By Braedan Shea
Senior guard Grace Dzindolet listened intently to her very serious head coach, Naomi Graves, earlier this year during a November practice that took place in Blake Arena from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Graves stood at half court, explaining what the next drill would be. The team would be separating into two sides, guards on one half, while forwards and centers would retreat to the other. Right after they broke apart, Dzindolet started heading toward her side.
She took about three steps, stopped, and to much of the amazement of her teammates, threw herself into a full cartwheel. After sticking the landing perfectly, reminiscent of a gold medal gymnast, Dzindolet calmly walked over to the corner of the three-point line as if nothing had happened.
Just a few weeks prior, on October 20, she delivered a SEAT at the Table presentation entitled Queer Culture in Athletics alongside junior Lily Gould. The annual SEAT at the Table event, which ran from Oct. 17 until the 24, is a week-long event of panels and discussions aimed to educate and provide depth and valuable viewpoints toward social justice issues and strive for equity and accountability.
In front of an overcrowded room located in the basement of the Physical Education Complex on campus, where students were forced to sit on the floor due to a lack of seating, Dzindolet shared what life is like as a lesbian athlete. While she didn’t throw herself into any cartwheels, her perspective was still so captivating and intriguing that even in that small, crammed room of people, all you could hear was silence, beside her words, of course.
To even the most keen of eyes, it would appear that Dzindolet is comfortable inside her own skin. She has an understanding of who she is and what her role is in life. But just a few years prior, you would see a completely different, more foreign, more lost character than you do today.
She grew up just about an hour and a half away from campus, in the small town of Holliston, Massachusetts, accompanied by her parents and brother, Anthony, a junior who is also attending Springfield College. She spent most of her time as a child involved in sports as she was an avid soccer player until her freshman year of high school and played Little League baseball, until switching over to softball in high school.
But the sport that she connected the most with was basketball. She played on travel teams, in rec leagues, and eventually AAU and high school. Not only was it something she found enjoyable, but in times of need it became almost therapeutic. Whenever there was free time, Dzindolet could be found getting up shots on a neighborhood hoop, or at the colorful blue-and-green local outdoor court at Goodwill Park. She would be working on her game and forgetting about the outside world – something that she needed to do quite often.
In some ways, Dzindolet was noticeably different from the majority of teenage girls.
“I was playing baseball, I went to every football practice just to hang out with the boys. That’s just how it was,” she said. When reminiscing about what she wanted to wear, she would tell her parents, “I don’t want a skirt, I want the shorts you just got Anthony.”
Although appearing and acting differently than most girls her age, she didn’t realize until just before her eighth grade school year started that she felt different as well.
She felt lost, explaining it as “One of those things I knew, but didn’t really know what it was, or how to put it into words.” Soon, however, Dzindolet found someone just like her. Someone she connected with and felt comfortable with. This was a comfort that she hid for two full years.
“It was two years of me just trying to figure out what I wanted, what made me happy, and who made me happy,” she stated.
Even though she had found someone she could be comfortable with, someone who made her happy, her partner was not as comfortable as her. The entire time they were together, her girlfriend never came out. So Dzindolet didn’t either.
But sophomore year of high school, tired of hiding who she really was, Dzindolet finally came out to her parents in person, with her girlfriend on a FaceTime call.
She remembered, “I was facetiming one of my friends, and I was like ‘Mom, I have something to tell you.’ She came into my room, and my friend was still on facetime, and I was like, ‘This is my girlfriend, just so you know.’ She was like ‘I love you, it’s okay,’ and then my dad, from the other room, was like ‘do you want to talk about it?’ and I was like, ‘No dad, I’m going to bed.’ And that was it.”
‘Coming out’ is when someone tells another person about their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is usually an ongoing process for a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person, rather than a one-off event because of how hard of an event it is. For Dzindolet, however, coming out wasn’t that hard.
“Coming out wasn’t bad. It was never an issue, it was kind of just awkward. You just have to get over the awkwardness of it. I don’t think I was very accepting of myself at the time, either. I just did it because I knew I had to do it to be with someone,” she said.
The hard part was that her father’s side of the family did not know, and didn’t know until she “literally just told them a couple months ago.” Immediately following coming out, her mother notified her side of the family through a mass text. Her father, on the other hand, said nothing about her “lifestyle choice,” as he calls it. It led to her having to be a different person around that side of the family.
