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Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Champion Honors Mother Through Competition

It was the perfect way to honor her mother. And given what she had been through to reach this point, there was no chance that Dakota Zimmerman would let the opportunity slip away.

On May 30 at Long Beach State University in California, Zimmerman won the world title in the adult female light-feather division at the International Brazilian Jiujitsu Federation Novice Championship. Zimmerman didn’t allow a single point in any of her four matches, which all ended by submission, including an arm bar to defeat Mayara Diaz of Modesto, Calif., to capture the title.

“My mom would have been so proud of me,” said Zimmerman, 22, who lives in Fenton and trains at Arnold Brazilian Jiujitsu . “She just really loved that whenever I did something, I always had passion for it. She was always there for me, she was always in my corner, supporting me, and thought it was just awesome.”

Zimmerman’s effort to reach the highest of the highs is all the more remarkable considering that her journey began in the lowest of the lows following the death of her mother, Cheryl Zimmerman.

“That’s kind of been the fire to my whole game plan of life,” Zimmerman said.

It was in the fall of 2016, and unbeknownst to anyone, Cheryl Zimmerman had a ruptured brain aneurysm. She suddenly became sick and after about three days was taken to the hospital, where she passed away.

“I was actually the one who rushed her to the emergency room, me and my little sister (Noa), and I unfortunately witnessed everything,” Zimmerman said. “I witnessed her passing and everything, and it was really hard.”

And not just because Zimmerman had lost her mother. After graduating from Bethalto High School in Illinois, Zimmerman attended Lindenwood University-Belleville for a little while but ended up moving back home due to family issues, and during that time Zimmerman said she and her mother developed a special bond.

“She was my best friend,” Zimmerman said. “We had just crossed the relationship of only being a mother-daughter thing, and we had just kind of built that friend relationship.

“I had a full-time job, and every day I’d see her before I left, I’d call her on my lunch, then I’d come home before practice, talk to her before I left for practice, then I’d call her on my way home from practice and tell her how practice was. Then I’d get home, take a shower, come out and talk to her some more on the couch. She was literally my best friend.”

Now, all of a sudden, Cheryl Zimmerman was gone.

“I was just absolutely a wreck for a while,” Zimmerman said. “I went through a really, really low point in my life, but then one day, I just decided to take my life back, and that the life that I was living wasn’t what my mom wanted for me. I had to change.”

Jiujitsu would be a conduit for helping Zimmerman make that change, and under the tutelage of Kirk Huff at Arnold BJJ, Zimmerman would find her path out of the darkness. Huff is the assistant wrestling coach at Fox.

“When I went through that low period, I kind of lost myself a little bit and lost that part of me,” she said. “Kirk helped bring that back inside of me and really light that fire, change my mentality to be more determined and, as he would say, more relentless.”

Zimmerman didn’t initially plan to become a full-time member at Arnold BJJ. She had trained in jiujitsu since her senior year in high school, although not too seriously, and when it was suggested by a person Zimmerman was dating at the time that she check out Huff’s gym, Zimmerman intended to simply take advantage of a free introductory week of training before relocating to Florida.

“Arnold Brazilian Jiujitsu is what made me stay,” she said. “I felt welcomed by everyone.”

Not long after she began training there, Zimmerman said Huff gave her a goal to shoot for. More importantly, he helped Zimmerman regain her sense of self.

“I think he saw that potential in me, and he told me, probably within the first month, he kind of waited to see if I was going to stick around, but he told me, ‘If you show up, you come and put in the time, I will make you a world champion,’” Zimmerman said.

“With the unfortunate events that happened to me so young and seeing a lot of things that really took a toll on me and changed me, I guess. Well, I don’t know if it changed me so much but just stunned me, and made me forget who I was. I didn’t lose who I was, I kind of forgot for a little bit, and that’s why Arnold has been such a great place for me, and Kirk has been pulling it back out.”

A high level cross country and track runner in high school, who holds several Bethalto records, Zimmerman grew up in a wrestling family, as both her father, Dallas, and brother, Dez, competed, and Zimmerman said she wrestled a little bit in high school as well. So when she entered Arnold BJJ in October 2017, Zimmerman said she knew she was in the right place.

“My first class there, I was like, ‘I really like it here. They train hard here,’ and that’s (Huff’s) mentality is like, ‘You step on my mat, we’re going to work hard. We’re going to work really hard,’ and I come from a background of that mentality,” she said.

Basically, Zimmerman gives 100 percent in pretty much everything she does. It’s how she was able to, shortly after starting at Arnold BJJ, set her sights on the St. Louis Golden Gloves Tournament and, with Huff’s help, win the 2018 title at 119 pounds.

“We probably crunched about six months of training into two months,” she said. “Day in, day out, (Huff) whooped my (butt), made me cry, made me bleed. But it ended in being the 2018 Golden Gloves champion, so it was worth it.”

It also helps to explain how Zimmerman quickly became one of the top female competitors in jiujitsu throughout the Midwest.

“We competed every chance we got, and she kept winning,” Huff said. “Her style is aggressive as hell. A lot of people train soft and slow; we go fast and violent, as fast as possible. We don’t drill half-speed, everything is 100 percent, as fast as you can. Some people may be better than us. They know more intricate games than us, and they can manipulate you, and you trying to figure it out, it’s so hard, and you have to be really knowledgeable to do it. But if you attack them so fast and so violently, you don’t give them time to set up their game and think about it.”

It was the perfect style for Zimmerman’s “all in” attitude, as well as her willingness to do whatever it took to reach the top.

“It takes a lot of time and dedication,” Huff said. “She probably trains five hours a day, seven days a week, and in order to be a world champion, to be the best, you pretty much have to give up everything else that you do. Literally, everything you do.”

It takes a lot of understanding from her family, including her father, Dallas Zimmerman, as well as her sisters Chelsea (32), Aerika (27) and Noa (11), and her brother Dez (28). It also takes the generosity of friends from Arnold BJJ who have given her a place to stay, and a sponsorship from Scott and Ellen Rimkus, owners of Systems Semi-Trailers outside of Chicago, enabling Zimmerman to travel for many of her competitions.

“It’s just hard,” Zimmerman said. “You question sometimes, is this worth all of the other stress and struggles that I’m going through in my personal life, maybe because of my commitment to jiujitsu. While it’s great and I love it and I have had success in it, is it worth it? And every time, my consensus is yeah, it is worth it.”

And while the journey has been anything but easy, Zimmerman said she knows her mother would be happy about the direction Zimmerman’s life is heading.

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