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River Falls School District P.E. teacher, Dana Zimmerman, participated in two Paralympics -- 1996 and 2000 -- and took home a silver medal in 2000. <i>Submitted photos</i>

Olympian motivating kids to overcome obstacles

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River Falls Journal
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River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Inspiring, determined, hard working -- all adjectives that can describe River Falls School District Physical Education teacher Dana Zimmerman. He teaches both P.E. and adaptive P.E. to first through 12th graders.

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Using all the above adjectives Zimmerman, who was born with hemispherical Cerebral Palsy (CP), became a two-time Paralympian.

In 1996, Zimmerman traveled to Atlanta, Ga., and competed in his first Paralympics -- which is an international event that features Olympic- style games for those with disabilities held two weeks after the Olympics.

While in Atlanta, Zimmerman competed in track and field and placed fourth in the 800 meter run, fifth in the 1,500 meter run and sixth in the 5,000 meter run.

Four years later Zimmerman made a repeat trip to the Paralympics, which were held in Sydney, Australia. During this appearance he ran in both the 1,500 meter run and the 5,000 meter run -- earning a silver medal in the former.

Zimmerman said the Paralympics is a testament to the human spirit. He recalls feeling very humbled while in the Olympic village seeing fellow athletes, some with missing limbs.

CP explained

According to Zimmerman, the disability he was born with (right side hemispherical CP), affects him from his eyes to his toes.

The Mayo Clinic defines CP as "a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture that is caused by injury or abnormal development in the immature brain, most often before birth."

When describing his condition to students, Zimmerman tells them the "...brain doesn't communicate loudly with the arm or leg."

Zimmerman, who explains that "there is no magic pill" to cure him, has undergone a few surgeries to relieve his symptoms that include very tight muscles and spasticity.

His surgeries have included tension release and muscle-transfer surgery, These allowed his hand to roll over and gave his arm more movement.

Zimmerman said that it takes more energy for him to walk or move his arms.

"I have to work a bit harder, do it different and think outside of the box," he said.

In reflecting on how his life has been affected by CP, Zimmerman says he's been gifted.

"I have been able to travel, be active in sports, get two bachelors (degrees), a masters (degree) and be a keynote speaker," he said.

Zimmerman went on to say, "Because of this disability my life has been opened up."

Advocate, educate, inspire

As a youth growing up, Zimmerman's dad advocated for him and got him involved in numerous therapies, including occupational, physical, and learning disabled.

After high school and at the suggestion of a middle school coach, Zimmerman pursued physical education, particularly adaptive P.E., at UW-Platteville. He later received a master's degree from UW-La Crosse.

According to Zimmerman, that coach thought he showed the athleticism, passion and empathy needed to teach students with a wide-range of disabilities.

At the time that Zimmerman was going through school, special education students were still segregated -- that theory has changed to be more inclusive.

He said it was not until his high school junior year that he accepted his disability.

Zimmerman, who works with 34 students with a wide range of disabilities, such as autism, CP, visual impairments and Down syndrome, said that his students show different levels of acceptance.

He said that some are very self-conscious about being active in front of others, which is something that he would like to see change.

Zimmerman commented: "I would like them to be proud of who they are."

His mission, as he sees it, is to be an ambassador to accepting and appreciating yourself.

On his River Falls High school Webpage he has links to resources for families dealing with disabilities -- www.www.rfsd.k12.wi.us/schools/HighSchool/dz/default.aspx.

Adaptive aquatics

This year Zimmerman has introduced a new adaptive aquatics event -- held Jan. 5, 12 and 19 -- that will be used to improve adaptive P.E. students' skills, acclimate students to the water, help increase their movement and introduce water safety.

According to Zimmerman, this is above and beyond what the school offers for adaptive P.E.

As part of the event Zimmerman is allowing UW-River Falls students to design lesson plans and then work with the students.

Students will be using the different equipment in the pool such as noodles and kickboards. They will also participating in different games.

Zimmerman said that the pool offers zero resistance, buoyancy, and for those with autism, a pressure stimulus.

Zimmerman invites parents, grandparents and friends to come to the next adaptive aquatics event from 10:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, Jan. 19, at the River Falls High School swimming pool, to observe.

Zimmerman can be reached at Dana.Zimmerman@rfsd.k12.wi.us or 715-425-1830 ext. 1151.

See the complete version of the story in the Jan. 17 edition of the Journal.

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Jillian Dexheimer
Jillian Dexheimer has been a copy editor and reporter for the River Falls Journal since 2011. She previously worked for the River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. Dexheimer holds a sociology degree from UW-River Falls.
(715) 426-1046
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