ORONO — On Saturday, May 5, a crowd gathered next to the river on the University of Maine campus. Classic rock boomed over speakers. Young, old, and even those of the four-legged furry variety came together wearing their warmest athletic gear and fatigues. They were laughing, shaking hands, catching up, and stretching in preparation.
Thomas Zimmerman led a group call — “Never give up!” — and spoke of his son, First Lt. James Zimmerman of the U.S. Marine Corps. He spoke with pride, love, and humor as he told the group about James. He assured everyone that if James were there, he would be yelling at them to “dig deep and keep going.” He said those who knew James best knew he never gave up.
Tragically, James Zimmerman was killed in action serving his country during a combat operation in Afghanistan in 2010. This was a great loss not only to his family, but also his fellow soldiers and his community. The core of who he was, and what he stood for, had such a positive impact on people who knew him in life, it only made sense to event organizers that something be done to continue that impact after his death.
This is when the Zimmerman Fitness Challenge was born. Since 2011, those bold enough to show up to the event anticipate a physical challenge unlike any other. Each year, community members, veterans, and students team up to bring this amazing event together. All proceeds go to a scholarship fund for soon-to-be commissioned officers in honor of James.
John D’Annolfo, one of the head organizers, spoke to me about the community support they receive each year. This was evident as I walked the grounds. There were members of the VFW cooking up hamburgers and hotdogs. Randy Canarr of Souder Station Farm donated a pig to roast for the event. NROTC and midshipmen students filled the area, registering participants, taking photos, stoking the fire pit, manning stations throughout the obstacle course around campus, and providing words of encouragement. These students also helped develop the obstacle course.
D’Annolfo also told me about some of the obstacles they put together. Participants complete a 5K run around campus, stopping to complete challenges along the way such as buddy drags, running water cans up and down hills, burpees, and pull-ups. The final challenge is to crawl through a mud pit. All challenges were military themed in honor of Zimmerman. The reward at the end is a hose down, followed by warming blankets, a fire pit, great food cooked by friendly people, and the pride of knowing you have accomplished something great for a worthy cause.
This year had an impressive 197 participants, greater than any other year. Many of them were return challengers. One participant, Courtney, was doing the challenge for the second time. She said she was glad to be a part of it because she grew up in the Houlton area and knew the Zimmerman family. Though she didn’t know James, she said the family is “amazing,” and she loved to see the smiles on their faces during this event.
James Zimmerman continues to make an impact on the world, motivating others to challenge themselves and strive to be their best through the Zimmerman Challenge. Though the annual event is done, community members can still donate to the scholarship by visiting sites.google.com/site/umainezfc or by contacting Michael Flanagan at 207-581-1551.