“I would go to my mom’s side family parties and bring my girlfriend around and it would be fine. Then my dad’s side was like, ‘this is my friend,’” she said.
“Sometimes that conversation is so uncomfortable, and so you just avoid it for so long. It wasn’t like they weren’t going to be like ‘Love you, Grace,’ but it was just…weird,” she added. “You just get used to being asked ‘How’s your boyfriend?’ and it’s like, “Okay, I’ll just shut up.”
Although delivering the line lightheartedly, her words carried more weight than a cargo ship.
While dealing with this huge identity issue off the court, on it, she knew exactly who she was. In her four years of playing varsity hoops at Holliston High School, she built herself quite the resume and topped it off with the most coveted milestone in high school basketball – 1,000 career points. By the time her high school career was wrapping up, the high level of play she produced caught the eye of some Division III coaches, including Graves of Springfield College.
After finally choosing to attend Springfield, she quickly fell in love with the atmosphere.
“Once I got here, it was awesome. It was exactly what I thought it would be. I really enjoy it,” she said. That love for the campus eventually turned into love for herself. The time spent at Springfield has allowed for her to finally come to a sense of who she is.
“She has found who she is over the past four years that I’ve known her. She’s a big personality. With basketball she’s found her place and you can tell that she is very mature… Everyone knows her on campus, and she’s a really awesome person,” said Stephanie Lyons, a senior on the team who has grown incredibly close to Dzindolet over their four years together.
Graves says that her play on the court has increased thanks, in part, to her off the court strides.
“Her basketball game is three times better this year, and honestly, I think it’s because she found herself,” Graves said.
One of the things I like about using Grace as an example right now is that all along she was passionate, but she was like this raw piece of clay. Now, she’s matured. She has an understanding, to some level, of the bigger picture.”
Now that she has had the opportunity to find herself, Dzindolet is using that for the betterment of others. Her main goal now is to help those around her, in any way that she can.
“I have found what I am more passionate about. I always knew I liked helping people, but I didn’t know how I could do that,” she said.
Dzindolet has found that the best way to channel her desire for helping others is on the court.
“It started in high school, because I was a freshman on varsity with all of these older people,” she said. “I had such good mentors and people who helped me along the way, so I always feel like if I looked up to these women in sports, I want to be the person that someone else can look up to.”
For Angela Czeremcha, a first-year student from West Springfield, Mass., Dzindolet has done exactly what she set out to do.
“I would say Grace is one of my biggest role models, especially on and off the court. She is always there and is kind of a ray of sunshine. She is amazing,” said a starstruck Czeremcha. “She is always checking in on me, always making sure I’m in the right headspace. Always making sure I am confident and collected and I know that I can talk to her about anything.”
Czeremcha is not the only teammate Dzindolet has made an impact on. In 2018, when Dzindolet and Lyons were in their first year on campus, Lyons was struggling with being at Springfield College. She wanted to transfer, but Dzindolet talked her out of it.
“Now she has kind of led me through life, she’s helped me a lot. Freshman year I struggled and she got me through it,” said Lyons.
Her drive to help others doesn’t go unnoticed, either. Graves appointed her as one of the captains (or “team leaders,” as she prefers), along with Lyons and Amanda “Sis” Carr.
“I’ve always seen the fact that people will follow her,” said Graves.
It’s easy to see why. On the court she doesn’t just help and support her teammates, but has fun in doing so. She is very loud and vocal, from playing tough defense to hyping up teammates after a good play. She constantly looks for high-fives and situations to pick up others’ heads. For herself, she doesn’t hone in on mistakes, rather just laughs them off and pushes through.
This season the women’s basketball team is looking better than ever before, thanks in large part to Dzindolet. Her attitude, along with her 11.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game have helped the team get off to one of its best starts ever. With a perfect 10-0 record, the team has jumped out to its best record in over 40 years, and is currently ranked No. 18 in the latest Women’s Basketball Coaches Association D-III Poll.
Whether it is using her quick hands to nab a steal and launch an outlet pass to a streaking teammate, or performing her signature pre-game euro-step handshake; being a leader is Dzindolet’s lifestyle choice.
Photo: Joe Arruda/The Student