Joe Dietterick reluctantly joined the Vineland High School crew team this spring.
Dietterick, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy, just wasn’t that interested in rowing.
He decided to join the team at the suggestion of Fighting Clan boys crew coach Paul Myers, who thought Deitterick’s combination of physical and emotional strength would serve him well in a boat.
“I knew Joe’s personality and his work ethic,” said Myers, who is also Dietterick’s guidance counselor. “If anyone ever tells Joe he can’t do something, he will find a way to do it.”
He’s been finding a way to do things his entire life.
He played baseball in Vineland when he was younger. More recently, he learned how to ride a surfboard as a participant in the Life Rolls On annual event in Wildwood. At Vineland High School, he’s become heavily involved in the school’s ROTC program.
“We’ve always let Joe do whatever he wants to do,” mother Kelly Deitterick said. “We’re just so proud of him.”
This spring, he found a way to row.
In the process, he fell in love with the sport.
All it took was one practice, one experience of dipping the blades of a pair of oars into the water and making the boat glide across the surface with teammate Jason Wheeler, his partner in Vineland’s adaptive doubles boat.
“To be honest, I was scared the first time we went out on the water,” Dietterick said. “I know how to swim, so that wasn’t a problem. It was just that the boat was so small and was rocking back and forth. That made me a little nervous. I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’ But then we got out there, and I was hooked.”
Myers had done some research into adaptive rowing on the high school level and thought Dietterick would enjoy it. The Brigantine Rowing Club, which has offered an adaptive rowing program for more than 20 years, donated oars and a seat.
Dietterick, who uses a walker most of the time, leans on his teammates to a degree both in and out of the water. Upon reaching the dock, Wheeler, a 16-year-old sophomore, helps him into the boat and onto his seat in the bow (front).
Dietterick’s seat does not slide, leaving him to generate energy with his upper body. Wheeler’s seat moves, like in a normal boat, but he also just uses his arms to create the right tempo with his teammate.
“It was hard for Joe at first because he had never rowed before,” Wheeler said. “We both had to make some adjustments, so it took us a little while before we got in sync, but we got better as the season went on. I’m really hoping we get to be in the same boat against next year.”
Dietterick was slowed by a back injury early in the season but recovered in time to team with Wheeler to enjoy some success. They became the school’s first adaptive boat to compete in the Atlantic County Rowing Championships last month at Lake Lenape in Mays Landing, then also rowed in the prestigious Stotesbury Cup Regatta in Philadelphia.
At the team’s season-ending awards banquet, Dietterick was honored with a Congressional Proclamation on behalf of U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew and received the team’s Most Courageous award.
“Joe is a terrific kid and a true inspiration,” said Bob Rush, a Vineland teacher who also works with Dietterick as a Jobs After Graduation specialist. “He doesn’t let anything stop him.”
He’s currently faced with a big challenge.
Last week, Dietterick underwent orthopedic surgery at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, in an effort to improve his balance and stability.
During the operation, which lasted more than two hours, he said, surgeons broke his left leg at the ankle and “twisted it back into place” and also cut his hamstrings and an ankle tendon to lengthen them.
“I had the same surgery in 2011 and that one was much tougher,” he said. “The toughest part for this one is having to sit still and not do anything for a while. That’s hard for me.”
During his recovery, he’s stayed in contact with Wheeler, Myers and the rest of the team.
As much as he’s grown to like rowing, it’s the camaraderie that means the most to him.
It’s about being a team, both in and out of the water.
“The whole team is like a family,” Dietterick said. “We all stick together. That’s really what I like about it.”