Top Illini of Title IX: No. 8 — Danielle Zymkowitz

Editor’s note: June 23 marks the 40-year anniversary of the passing of Title IX, a resolution that sought to stop gender discrimination in educational activities; athletics was one of those programs most affected.. In honor of the 40-year anniversary, The Daily Illini is recognizing the athletes that have forwarded female athletics in the wake of Title IX’s passing. The Daily Illini summer staff sat down and sifted through a list of more than 30 nominees to name and order the top 9 female athletes of the past 40 years in terms of cultivating excellence for women’s sports at Illinois. Check out next week’s issue for Nos. 6-4.

Be it in practice or when a ninth-inning line drive slices toward her glove, in her orange and blue or orange and black, Danielle Zymkowitz respects the game of softball.

The 2011 Illinois graduate who now plays second base for the Chicago Bandits defines this respect as “going all out,” talking positively on the field, and looking at each pitch as an opportunity to show spectators what softball is all about.

“Fans like to see you hustle,” she explained. “If you don’t love it, what makes you think other people will?”

For Zymkowitz, this has never become a concern; none of her teammates or coaches can question whether she loves the game.

“Everything she does, she’s going to have fun with it,” said Nikki Nemitz, pitcher for the Bandits. “Everything is the best thing that’s happened to her in her life, and she doesn’t let anyone else get frustrated”

Known to many of them as “Z”, Zymkowitz demonstrates her passion for softball through this dedication, even during the off-season.

“She only knows one speed and that’s 110 percent,” Illinois head softball coach Terri Sullivan said. “There are no off days for her; she’s a winner, competitor and she always finds a way to contribute to the team’s success.”

During the 2012 season, Zymkowitz returned to Illinois to give back and help coach — something Sullivan said is not surprising given her enthusiasm for sharing what she loves with her teammates and other players. Sullivan said Zymkowitz is a big kid when she plays but also is a hard-working student and a mature coach.

“In our community here, she’s a great ambassador for female athletics,” Sullivan said. “There wasn’t a person who would come to our games who wouldn’t see how hard she plays, besides her obvious talent.”

Zymkowitz’s talent certainly speaks for itself. She is Illinois softball’s first two-time Third-Team All-American, during the 2009 and 2011 seasons, and was also a three-time First-Team All-Big Ten member.

She was a four-year starter at second base and played in all 210 games over her four years. As the lead-off hitter each year, she achieved a program-record batting average of .384 while landing near the top of record books in hits, runs scored and stolen bases.

Mike Steuerwald, associate head coach for the Bandits, said Zymkowitz has continued to maintain this excellence at the professional level.

“She brings a lot of flexibility,” he said. “She starts in left field and second base, and for someone to be able to do that and play well at both positions at that level is remarkable.”

He said Zymkowitz’s work ethic motivates her teammates and inspires young softball fans.

“Z does such a great job being a role model and someone little girls can relate to,” he said. “Every morning she’s showing up with a smile on her face. We just had 22 hours of travel, and she’s up smiling and energetic. She takes the time to get to know all the kids who come to our camps and clinics.”

He said that unlike some of the other players who are over 6-feet tall, Zymkowitz is a 5-feet-4-inch “firecracker.”

“She looks like my little sister, but then she comes out and can perform at that level,” he said.

The unexpectedness of this talent is similar to the surprise Chicago Cubs players found when they tried to bat off of Bandits’ pitching and were unable to hit anything into play, Steuerwald said.

“Obviously there’s this big gap in the support for female sports,” he said. “But a lot of people who have attended our games are amazed at the level of play on the field.”

Sullivan and Steuerwald both said Zymkowitz’s energy on the field is exactly what the media and fans need to see to increase softball’s fan base and continue to inspire young players.

Zymkowitz explains that this is a large part of what motivates her; she wants future female players, and someday her own daughter to have the same opportunities in athletics.

Though she said she received nothing but respect as a female athlete at Illinois, a girl who approached her after a speech she gave to an Illinois softball association was upset that she had to quit softball while her brother was allowed to continue to play baseball because he was a boy.

Still, because of the interactions Zymkowitz has with young softball players after games or during clinics, she is hopeful that women’s sports will continue to develop.

“We see (softball) grow every day, growing at camps and clinics, appearances and when we travel, girls are down at breakfast asking for our autographs,” she said. “It reminds you that you’re doing something right.”

As for her own future, Zymkowitz is not quite sure yet what it will hold.

She will attend Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey in the fall for graduate school in Sports Administration, but beyond that she will continue to work hard as a Bandit for as long as she can.

“She’s a great role model and if she can continue to play the game she will only help it grow,” Steuerwald said. “Whether continuing to play for three, four or five years, she’s going to continue to contribute to the sport well into her future.”