One Tribe

Michael Deitz

I never knew a real brotherhood until I joined the William & Mary men’s gymnastics team.

The level of support, understanding and unconditional love I experienced during my time there still blows me away to this very day. Through that love, I was able to find light in some of my darkest and most painful memories.

I wouldn’t even go as far as calling my story unique. Quite the contrary, one might even consider it ordinary from a certain aspect. We all go through difficult times in life, but gymnastics cultivates a sense of togetherness to make it through.

It’s what we stand for and how we live our lives.

It’s what we do for others.

The thought of the program being cut and all of that potentially going away for future gymnasts is heartbreaking.

It’s also a reminder that we have to do whatever we can to make sure this community doesn’t dwindle. Not only did the gymnastics program give me a family to join at the collegiate level, but it also helped mold me into the man I am today.

A place to call home

As a Virginia native, the dream of mine ever since I was a kid was to be a part of the William & Mary gymnastics program. I always pictured my first day of college as this crowning moment filled with excitement, but it was actually a more terrifying experience than I ever anticipated.

My mother was very ill throughout my whole childhood. It was basically a rollercoaster of her feeling better and worse—just a steady decline that’s hard for any child to have to see. So going off to college with the unknowns of her health, as well as dealing with my own young adult insecurities, left me with doubt that I’d even make it through the first semester.

That’s when I made a deal with my parents.

I’d go for the first semester, and if it was too much for me, I’d take a semester off. There’s nothing like having a little out to calm the nerves.

And so I was off.

Despite being really extroverted, I was suddenly shy for the first time in my life when I got on campus. But everything changed the moment I met my teammates and coaches. There was always this vibe of unconditional support. They recognized my needs at the time and saw potential in me I never even knew I had.

I ultimately found myself athletically and academically.

That encouragement subsequently led me to help others on the team and at the college. And isn’t that the pillar of college athletics—the enhancement of the whole educational experience for the greater good?

Strength in darkness

Over the course of the next few years, I was fortunate to make numerous unforgettable memories with my team. One, in particular, however, stands out to me for a lot of reasons.

This memory isn’t necessarily tied to a specific meet but rather a display of support that is hard to put into words.

It all started with my mother surprising me at one of my meets during my junior year. It was a one-time thing because her health was rapidly declining at the time. My dad wheeled her into the gym, and I saw a lot of my teammates getting emotional, celebrating this importance of this moment with me.

You see, my mom ended up fighting through a lot, but on that particular day, nothing could stop her from seeing her son compete.

And my brothers knew what this meant to me.

Fast forward a few months into my senior season, and I received the dreaded phone call no child ever wants to get.

I wasn’t sure if I should finish the semester, but before my mother passed, she told me she wanted me to continue pursuing athletics. She requested for people to donate to the William & Mary gymnastics program instead of sending her flowers. She also left pretty much all she had to the program because she knew how much gymnastics added to my life, my well-being and my overall development.

I’m her only son, but she wanted to make sure others had the same opportunities. That’s just the type of person she was. The most amazing mother one could ask for.

To my surpirse, coaches, trainers and administrators from the school drove large groups of people hours away just to attend the funeral. I remember looking out into the crowd of people and feeling so grateful to see my tribe there as I gave the eulogy.

That’s when everything got so real for me.

That’s when I realized this was as hard as it gets, but I do have the resources to make it through.

I competed at my senior meet a couple days later. The entire gymnastics community showed me the same sense of family and unconditional love.

There was a mix of deafening applause, silence and understanding in that arena. I’ve never felt more cared for in my life.

Even my biggest rival ran over and hugged me after the event. He acknowledged how difficult that day was for me and what it meant. Most importantly, he acknowledged the respect he had for me.

It was very moving because it didn’t matter who won or lost that day. No one cared about records or anything like that. There was nothing but love and support. If your biggest opponent can give you that in any sport, it really speaks a lot.

I’m not sure if these events accurately describe the uniqueness of the college gymnastics community. The way people from this community came together to support me in what was one of the hardest periods of my life is a true testament to how special this sport and its people are.

And that really is what I would like readers to take away from my story.

Fight for the future

Based on all of the things I’ve gone through, I’ll never stop fighting for the dreams of others to share in that experience.

Our fight for the sport goes beyond our own survival. There are a lot of NCAA teams hanging on by a thread out there. I often think about the young athletes with the same dreams, hopes and values I carried throughout my journey.

Gymnastics pushed me to chase a Master’s Degree in clinical mental health counseling. During my time on the team, we did work in the community and even started an annual fundraising walk with the National Eating Disorders Association. The program took a passion of mine and encouraged me to run with it.

Those looking to help with the cause can go to savetribesports.com to reach out to the president of the college and the athletics director to tell their stories. They care about the student-athlete experience, and it would help to hear other personal stories explaining why it’s so important to keep the sport around. There’s also the “Save the Tribe 7” petition floating around on social media. You can sign the petition and share your experiences @savethetribe7.

Gymnastics continuously creates empathetic, successful and impactful people that make the world a better place. 

I won’t stop advocating for the sports’ existence in schools. 

My mother gave everything for me to live my dream.

The least I can do now is to continue fighting to help others do the same.

 

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