Written by Joel Waterman
“I was always a Christian, but I would be too shy to show it.”
That was the mindset of middle distance runner Tyler Dejong before he decided to make Trinity Western University his home away from home. Hiding his faith was something he just did, as he was unsure how he would be perceived. Coming from a Christian home and developing his own faith, he knew it was only a matter of time before his “secret” would become known. However, the road to get to that point was far from easy.
Growing up, Tyler lived with his parents Kelly and Wim and younger brother Colten. Kelly has been a Christian throughout her entire life and it was because of her example that Tyler first began to understand his own faith.
“She was like Mrs. Christian,” he says. “I was afraid to say any curse word in front of her.”
Alongside with a faith that was just beginning to germinate, his passion for sport also started to take root at an early stage in Dejong’s life.
He played basketball, football, hockey and he even wrestled before ultimately focusing on soccer.
On the pitch, he eventually earned a tryout with Surrey United, a local club that plays in the BC Soccer Premier League, which is the highest level of youth soccer in B.C. At that moment, he had dreams of a post-secondary soccer career.
“All I wanted to do was play soccer at UBC,” Dejong says. “That’s all I thought about.”
With that mentality, he showed well at the tryout and everything seemed to be going as planned.
However, a few days after the tryout Dejong got a call from the coach with news that he was not picked for the team. He was devastated. His soccer-playing dreams seemed shattered and he started to question everything his sporting ambitions. That’s when he decided to give running a whirl.
During the spring of his Grade 11 year, Dejong ran in the Vancouver Sun Run – just for fun. He finished 89th overall and fifth in his age category (16-18) with a tidy time of 34:57 over 10 kilometres. Just four spots ahead of him was a burgeoning middle distance star at TWU in Joel De Schiffart, who went on to an impressive five-year career as a Spartan.
Former TWU coach Laurier Primeau was at the race and, after seeing results, started a conversation with Dejong.
TWU had never been a thought that had come across Dejong’s mind and he certainly had never considered a foray into middle distance running. Frankly, he wasn’t passionate about the sport, nor the school.
“My mom wanted me to go to Trinity, but that was never a thought that came to my head,” Dejong says.
Even after a few sessions training with a few of TWU’s athletes, he wasn’t sold.
However, with his soccer-playing hopes no longer in the picture, he decided to sign with the Spartans with his focus being on his education. His plan was to become a strength and conditioning coach and eventually work with young athletes who were like him – undersized, but with lofty goals.
A day after officially committing to TWU, Dejong was at a local soccer game in Langley when he bumped into the Surrey United coach who had cut him.
“He told me that there was a mistake,” Dejong recalls.
The coach explained that when they made the cuts, they accidently called the wrong Tyler Dejong. There was another “Tyler Dejong,” who was supposed to get the call. The Tyler in this particularly tale should have made the team.
Dejong was stunned, upset and angry. His soccer dream had vanished because of a mix up and now he was stuck with a university and sport he did not like.
Yet, despite it all, he remained positive.
“Tyler is a very unique individual,” said TWU’s endurance coach Mark Bomba. “He’s always moving forward. He treats people with such respect and people just gravitate towards him.”
Dejong’s persistence pushed him through his toughest times. Whether that was in sports, life or faith, he has always looked for opportunities to grow. Arriving at TWU, that’s exactly what he did. He decided to make the most out of his situation. He started running in competitions and buying into the team dynamics of what TWU was all about. Things started to get better, not only on the track, but off the track as well.
His hidden faith started to come to surface when he realized he wouldn’t be judged for his beliefs, nor for his style, his ever-present baggy basketball shorts, his tattoos or his flashy earrings. He came to a conclusion that the University he thought would be a place of judgment was actually a place of acceptance. That realization eventually started to show itself on the track as well.
In his third year, Dejong and his team surpassed all expectations. The men’s cross country team finished second at the U SPORTS championships and made history by winning TWU’s first-ever Canada West banner in men’s cross country.
“That was one of the best days of my life,” he says.
Even though it was a monumental moment, Dejong still felt unsatisfied and considered quitting. However, his persistence took over again and he promised his teammates that he’d stay at TWU. After winning the conference title in cross country, the Spartans men’s track and field team duplicated the performance in the spring, winning the Canada West banner on the indoor track.
“That’s when I realized I was part of something bigger than myself,” he says. “I couldn’t leave my teammates and coaches behind.”
Tyler stayed true to his word.
He came back to TWU for his fourth year and has continued to work towards becoming a strength and conditioning coach while keeping his promise to both the cross country and track and field teams – a commitment that has seen him become a leader within his team and a bastion of light for his faith.
“He’s a leader in that he’s likable and people are really drawn to him and I think that’s a really powerful component to being a leader,” says Spartans track and field coach Rob Pike. “He has incredible character and I’m just so impressed with how he conducts himself at the track and away from the track.”
For Dejong, he’s happy about how things turned out and the person he has become while at TWU. And for that, he’s thankful that sometimes mistakes happen.