When Joanna Williams returned to Campbell River last spring, she went back to her job at the golf course. She landscaped and cut grass. She hung out with friends and family. She spent time by the ocean, breathing in the salty air. Noticeably absent from the 22-year-old varsity runner’s summer schedule was running.
It was in contrast to a university schedule laden with class time, assignments and training sessions 13 times a week. But over the summer Williams did something she had never done before. She gave herself permission to only run when she felt like it. The decision turned out to be just what she needed to fall back in love with running.
Williams had spent the last six years, more than her entire university athletics career, going in and out of some “pretty dark places” and battling with anxiety and depression.
“It kind of reached a boiling point last year in kind of March-April,” she says. “It was just a very big struggle to even show up to practice, let alone do kind of all the things an athlete needs to be doing to perform at their best.”
At the end of last year’s indoor running season, Williams was spent. And she wasn’t just burnt out in sport, it was every aspect of her life. She wasn’t sleeping. The honours psychology student needed a break.
“I just took time and kind of took the pressure off myself,” she says. “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m only going to go for a run when I want to go for a run.’ Rather than the pressure of gotta be running twice a day, seven days a week.”
She also reached out for help. Counselling and anti-depressants that work for her have made the world of difference. “I just notice an immense difference in myself in every area of my life,” she says. “I think I didn’t realize until those things started to get better, how much it was affecting every area of my life, including athletics.”
Let’s take a step back.
Williams first started running over a decade ago. Her mom, Sharon Williams, took her to a running clinic.
“She mentioned once that she just realized that this (running) was something that she could do for herself,” recalls Sharon. “She could just do it and achieve something. Whatever results happened were just dependent on her and she liked that.”
While Sharon’s knees wouldn’t allow her to keep up the sport, Williams caught the bug. She soon swapped running for triathlon and didn’t return to the sport until Grade 10 at Campbell River Christian School.
Her high school cross-country results were mixed, but not especially promising. Though she was a hard-worker and committed to the training, her effort didn’t translate to results.
At her first BC High School XC Championships in 2012, she finished 26th. In 2013, she was 30th, and in 2014, she was 54th.
What her results didn’t show was that Williams was getting stronger. She was transforming her body into an endurance machine.
“She just kept training hard,” recalls Kathy Andrews, who coached Williams in high school and is currently one of her coaches at Trinity Western. “Running takes a lot of miles to do really well. You can’t really wing it at the beginning. She was just quietly putting on those miles and you just kept seeing improvement.”
By her Grade 12 year, there were a few smaller universities that had expressed interest. Williams wasn’t really sure what she would do after graduation.
Even though she ran in high school, she didn’t consider herself to be a good enough runner to be on a varsity team.
“I was just really surprised when a couple of schools contacted me and I went to Trinity and I think the coach made me feel very welcomed,” says Williams. “It seemed like a really good fit for me.”
While she was back in town over the summer, Andrews and Williams met up for a run in the Beaver Lodge Lands. They enjoyed the lush trail, chatting back and forth, but when they got back to the trailhead, Andrews could tell Williams wanted to say something.
“I said Joanna go ahead, you know you can tell me anything,” says Andrews. “If you need to say something, say something.”
Williams said that Mark Bomba, her previous collegiate running coach, had told her he thought she would be a leader on the team and a fantastic runner.
“She looked at me and she goes: ‘You know what? I haven’t lived up to that,’” says Andrews. They talked about the expectations she was putting on herself. All the coaching staff see something in her, but she has to see it too.
“I think sometimes when you grow up in a Christian School and you grow up in a Christian family and you go to a Christian University, a lot of these kids have such high expectations of themselves almost like they don’t let themselves make mistakes and they’re hard on themselves if they make mistakes and they think they have to be this perfect person,” says Andrews, “And they’re human and I think sometimes we just have to remind them that like we love them and we support them.”
Campbell River runner Joanna Williams had a break-out final season with her Trinity Western University team. Photo by Bailey Broadbent/TWU Athletics
On an autumn day in Washington, Andrews walks the course with another Trinity runner, Jouen Chang. They walk over to the middle of an apple orchard where the course’s best times have been posted.
“Hey Jouen,” says Andrews. “Look at the records, I bet you can get that record.”
But she wasn’t so sure, recalls Andrews, who at that time, didn’t imagine Williams would be a contender.
That start line was different for Williams.
“I think I’m going to win this race,” she thought to herself. It was a thought that had never crossed her mind before and when the start gun went off, she took control of the race.
“She just took it out right away and she ran like OK, the other people have to catch me instead of the other way around,” recalls Andrews.
And the top finishes kept coming.
Then 10th at U Sports Championships in Kingston. The result was strong enough to earn her an invitation to compete with Team Canada at the 2020 World University Cross Country Championships.
“It’s just really nice that right off the beginning, she just ran every race like she was so determined,” says Andrews. “It’s just a different girl running out there and it’s been so wonderful to watch.”
Since being able to sleep and manage her mental health, Williams has become a better version of herself.
“When you’re dealing with that and that’s your norm, you kind of don’t realize how much it takes out of you until it’s controlled and managed,” she says. “I think it’s very refreshing and exciting to be able to kind of lean into my full potential and be able to be a mentor and a leader on my cross country and track teams and be able to support other athletes kind of who may be facing similar struggles.”
She opened up about her struggles with mental health in a Varsity Letters article last fall. “I feel for other athletes in the same position because it isn’t something that is talked about a lot in athletic circles,” she told Varsity Letters. “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.”
In being open about her journey, she’s helped her fellow athletes. Coaches from other teams have approached Andrews to let her know the piece has helped their own athletes.
“I think she’s spoken to a lot more people through that article than she really realizes,” says Andrews.
While she may not have initially realized the impact of sharing her story, Williams is glad she’s made a difference.
“I was hoping, you know, if something I’ve gone through can help somebody else, that would be really amazing, but I wasn’t expecting that,” she says. “I’m just really glad that something that I’ve experienced and shared about has the potential to help other people in recognizing their own potential and recognizing the bravery of asking for help and of moving through that really difficult stuff that doesn’t always get addressed in the athletic realm.”
This weekend, Williams will suit up to run the final cross-country race of her university career. And she’ll be wearing the Maple Leaf when she steps on the start line in Marrakesh, Morocco on March 7.
“I think I’ll very much feel like a little fish in a big pond,” she says. “but I’ll have the biggest smile there.”