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Western track star Joy Spearchief-Morris won’t stick to sports

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When all is said and done, a track athlete’s success is measured by one thing: speed. Speed is what it takes to be an elite runner, and some would argue that speed is all a runner should be concerned about. But for Western Mustangs runner Joy Spearchief-Morris, speed is merely part of the legacy she hopes to leave behind.

Joy is coming off her final season as a Western Mustang track athlete and is set to graduate as the school’s record holder in the 60m sprint, 60m hurdle and 4x200m first leg. In 2017, her final season as a Mustang, Joy won one gold and two silver medals at the OUA Championships, earning the Women's Track MVP honours for the second consecutive season. She also won two silvers and a bronze at the U Sports Championships and claimed the prestigious U Sports Women’s Student-Athlete Community Service Award too. But the path to success for every student-athlete comes with bumps in the road and tough decisions ahead, and Joy is no exception.

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Joy was born in 1994 in Lethbridge, Alberta, a small city just south of Calgary. Joy identifies as indigenous with Kainai Nation and she grew up in a family that celebrated the traditions and ideals of her people.

Although she enjoyed running from an early age, mostly because she was faster and more competitive than her schoolmates, Joy didn’t seriously pursue track and field until high school. Even when it came time to choose a university, track was secondary to academics, and Joy ultimately decided on the University of British Columbia (UBC).

“I ended up picking UBC a little bit more for its academic reputation than its track reputation,” Joy recalls. “When I got there I did have some really early success with track, but it ended up not being the place for me. I didn’t fit in really well with the team, I really struggled with the change in weather … it was really hard and I didn’t feel like I had a lot of support systems there.”

At the end of her second year at UBC, Joy was forced to make an extremely difficult decision. After her sprinting coach Derrick Johnston left for Western University, Joy had to decide if she wanted to stay at UBC, transfer to Western or go home to Alberta and start over.

“It ended up being the best decision for me to come to Western and I don’t have any regrets,” Joy says. “I’ve really enjoyed my three-year career at Western.”

“Joy has all the remarkable characteristics of a prize student-athlete,” says Vickie Croley, the head coach of Western track and field. “It has been very easy to have someone like Joy on our team ... She has been a tremendous leader by example … guiding younger athletes with her advice.”

It’s not hard to imagine why Joy is happy with her choice. Three years after making that difficult decision, Joy is set to graduate Western University with a major in history and minor in First Nations studies, a new track and field family she has grown extremely close to, medals at the OUA and U Sports level, several Western track records and a path to one day becoming a world-class track athlete. But at the start of 2017, things didn’t look so promising.

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Coming off an impressive 2016 campaign where Joy won gold in the 60m sprint at nationals, her goals were understandably big for her last season as a Mustang.

“I said I’m going to win three gold metals at U Sports Championships,” Joy recalls. “Then January hit. I ended up getting really sick with a sinus infection and laryngitis for about a month and a half. That really took an impact on my training. I’ve [also] had some Achilles [tendon] issues [and] some issues with my hamstrings.”

Consequently, Joy only had two full weeks of practice before the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Championships in late February.

“I really came in at a disadvantage and it took a lot of more mental strength, just being able to trust that when the time is right I’d be able to do what I know I’m capable of doing when it comes to competition,” Joy said. And she did just that: On the first day of OUA’s Joy won gold in the 60m hurdles, running a personal best and Western record 8.28. The next day she won silver in the 60m sprint and silver in the 4x200m relay, powering the Western women to a second-place finish in Ontario and claiming the Women's Track MVP honours.

“I’m really happy that I ended up with the hurdle record this year,” Joy says with a big smile. “That record was held by Jessica Zelinka who is a two-time Olympian, so the fact that I took down her record was a great accomplishment and a cherry on top of my Western career.”

Next was the U Sports Championships in early March, where Joy remained confident in her goals. But after a tumultuous season, she promised herself that she would be satisfied regardless of the result.

“Knowing it was going to be my last meet as a Mustang, I was going to be happy with whatever results came out just knowing that I had done everything I possibly could given the circumstances,” Joy said. “I’m pretty happy with the way things ended.”

Things ended with a silver medal in the 60m hurdles, a silver in the 4x200m relay and a bronze in the 60m sprint. Those results were good enough to place the Western women to a third in Canada.

“Work" is what sprinting coach Derrick Johnston attributes to Joy’s success over the years. “A lot of people will say athletes make sacrifices in order to be successful, but they aren't sacrifices, they're choices. [Joy] chose to put her performance on the track ahead of anything else, and she was rewarded for those choices.”

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To cap off the U Sports Championships, a tournament where speed usually trumps all, Joy was awarded for her hard work off the track. Joy proved that sports don’t exist in a vacuum, winning the U Sports Women’s Student-Athlete Community Service Award for her contribution to the indigenous community.

“To be recognized with an award like that is an honour,” Joy says. “There are so many people who put in a lot of community service in Western and in U Sports. Even when I was at the awards banquet receiving that, just to see all the other nominees and the amount of work they put in outside of school and outside of track in their community was just humbling to listen to.” 

Joy was recognized for her work this year with indigenous communities back in Alberta with the Kainai Nation and here in London with local indigenous communities. Her work focuses on the importance of health and wellness, and includes volunteering with the Kainai 5k Community Fun Run and Kainai Truth and Reconciliation Conference's First Nations Track and Field Day, and taking on a lead role at Western's annual Indigenous Track and Field day where she was a guest speaker and helped run the event. As an indigenous athlete fortunate enough to be in a position to give back, it was never a question of if Joy would give back to her community, but when.

“I always grew up being told that you need to give back to your community and where you came from, so I have been trying to do that to the best I can given my lifestyle and given my time commitments. I didn’t actually think I was going to win based on these other girls,” Joy says with a laugh. “But just to be recognized for what I have done is a nice honour, it’s very humbling.”

At these events Joy spoke on her experiences growing up as an indigenous person involved with sports. Joy explained that she didn’t have a lot of indigenous role models to look up to growing up, so she tries to be one herself, highlighting the importance of “never being afraid to pursue your dreams and your interests no matter where you come from or who you are,” as she put it.

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Not being afraid to pursue her dreams in the face of adversary has gotten Joy this far in her career, and if all goes as planned it will take her further into the world of professional track and field.

Joy recently reached a point in her career where she could no longer focus on both sprinting and hurdling, and ultimately made the tough decision to concentrate on being an elite hurdler. Her goal for the summer is to train in London, Ontario and make the World University Championships (FISU), which take place in Taipei, Taiwan in August. FISU only accepts two athletes from the entire country per event, so it is an extremely competitive team to make, but the confidence exuding from Joy’s coaches tell a different story.

“I genuinely believe she has what it takes to be a world-class hurdler,” says Johnston.

“Joy has the ability to be an international level athlete who could compete for Canada at the highest stage,” Croley adds. 

Although Joy is sad to be leaving Western and the team she has grown so close with, she is excited to start a new chapter of her life where she will work to become an elite hurdler and continue giving back to the indigenous community.

“I think I reached a point in my life where I’m ready to move on and I’m ready to go to the next step and see how much further I can go [with track]. I think the time’s right,” Joy says with a big smile. “Graduating helps: you have to move on with your life.”

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