LANGLEY — She’d never had this feeling before.
For the first seven seasons of her competitive running life, Joanna Williams had tried to justify the myriad reasons that she trained and she raced, yet in her deepest place, they had all rung hollow.
But this new feeling? What was it?
She’d never had this feeling before.
Two Saturday mornings ago, as the pack gathered stateside in Yakima, Wash., for the start of Central Washington University’s four-kilometre cross-country running invitational, Williams, a senior with Langley’s Trinity Western Spartans, couldn’t shake the realization that something completely joyful and unexpected had begun to pulse through her.
“I’m on that start line, and I just had this feeling,” the psychology major from Campbell River recalled earlier this week. “It was really funny, but I just said to myself ‘I think I am going to win this race.’ In that moment, I just didn’t care as much about all the things I usually do. It was more just a feeling of ‘Oh my gosh, I can do this.’ It was such a good feeling.”
With her fellow senior teammate Mikaela Smart pushing her throughout the race, Williams did indeed cross the finish line first, in a time 14:51.7, some seven seconds ahead of Smart, who finished second.
It was the first time in her life that she had won at a real cross-country meet, and all of it was part of a very successful day for the Spartans, who not only won the women’s team title, but also had senior Nick Colyn win the men’s race.
Yet while blue-ribbon performances represent the tangible side of excellence, there was a far more impactful victory of the intangible variety being celebrated, one which Williams finally decided was too significant not to be shared.
FINDING HER PACE
Trace Joanna Williams’ early career through her annual finishes at the B.C High School Cross Country Championship race, and nothing really jumps off the page.
As a 10th grader from tiny Campbell River Christian, she was 26th. As a Grade 11 she came 30th. Then, in her senior year, at the 2014 race, she was 54th.
Simple math tells you that she was headed in the wrong direction.
“So when I was recruited, I was very surprised because I considered myself an average athlete,” says Williams. “I didn’t ever think I would be able to compete at the varsity level. I didn’t expect much of myself, and it’s only through the encouragement of all of my coaches that I am even competing in the sport.”
Yet the genesis of what would transpire two Saturday’s ago in Yakima began as a gradual uphill arc about six months ago, and when the new season was just about set to begin, the normally reserved Williams had gone against form, trumpeting what she thought could be in store for herself.
“She said to me ‘This is going to be a different year for me,’” remembers Shane Wiebe, TWU’s second-year head of cross-country, and track and field. “Joanna had been running well the last couple of years, but she had never stuck her neck out in any significant way.”
What had changed?
“To be honest, the biggest thing has been my mental health journey,” begins Williams. “Over the course of the last four years, I had been experiencing increasing anxiety and depression to where I was barely sleeping. I had become a real mess. It was a miracle that I could finish my courses, and getting to practice was a huge undertaking.”
Never mind the fact that she was struggling to find meaning in her work on both the trails and the track, Williams was just as frustrated by the fact that she couldn’t be the kind of teammate she knew she was, and so wanted to be.
“I couldn’t engage with my teammates,” she continues. “But that has totally changed over the last half-year after getting help and being on anti-depressants. Now I get to practise and I engage with them, and when I get to the start of a race, I know I am capable because I have been able to get enough sleep.”
In every sense of the word, it’s been a total re-awakening for Williams.
“Suddenly, I realize that I was so shut down because of the simple reason that I couldn’t sleep,” she adds. “It’s been so different, and that’s why I felt the way I did when I stepped up to that starting line.”
A MAGICAL REUNION
Kathy Andrews has been there from the start of Joanna Williams’ running career, and when you think of how just small-town anonymous that starting point actually is, perhaps all of this was simply meant to be.
When Williams began to take her career as a high school harrier even remotely serious, back in the fall of 2012, her Grade 10 cross-country season as Campbell River Christian, Andrews was already her coach.
Last season, Wiebe brought the former Saskatchewan Huskies standout middle-distance runner, as well as fellow coach David Jackson to Sparta as co-coaches of the cross-country and middle distance teams.
The B.C. running community is tight-knit to be sure, yet the odds of Williams and Andrews coming together all these years later carries needle-in-a-haystack odds.
Ask Andrews about it and she talks about it like it’s a blessing.
“I was back in Campbell River over the summer and I said to Joanna ‘Let’s go for a run together,’” recollects Andrews of a loop the pair did in the lush, gorgeous, old-growth trail known to aficionados as the Beaver Lodge Lands.
“At the end of the run I could tell she wanted to tell me something,” Andrews continued. “I asked her what it was, and what she said to me was huge. She told me that when (former TWU head coach) Mark (Bomba) was coaching her, that he believed she could be a leader on this team. Then she said to me ‘I haven’t lived up to it.’”
For Williams, the help she had sought for her mental health journey was manifesting itself in just these kinds of tangible ways.
What had been previously bottled up, was now being released, and Andrews could see that her former high school student-athlete was indeed showing the mettle that both she and Bomba had seen in her.
“We all knew that it was in there,” Andrews says. “I’ve seen it since the beginning, that she has all this strength and courage, but she always doubted herself. It’s been so cool to see her get that confidence.”
THE REASON SHE RUNS
For Joanna Williams, there is synchronicity between her sport and her life in academia as a psychology major, and as they’ve forked together, she has felt an even greater sense of empowerment.
“It’s been a tough road,” she begins. “For the first several years, I was running for the wrong reasons. Running to lose weight, or running to impress coaches. I wasn’t enjoying the sport for what it really is.
“The big thing my coaches tell me now is that running is only important if it influences how you live. If you don’t love it …if it doesn’t make you a more kind and disciplined person, then why are you doing it?”
To hear the passion with which Williams says just that makes you feel personally privileged to have been in her audience.
And if you know her like Andrews knows her, you smile because she through it all, she kept on running, right over the rocky parts, to arrive in a state of enlightenment we all search to find.
“Last season, when David and I took over, she wasn’t even sure she was going to run anymore,” Andrews remembers. “But I am telling you, it’s a different girl in there now. There is a look on her face when you talk to her… there’s a light that just wasn’t there.”
On a personal note, when your author interviewed Williams on Thursday for this story, it was without any prior knowledge of her mental health struggles.
Said Williams towards the end of our talk: “I didn’t even know I was going to tell you about any of this when we started.”
Yet by her very actions over the past six months, she has been building towards all manner of breakthrough moments.
“I really feel for other athletes in the same position because it isn’t something that is talked about a lot in athletic circles… the shadow of mental health problems and how much work it is, besides all the training to deal with in your daily life and how much it completely drains you to where you don’t have enough left for your sport,” she continued.
“I don’t mind saying these things. I am not ashamed of it and I recognize there are so many going through the same thing. I used to minimize it and say ‘It’s not as bad as I make it’ or ‘I am not tough enough’ but I think there might be a lot of others in the same position, and it’s worth it to reach out.”
And that’s why, two Saturday mornings ago, when she prepared herself at the starting line of the first meet of her new season, Joanna Williams knew something good was about to happen.
She’d never had this feeling before.
“It was painful because races are always painful,” she adds. “But I was so happy when I was running. I hadn’t felt like that in so long. I know that all of the hardest work of the season is still ahead, but in so many ways, I feel like the hardest part is now behind me.
“I think there is something so beautiful about feeling strong.”
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