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Disabled Athlete of the Year Rylynn Zanon Refuses To Slow Down

By Bob Reinert, 05/29/24, 10:15AM MDT


On top of playing hockey, Zanon also competes and serves as an ambassador for the Special Olympics.

Rylynn Zanon basically grew up in hockey rinks.

However, because of several mild issues that affected her physical and cognitive development, it took her some time to hit the ice for good and find her own place in the game. 

Now more than seven years into her playing career, Zanon recently received word from USA Hockey that she will receive the 2024 Disabled Athlete of the Year Award at the 2024 USA Hockey President’s Awards Dinner. 

That came as quite a surprise to her.

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it,” Zanon said. “We were all pretty shocked.”

Receiving the award won’t slow down her drive to get better, as she continues to work on her game. 

“I feel like I’ve gotten better throughout the years,” she said. “We’ve done more drills, like game drills and just doing a lot more stick-handling drills.”

Growing up, Zanon certainly didn’t have to look far to find a hockey role model. Her father, Greg Zanon, spent nine years as a defenseman in the NHL.

“She was [his] No. 1 fan for a long time,” said Jen Zanon, Rylynn’s mother. “We bounced around with him for a few years while he did his thing. And during that time, she did take some skating lessons when she was 5 or 6.”

As Jen remembered, that was a challenge for Zanon.

“It wasn’t really her thing when she first started,” Jen said. “She enjoyed being at the rink, but the actual skating part of it was a little bit difficult and uncomfortable for her.”

Jen noted that Zanon hadn’t developed physically the way typical children do. Just finding skates for Zanon was difficult. 

According to Jen, part of the problem might have been having her daughter start skating in full hockey gear at the outset. 

“It was right into you’re learning to skate as a hockey player,” Jen said. “It was maybe not the best route to go with that, but that’s the route we took.”

Eventually, Zanon got off the ice and was content with watching her sister and brother play for a time. After the family moved to Minnesota, she finally got an opportunity to play at age 12.

The family saw one of Zanon’s friends play with the Minnesota Special Hockey Program. They then quickly signed Zanon up to the program as well.

Zanon, now 19 years old, continues to play in the program, which partners directly with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.

“The league itself is incredible,” Jen said. “It’s open to anybody and everybody regardless of age. I think the minimum age is 8, but there is no maximum age. It’s open to everybody regardless of their abilities. I don’t foresee her walking away from it anytime soon, as long as it’s available for her to continue playing.”

Jen noted that the league matches players of equal talent on an A, B or C line. She said Zanon typically plays on the A or B line. 

The Stillwater Area High School graduate had to balance hockey with her first year at Century College (located nearby in White Bear Lake, Minnesota)this year. Zanon is studying special education and made the dean’s list.

“It wasn’t hard, knowing that hockey was on Sundays,” she said. “I usually didn’t have much homework on Sundays, so it was nice not to have to worry about that. I can enjoy just going to hockey.”

Zanon had already successfully balanced sports and academics while in high school. She served as the captain for three years on the adaptive soccer team and all four years for the adaptive floor hockey team. 

Those two teams combined for three state championships during Zanon’s tenure.

As if she wasn’t busy enough in school, Zanon was co-president of the TRUST Club, an all-inclusive after-school program that brings students with and without disabilities together.

These days, Zanon also competes in the Special Olympics track and field program. She runs sprints and does the standing long jump.

Zanon serves Minnesota Special Olympics away from the track, as well. She is on its board of directors and is a co-vice president. Last summer, she became a Special Olympics U.S. Youth Ambassador, promoting inclusive opportunities for children through sports.

“It’s a two-year program,” said Zanon of the ambassadorship. “This year we’ve been to Washington, D.C., and now at the end of June, we’re going out to Madison [Wisconsin] for a conference.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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