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Friday, May 24, 2024

Back-to-back lacrosse state championships in 2006-07, a spot on the team at North Carolina — a premier lacrosse school — in 2007 and an opportunity to make a name for yourself. Sounds like a good deal for the avid lacrosse player, right?

For sophomore midfielder Rachael Zimmerman, it wasn’t enough.

Zimmerman had a rough transition her freshman year and decided UNC was not for her. She wanted to be more than just another athlete, and she needed to find out who she was.

She then began a journey that would change her life and give her a second chance playing for a first-year lacrosse program. She brought the experience she gained on her journey to her role as a leader on the young team.

Her journey will start its next chapter when Florida opens its inaugural season against Jacksonville on Saturday at 6 in Gainesville.

Start: Colorado

Zimmerman initially wanted to play soccer at UNC. She told her family, and her mother, Lisa Zimmerman-Greenberg would laugh and say, “Way to dream big.”

“She would be on the soccer field, as a 5-year-old, just growling,” Zimmerman-Greenberg said. “She was hilarious.”

However, Zimmerman continued to play, developing her competitive and resilient attitude.

Although Zimmerman wouldn’t play soccer at UNC like she had planned, her dedication and drive at such a young age was a remarkable sight for her mother.

She said everything her daughter did was about getting to her goal, deciding what she needed to do and what she needed to give up in order to get what she desired.

Zimmerman-Greenberg encouraged her daughter to chase her dreams.

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“We always had that kind of relationship where once you sign up for something, once you commit to doing something, you give it 100 percent,” she said.

Zimmerman’s resilience was tested when she began playing lacrosse with her brothers, who showed no mercy despite her gender.

The boys would play lacrosse, and Zimmerman would be right there with them.

They would take shots with her in goal, and despite the barrage of balls, she never gave up, she never cried, and she never let them see her in pain.

She continued to play lacrosse, juggling it and soccer during the seventh grade, but eventually chose lacrosse because the pace and intensity better suited her personality.

However, living in Colorado, Zimmerman had little options to continue playing lacrosse, so she was set on leaving home.

She visited UNC her junior year, committed to the Tar Heels, and enrolled the following year.

Pit stop: North Carolina

Once Zimmerman got to UNC, she realized Division-I lacrosse was not what she had anticipated.

She struggled with being in a new place far from home and with the transition into college.

Zimmerman stopped playing lacrosse in March of her freshman year.

She then did what she thought she needed at the time. She took a year away from the game and college to discover herself.

Some people would travel the world, lounge at home and just take it easy during this time, but Zimmerman took a different approach to “taking a break.”

“The year I took off, I lived outside for three months, backpacking and making fire out of sticks and rocks,” she said.

She then moved back in with her family and worked the rest of the summer to complete her sabbatical.

Her time away from the game and college life gave Zimmerman the insight she needed, and she learned she was more capable than she thought.

“Living outside was definitely a struggle,” Zimmerman said. “Up and down 85 days with nothing really, besides some food. It was kind of like ‘Survivor,’ but I just figured that no matter the situation one’s put in, you choose how it’s going to turn out based on your outlook.”

Her mother said the experience was invaluable for her daughter even though she couldn’t recognize herself in the mirror when she got home.

Zimmerman-Greenberg said her daughter knows more about herself than most 40-year-old people do about themselves.

After this experience, Zimmerman was ready for the next phase of her life.

Finish line: Florida

“I was in Idaho one day and I was just thinking, ‘Where am I going to go to school next year? What am I going to do?’” Zimmerman said.

She knew she wanted to return to college, and after talking to her father, who told her that a former teammate at UNC was coaching at Florida, she E-mailed Erica LaGrow.

LaGrow, one of UF’s assistant coaches, was a senior when Zimmerman was a freshman at UNC, and Zimmerman traveled to Gainesville for a visit after speaking with her.

For UF coach Amanda O’Leary, knowing that Zimmerman was a player on one of the best teams in the nation and having LaGrow speak well of her, made it easy to consider Zimmerman for a spot on UF’s inaugural team.

O’Leary and her staff made an impression on Zimmerman when she visited UF.

“I felt very comfortable with the coaching staff,” Zimmerman said. “They understood that things had been hard and were willing to work with me and give me that second chance.”

She said part of her decision about playing Division-I lacrosse again was based on not wanting to feel like she was only an athlete.

UF allowed her the opportunity to play lacrosse without being confined to the role of athlete.

Since her arrival in Gainesville, Zimmerman has used her experiences as a tool to better understand and help her younger teammates.

Freshman Lelan Bailey said she admires Zimmerman’s attitude and work ethic.

 “She took a year off, but when she came back you wouldn’t know it because she worked so hard to get back in the swing of things,” Bailey said. “She had the courage to come back.”

The sophomore’s dedication has also caught the eye of O’Leary, who said talking about Zimmerman puts a smile on her face.

“What she brings is her ability to communicate the needs of the team,” O’Leary said. “She is sort of the pulse of the team, which makes her a critical part of our program.”

The traits Zimmerman has brought with her to UF may be a result of the roller-coaster ride she has been on since her junior year in high school that forced her to fight for a second chance at playing lacrosse.

Rachael Zimmerman’s story could be dubbed a great comeback, and the sophomore a warrior.

She said she isn’t fond of labels, but instead she embraces her versatility and willingness to deal with what life dishes out, personally and athletically.

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