This past gymnastics season, the Tribe women had a stellar year, breaking the team vault record, the school record in the all-around, earning the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) regional title for the first time in 11 years, and producing the ECAC’s Gymnast of the Year, Specialist of the Year and Scholar Athlete of the Year.
A big part of the team’s success was the guidance of assistant coach Tim Rivera. Rivera was chosen as the Assistant Coach of the Year for the ECAC for the second time, an impressive feat given that he has only coached at William & Mary for four seasons.
Even more impressive is the fact that Coach Rivera is alive. He has died. Twice. After an accident in 1997, in which he was pronounced dead at the scene and again several days afterward in the intensive care unit, doctors told him he would never walk or speak again. Despite these obstacles, Rivera has gone on to a successful coaching career with many collegiate programs.
Rivera grew up in Monterey, Calif. His interest in gymnastics was piqued when he began competing as a walk-on for the men’s team at California State University, Chico. After graduating, he moved from the competition to the coaching sphere immediately, becoming head coach of women’s gymnastics at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo for seven years, then the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) for four years. During his tenure with UCSB, the team won many national and regional accomplishments, and Rivera was chosen as the 1992 Big West Conference Coach of the Year.
In 1994 Rivera moved to Michigan, where he worked as an assistant coach at Michigan State University, earning NCAA Central Region Coach of the Year honors in 1996. During the summers, he volunteered at several gymnastics camps.
At the conclusion of one of these camps at Texas Woman’s University (TWU), Rivera was helping move mats from the site. Riding in the back of a pickup truck that was going approximately 15 mph, he was somehow thrown from the bed. He has no memory of the accident that occurred in which he was pronounced dead at the scene. He was revived on the way to the hospital, but pronounced dead again days later. He was revived a second time and stayed in the intensive care unit for 10 days, drifting in and out of comas three times.
When he talks about the incident these days, he jokingly says, “I never saw lights or anything.” He has no memory of the three-month period following the accident. He stayed in semi-intensive care for five weeks and the doctors delivered a grim prognosis. His family gathered to support him during his recovery process. Although Rivera does not remember it, his brother hired a private jet to fly Rivera to Michigan to one of the leading brain hospitals in the country. There, he regained the ability to walk and speak again, defying the medical professionals’ predictions.
His vision, brainstem, reaction time and motor function on his left side were severely impacted. Rivera said that he is still working on a sense of normalcy, and visits a speech therapist and physical therapist yearly. Much like gymnastics, his recovery is a continual effort. After his accident, he had decided to retire and devote some time to volunteering at a gymnastics club. However, it only took six months for him to begin coaching again full time. He made a phone call to his friend and coach at TWU, who coincidentally was the driver of the truck from the accident in 1997. From 2004 to 2010, Rivera worked at TWU, specializing in uneven bars routines. It may seem like returning to the place where such a devastating accident occurred would be difficult, but it didn’t phase Rivera. He has always been focused on coaching and helping gymnasts achieve their goals. During his tenure with the team, the program ranked No. 1 or No. 2 on bars in the USAG National Collegiate rankings and TWU gymnasts were bars champions at their conference championship meet five times.
Rivera came to William & Mary in 2010, working with bars and vault and serving as the recruiting coordinator. In his second year with the Tribe, Rivera was nominated by head coach Mary Lewis for Assistant Coach of the Year. This honor is well deserved. “Tim’s biggest strength as a coach is how much he cares about his job,” said gymnast Larson Lasek ’14. “He always puts us first. It’s easy to see how passionate he is about this team.” Rivera takes little credit for his honors. “I’m very proud. It’s nice to be recognized by peers. But I told the girls it’s a team award. It won’t happen without them; we do everything together.”
Rivera believes that the team has a bright future ahead. Always putting the team first, he wants to continue their winning streak and hopes the team will defend their ECAC title next season. William & Mary has given Rivera a second chance to coach for the sport he loves, and he is determined to make the most of the opportunity.