to put in a basic gym in their backyard so she could work on some of her fundamental skills during the pandemic.

While that proved helpful, Bixby said, there’s always been uncertainty about earning a scholarship.

“All the schools decided to offer (their athletes) another year of (eligibility). So that took away from incoming freshmen because now you have fifth years that are going to stay and play for their school,” Bixby said.

Through the highs and lows, Zimmerman remained persistent and positive, while working on things beyond gymnastics.

“I thought most of it was athletics,” Zimmerman said of her scholarship quest. “Most of it is keeping your grades up (because the schools) want to keep their (grade-point average) up.”

Bixby said it is “bittersweet” that Zimmerman is leaving Dynamic Athletic Center in the fall to start her collegiate gymnastics career at Sac State.

Zimmerman mentioned she was going to be sad leaving the center. “I’ve been here for a long time, but I’m also excited to have a new start.”