It’s been said that athletes die two deaths. The first occurs when their competitive careers end and the cheering stops, often at a relatively young age, and they are confronted with a frightening question: “Now what?”
Iris Zimmermann’s first death, if you will, occurred in 2008 when the onetime Olympic fencer’s final attempt at making the U.S. team and pursuing an elusive medal ended on a gray, rainy February day in Gdansk, Poland. After uncharacteristically losing an early-round bout, Zimmermann trudged dejectedly out of the arena with her older sister Felicia, who also had made a name for herself as an Olympic fencer. The two were walking down the street to grab some lunch, when Iris abruptly plopped down and began bawling.
“It had all caught up to me,” Iris said recently. “I was so depressed that I literally couldn’t move anymore. My whole identity had been tied to fencing since I was about three years old and now my identity was gone. I didn’t want to go on.”
The tears and fears that threatened to drown her that soggy, rock-bottom day have long since evaporated. In the ensuing nine years, the Rochester native has gone from not wanting to move to not wanting to stop moving. It took many therapy sessions and a lot of love from her husband, Kevin Nowack, her two young daughters, her sister and others for Iris to discover a new identity, a new purpose. The death of one dream led to the birth of so many others. A wonderful world awaited beyond the comfy, cozy, occasionally claustrophobic confines of a fencing strip.
“It took years, but I found a way to take the intense energy and drive I developed as a fencer and channel it into something else,” said Zimmermann, whose numerous entrepreneurial and philanthropic pursuits include co-ownership and revival of the Rochester Fencing Club with her sister. “I think parenthood, in particular, helped ground me, and showed me what is truly important. As an Olympian, you tend to become myopic. It’s all about yourself. How much should I train today? What am I eating? How much sleep do I need? What events should I compete in?”
Now, as a mother, wife and businesswoman, she is focused on helping others. “I find that much more rewarding,” she said. “Much more fulfilling.”
Zimmermann, who just turned 36, is putting to use the skills she learned as a fencer, along with her undergraduate degree from Stanford University and her executive MBA from the University of Rochester. Seven years ago, she and Felicia purchased the local fencing club. It was a transaction that went beyond dollars and cents. “It was tanking, and I called up Felicia and said we need to do something,” she said. “This place had been our second home, a place where we learned the skills that enabled us to become Olympians and see the world. This wasn’t just business. It was personal.”
It took a while, but Iris said the club has gone from hemorrhaging money to operating in the black. Membership is up 150 percent, fueled, in part, by a relocation from its original site on Culver Road to a renovated warehouse at 3335 Brighton-Henrietta Townline Road that is thrice as large.
The sisters also are in the process of founding the Zimmermann Foundation, with hopes of establishing after-school fencing programs throughout the Rochester area. Iris envisions a time, 10 years down the road, where fencing is a recognized interscholastic sport the way it is in the New York City area. “I don’t have any delusions that fencing is for everybody,” she said. “It’s not, but it does have a lot to offer kids, with discipline and structure that can carry over into their lives. I see it as another alternative. We have issues to resolve, particularly with regards to transportation of students, but we believe it has great potential.”
Iris also has partnered with a local entrepreneur to form a company called “En Garde Business Solutions.” The thought here is to hold day-long seminars with local corporations, in which the principles of fencing are applied to business. “The thing I’ve discovered as a fencer and as a business person is that people and companies are paralyzed by a fear of failure,” she said. “People are afraid to fail, so they won’t make a move and that stagnation hurts them and their businesses. In fencing, you have to make moves and think on your feet in order to score points. The same is true in sales. You have to be nimble and fearless.”
Of all her endeavors, none has Iris more excited than her recent election as vice president of the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association. She’s a self-proclaimed “Olympic fan girl” who loves the history of the Games and the ideals upon which they were founded. She readily acknowledges concern over issues such as over-commercialization and doping, but believes in the principles espoused by Pierre de Coubertin, the visionary behind the restoration of the Olympics in 1896 who saw sports as a way of bringing people from disparate societies, cultures and religions together every four years.
Iris experienced the Olympics’ power to unite while competing in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. She already has had long conversations with association President Dick Fosbury, the man who took high jumping to new heights with his forward-thinking, backward-leaping technique known as the “Fosbury Flop.” Iris is passionate about working on programs that help athletes deal with depression and other problems while adjusting to post-Olympic life.
“As I learned, it’s not easy coming back to the real world after you’ve dedicated your heart and soul to something for much of your life,” she said. “I’d like to see us grow our network of alumni to help our fellow Olympians who are struggling. We want them to realize that they aren’t alone, that there is help out there and that many of us have endured the same thing. Part of it is finding a new purpose, carving out a new identity, while still being proud of what you accomplished because being an Olympian is something special. It’s a process. There are days when I still yearn to compete, but you have to move on.”
You have to find new dreams to replace the one that died.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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