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“She Just Doesn’t Quit”: Rylynn Zanon Named USA Hockey Disabled Athlete of the Year

By Jessi Pierce, 06/04/24, 8:00AM CDT


Hockey around the world is built on the foundation of friendship, community, leadership, and, naturally, some on-ice skill as well. Hockey consistently yields some of the most dynamic boys and girls, men and women, who find varying degrees of on-ice success.

But it’s the humans created off the ice that are always the most impressive.

Rylynn Zanon, 19, perfectly embodies what it means to be a hockey player. So much so that the Stillwater native was named this year’s USA Hockey Disabled Athlete of the Year.

“She just doesn’t quit,” said Toni Gillen, USA Hockey and Minnesota Hockey Diversified Hockey Director. “Rylynn takes everything head-on. She knows what she wants and understands that her experience going through special hockey is a shared experience with a lot of people. So, she uses her voice to really kind of step up and advocate for those who are unable to or are maybe just very intimidated.

“She’s often that voice for people who aren’t ready to use theirs.”

Rylynn was born into hockey. Her dad, Greg, played 493 games in the National Hockey League, including three seasons patrolling the blue line as a defenseman with the Minnesota Wild from 2009-12. The Zanons settled in Stillwater post-NHL retirement, and Greg took over coaching the Stillwater boys’ varsity squad in 2019.

As for Rylynn’s hockey career, she was on skates at age 4 or 5 – hockey skates and full equipment, in fact – from Day 1 on the ice.

“Oftentimes we learn to skate with figure skates, but that just wasn’t in Greg’s wheelhouse,” says mom, Jen, with a laugh. “So, at first, we put her out there and went straight for the hockey skates and full gear. So that was an experience.”

By sixth grade, Rylynn, who has mild physical and cognitive development traits, was a full-blown hockey player in Minnesota Special Hockey.

“The friends I’ve made along the way playing hockey is my favorite thing,” said Rylynn, who not only excels in ice hockey but captained the Ponies’ adaptive soccer team for three years and the adaptive floor hockey team for four years. She also competes with Special Olympics Minnesota in track and field and bowls in a league in the fall.

“It’s been pretty exciting just helping out, showing other students what it takes to be a leader.”

For Jen, like most beaming moms, it’s watching Rylynn form those leadership qualities and chase after what she wants that has always been incredible to watch.

“She’s always been her own biggest advocate,” explained Jen. “She’s always been very aware of her abilities, her needs, and she has always been able to communicate that, whether it’s with teachers or coaches or whatever aspect she’s pursuing in life. She’s just always been able to communicate that for herself.

“And then to see her use that same kind of voice to lead others, it just came so natural for her. It makes me very proud to see.”

Rylynn uses her voice not only as a captain of sports but also as co-president of the TRUST Club, an after-school program promoting the collaboration and connection of students with and without disabilities. She’s also in her second and final year as a Special Olympics U.S. Youth Ambassador.

Oh, and while she’s doing all of that, she’s also making the dean’s list in her freshman year at White Bear Lake’s Century College, where she is pursuing a degree in special education.

“I make sure to write things down a lot,” Rylynn said with a laugh of her need to be extra organized with all the activities she’s committed to.

Jen and Rylynn admit that receiving the USA Hockey Disabled Athlete of the Year honor still has them in shock, but they managed to find the words for what it means to them:

“I think what it means, at least for me, is that if you work hard and just try your best, good things will happen,” said Rylynn.

Added Jen: “There’s so many deserving athletes in diversified hockey, but I think that she’s right up there with the rest of them. I think it’s an incredible honor.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind, but I think it’s well-deserved, and it’s pretty neat to see her recognized here.”