GW Sailor John DeRuff: COVID Can Take Away Our Varsity Status, Not Our Team Spirit

By: John DeRuff, Captain of the George Washington University (GW) Sailing Team

As I was learning to come out to myself, I struggled to reconcile my love for sailing and my sexuality. I hadn’t learned of the powerful community of LGBTQ athletes that I now feel so grateful to be a part of, and I didn’t know of any gay sailors to look up to. While I now see this as ridiculous, I felt that I could not fully acknowledge myself as an athlete because my sexual orientation somehow seemed at odds with my athletic ability. However, as I felt my teammates and my community’s full support in coming out, these thoughts dissipated without return. Until the week of July 31.

On that Friday, out of the clear blue sky, seven varsity programs at GW received shocking news. We will lose our varsity status in June 2021. I appreciated that our Athletic Director, Tanya Vogel, told us the news in the most intimate way possible in these times: a Webex call. In closing, she remarked that someone had told her, if you need to deliver difficult news over a conference call, you should hide everyone’s faces.  Tanya said that sounded incredibly cowardly, and I commend her for carrying as much dignity as possible through this. 

Yet, as I read our president’s email later that day, I felt dejected, ignored, and furious. I felt our team had been invalidated for our accomplishments. While I already knew the details of his email, to read those words from someone I have never met, I cannot say dignity was anywhere near the front of my mind.

With the work of a few incredibly talented and dedicated sailors, GW Sailing became a varsity sport in 2012. This followed a rigorous process of proving that the team had the requisite athletes, the equipment, the drive, and the skill. Since receiving our varsity charter, the team has qualified for eight national championships, fundraised for an entire fleet of boats and sails (twice), and traveled across the country representing the buff and blue. Through its determination and commitment, the GW sailing team has earned the respect of the nationwide community of college sailing.

GW Sailing Team

As I try to look at this from every perspective, I keep coming back to a feeling that I have known before, but only in times of special hardship: my grandparents passing away, or a stressful college admissions process, to name a few. It is a feeling of wanting to lean on others. To catch their flame of strength to help relight my own. As soon as the news was announced, the love from teammates, alumni, and friends came flowing. I felt swaddled in their support and protected from the news hanging in the air. 

Despite these desperately-needed words and acts of encouragement, I felt a personal struggle of wanting to take care of myself but also knowing, as a senior and a captain, I had teammates who also needed someone. While the support rolled in, so did the confused and angry messages from teammates. I struggled to come up with answers, and to piece it all together for myself. I struggled to know where to turn or how to lead the team. I questioned my ability to lead. I questioned my place in the Athletic Department.

As the dust settled, our alumni rallied to host a Zoom “Team Meeting” that brought 60 teammates together, some having graduated back in the 90s. Many faces I recognized and even more I didn’t; I loved seeing teammates reconnect and share stories about their time on the team. If nothing else, the hour-long call showed the passion and love that we all have for GW Sailing and the determination to make the most out of our situation. I know I am only beginning to appreciate the work that will be required. The pandemic will make this all the more challenging as our team and alumni are spread across the globe. However, I am looking forward to the day when the university is all but forced to realize the mistake they’ve made. 

Lastly, to all the GW Sailors reading this: Whatever is to come, I know that we will continue to Raise High, someway, somehow, together. I think we can be certain that our future will look different from what we’ve become accustomed to as a varsity team, but it will be an honor for me to work with you as we ensure that our beloved team soars to new heights.

All photos courtesy of John DeRuff. Follow John on Instagram at @jcderuff