"Challenge Your Impossible."
That's the motto of the Rochester Fencing Club, located in an unassuming building at 777 Culver Road with a modest set of steel grate stairs leading up to its entrance.
Yet Division I athletes, Olympians, and world champions have ascended and descended those stairs hundreds of times. Iris Zimmermann, the co-owner of the club, happens to be all three of those. Born in Rochester, Zimmermann will be inducted Saturday into the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Columbus, Ohio.
She was not only challenging the impossible at an early age, but redefining the principle. At 14, Zimmermann became the first American woman to win a world championship. In addition to the cadet championship, she fenced her way to three U.S. titles in foil. In 1999, she became the first woman from the U.S. to win a medal (bronze) in foil at the world championships.
She fenced at Stanford University, where she also served as president of the Stanford Fencing Association. At 19, Zimmermann went to the 2000 Sydney Olympics with her older sister, Felicia. The two had grown up together at RFC, with Iris brandishing a tiny foil behind her older sister by age 3.
"For me and my sister, we sort of paved the way for U.S. fencing," said Zimmermann, explaining that Americans rarely contended on the international level. "People actually thought that —'Oh, good fencers can come out of the United States.'"
The turn of the century marked the high point in Iris' career. Shortly after her third Olympic bid in '08, the Zimmermann sisters purchased the Rochester Fencing Club in 2009.
Buckie Leach, Iris' former coach, is also among the six-person Hall induction class and she'll introduce him at the ceremony.
"It means quite a bit to me personally because one, I am finally able to, in my retirement, celebrate my wins," said Zimmermann, whose sister was inducted last year. They are the first set of sisters to earn the honor.
"I think when you're an athlete and you're into it," Iris said, "a lot of athletes are like, 'What's next, what can I win?' and I think that this is a finality to my competitive experience."
Fencing historian Andy Shaw, the master of ceremonies at the induction, refereed the Zimmermanns' matches when they competed and describes Iris Zimmermann as "sweet, upbeat and powerful."
"Iris has extreme natural talent, but that would be in everything, not just fencing," said Shaw, who owns and operates the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame in Shreveport, La. "...Whatever she does is going to be extremely well done."
Despite all of her laurels, Zimmermann speaks most passionately about the RFC community.
"For me this place was a haven — it was a second home, a second family," she said. "There are other kids out there who are like us, who aren't exact puzzle pieces, we don't always fit in — but we need a place to fit in."
Kim Shultz, her friend and co-worker, is also the mother of an RFC fencer. Her son, David, who has a learning disability, will be attending Cleveland State University this fall.
"(Iris) has done so much for my son. She has made it so that he can be successful in fencing, confident in fencing. It really made it possible for my son to become a NCAA Division I athlete," Shultz said, while expressing her gratitude. "Very sincerely, what fencing has done for my son, no one or nothing else could have done without Iris' dedication to the club and how accessible she has made it for everyone."
Although Zimmermann does not work directly with the advanced students, she's very involved in the college recruiting process. RFC grads have gone on to compete at colleges like Stanford, Harvard, Cornell, Notre Dame, Princeton and Columbia.
Yet Zimmermann prefers to coach at the opposite end of the spectrum.
"What I like to teach are the very beginning athletes because they see fencing how I see fencing — it's just so delightful and they love it," Zimmermann said. "I also really like kids that … don't take to the sport right away, that take time to develop. I just like to see that fencing can really change people's lives."
As Zimmermann's career comes full circle, she acknowledges that RFC will eventually run itself, and she still has a lifetime ahead of her. The 32-year-old already completed her MBA at the University of Rochester, writes for Rochester Woman Magazine, and plans to celebrate her daughter's first birthday in a month.
"The level that she put into becoming an Olympic fencer, she puts into everything she does," Shultz said. "She'll always be part of the fencing club, a part of the fencing community, but she has all these tools to further herself."