Missing Man

As everyone and every team does, we have had our share of tragedy and grief. Our most poignant period was when the little brother of one of our team gymnasts got leukemia. Over a period of almost a year, this had a daily effect on our life and the lives of everyone on our team.

We immediately tried to do the right things. We made special arrangements to get Michelle to practice and to keep her after practice when her parents were stuck at the hospital. Many time she ended up spending the night at our house or at the homes of one of her teammates since the hospital her brother was in was over an hour away and her own house was over 45 minutes away and in another state.

Our gym sponsored and fully participated in drive for bone marrow donors for the national Marrow Donor Program. We sponsored two fundraisers to help Michelle’s family with the extra expenses they faced. A year later we sponsored a fundraiser for the National Bone Marrow Registry. After we found out, we never billed Michelle’s family for her gymnastics and never mentioned it to anyone else in the gym.

Michelle had come to our gym after leaving another gym in the next state. She and her parents had a rocky experience with that gym’s coach and they were forced to drive a long distance to our gym to keep her in the sport.

Michelle was never the most popular gymnast on the team, in fact, she alienated a number of the girls, with her seemingly constant demand for attention. She would do or say anything to get attention from coaches, teammates or just anyone who would look or pay the least bit of attention to her. Later on, we came to realize that this might well have resulted from all of the attention her parents were forced to pay to her brother and his deadly illness.

Michelle’s brother was well known to the team. Since they had to drive 45 minutes, Michael often came along with Michelle and her mother to the gym and often stayed at the gym during practice before he became very ill. He was very popular in the gym – funny with a great sense of humor and in the early days very outgoing and active.

Michael’s condition deteriorated rapidly during the year and Michelle was forced to miss the State Championships in order to be with her brother at the hospital in what did turn out to be his last few days on earth. No one, especially Michelle, ever even considered that she would not spend her time with her brother during his last days alive.

At the State Meet, our coaching preparations had led us to kind of temporarily forget Michelle and her brother, but our team had not.

As we watched our team march out, we noticed our team was not marching correctly. There was a huge space between two of the gymnasts. Now our team has done many parades and many meets. They always line up by height and had practiced gymnastics marching enough that this was an extremely obvious error and mistake that our gymnasts were inexplicably making.

Only later after the team was announced, did we notice and understand what was going on. Standing in a straight line still with a big gap in the line, our team did their normal team presentation, stepping out alternately to the side, sticking and presenting to the crowd. When it got to the space, Michelle’s space, our team came to a complete stop and no one moved. After enough time had passed so that Michelle could have presented herself to the crowd, our team resumed their smoothly executed presentation.

Our team, without saying a word to anyone had done their own version of the “missing man” formation acknowledging Michelle and her brother. I turned and headed for the bathroom because as was often said to the team, “If you are going to cry, please leave the floor and go to the bathroom to do it.”

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