AJ is a graduating student in the Urban Studies and Sociology Programs at U of T and is a current member of the Varsity Blues Track and Field Team. In the fall AJ will be attending McGill University for his Master’s in Urban Planning. Outside of school and running, he recently helped co-found the BIPOC Varsity Association at U of T. He also helps out a community planning agency, working to improve access to affordable housing in Toronto. His aspirations include competing at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in the 800m and setting personal best times for events ranging from 800m to 5000m.
Can you tell me about how you first got involved in sport and your experiences in sport over the years?
"Before running, I was a competitive hockey player. When I realized
my dream of making the NHL wasn’t a reality, I decided to join my high
school track and cross country teams. I’ve always been an active person and played multiple sports growing up. But when I started running, I quickly fell in love with going for long easy runs by myself. That said, I also found it to be a great time to socialize with friends and take a break from work or school."
What have been some of your biggest accomplishments and toughest setbacks so far?
"In high school, I won OFSAA twice, once in the 400 and once in the 4x400m
relay. In university, I competed multiple times at the provincial and
national level, with the 800m being my main event. One of my most
memorable moments was winning the 4x800m relay at the OUA
championships in 2019. In terms of setbacks, I’d say dealing with
an achillies injury in my second year of university. I remember really
struggling to get through practice and staying motivated to race. At that
point, I wasn’t sure if the sport was for me anymore. Looking back, I’m
grateful that I had a great coach and teammates who encouraged me to
stick with it. It’s still an ongoing challenge to maintain, but I’ve gotten better
over the years with managing the injury"
What are some major challenges athletes are facing currently, and how do inequities in sport impact how athletes are impacted by this challenge? How has this affected BIPOC athletes, both where you live and around the world?
"I think one of the biggest challenges for athletes right now is to stay
motivated throughout this pandemic. It’s tough to stay engaged when
there are no competitions to look forward to or no in-person training. Even
with more individual sports, like Track & Field, team workouts can still be
critical to a runner’s success and motivation to train. This can be especially
challenging for BIPOC athletes. There’s an overall lack of representation
across sports, and with no one to turn to during these times, it can
be isolating. Within my sport, we’re also seeing some athletes have more
access to training and racing than others, and despite being just as
committed not all athletes have the same opportunities right now."
You started the BIPOC Varsity Association at UofT - Can you tell us a bit about the motivation driving this project and what the goal of it is?
"In the summer of 2020, a group of 11 student-athletes met with U of T’s
Athletic Director and the Dean of Kinesiology to talk about some pragmatic
ways in which we can address racial discrimination in varsity athletics and
grow a community of support for BIPOC student-athletes. We came up with a
number of objectives and ultimately the BIPOC Varsity Association was
formed to keep ourselves and the administration accountable in addressing
these initiatives. The formation of the BVA and being involved with it has
been the highlight of my year."
Can you talk about some of the BVA’s objectives and initiatives that are in motion for 2021 and beyond? What changes would you like to see happen as a result of the BVA? Where can people find information about the BVA, help support the program and/or participate?
"When the BVA came together last year, we created a list of 21 objectives, some short-term and some long-term, that we would like to accomplish. Throughout the year we worked towards a number of these, including the formation of the BVA itself, subcommittees, an educational event about racism in sport, as well as a newsletter to share helpful resources and updates about the work BVA is doing. A few members of the BVA have also been helping out on the OUA Anti-racism project, led by Dr. Janelle Joseph and the IDEAS research lab at the University of Toronto. While this isn’t our project, it closely aligns with one of our objectives to collect race-based data and get a better understanding of BIPOC experiences in sport. As we look towards the next academic year, one of the things I’m most excited about is the launch of the BVA mentorship program. I think it will really help advance our overall goal of creating and growing a community of support for BIPOC student-athletes. Anyone can find information on the BVA website, or by signing up for the newsletter!"
What advice do you have to offer for other students who want to start a similar program at their institution? (The Dos and Donts – or challenges that may need to be navigated)
"I would say don’t be afraid! The BVA started from just a few student-athletes voicing their concerns. It was only after we had meetings with the Athletic Director and Dean of KPE that it was decided that the BVA would be formed. One thing that I found has really helped us address some of our objectives is having great institutional support. For example, Robin Waley, Assistant Manager of KPE Diversity & Equity has helped with BVA initiatives in a multitude of ways and has also helped the BVA navigate through some of the bureaucratic processes of the institution. Varsity Blues has also been a great help in sharing our initiatives across social media to help get information across to other student-athletes. So, to other students looking to start something similar, I’d say don’t be afraid to voice your concerns, organize and determine what are some things that you would like to address, and reach out to people who may have the knowledge and resources to support you, like an Equity department. You can also reach out to the BVA! We’re always happy to connect with other students/ schools and grow the community of support. Even if you’re in your last year, it’s never too late to start a conversation. With the BVA, some of our co-founders are recent alumni and two of us are graduating this year. But, we still look to them for support on initiatives, and the younger team members will be able to carry forward the work next year."
What gaps exist in the athletic community, and what in your opinion, can/should be done to fill those gaps in Canadian Sports?
"Early on when the BVA first came together, one common theme was that a
lot of BIPOC student-athletes felt that there weren’t a lot of resources
available to them. What I noticed was that while there are a lot of supports
out there, there is a real gap in connecting those resources to those seeking
the support and making them more aware to the athletic community. I think
coaches and team captains can play a leading role in promoting helpful
resources for athletes."
What can a start-up like One-Athlete do to help fill these gaps? (I.e. make ourselves and our resources easily accessible to BIPOC athletes)
"To make yourselves more accessible you should reach out to individuals or groups at different institutions that are working towards improving the experiences of BIPOC athletes. They would be in a position to pass on those resources to students who may be seeking support, but are more likely to not know where to look or know what is available to them. Team leaders like coaches, captains and sport administrators are also helpful people to reach out to and ask them to pass on these resources to athletes. I think the use of social media, like what One-Athlete is doing, is also a great tool."
How have you been impacted by RED-S and/or overtraining? How has RED-S and/or overtraining impacted your training, competitions, and other aspects of your life?
"Before learning about RED-S from One Athlete I have never heard of the term. But,
reflecting on my time as an athlete, I’ve definitely seen and experienced
some of the symptoms in other athletes. I think what One Athlete is doing is great and will
help athletes, coaches, and others understand the symptoms of RED-S/ and or
Overtraining and equip them with the knowledge to address it effectively."
Did you know about RED-S/Overtraining before learning about it from One Athlete?
"Being an athlete in university can be really tough and looking back there
were times where the symptoms of REDS/Overtrining were there, whether that be a prolonged state of feeling tired or re-occurring odd injuries. As an athlete it’s
easy to think that it’s just something you have to push through to make it to
the next level but recognizing when you’re overdoing is just as important to
your overall success both in and out of the sport."
What tools or resources do you find to be the most valuable in helping your athletic career? Do you feel every athlete has equal access to these tools or resources? If not, where/how do these inequities present?
"There is this book called “In Pursuit of Excellence” by Terry Orlick which has helped me navigate the mental barriers to succeed as an athlete. But
overall, there’s a general consensus that athletes, and particularly BIPOC
athletes do not have access or are not aware of resources available to them.
This is something that the BVA is working to address."
How important is it for you to have a tool that is easily accessible to you that can monitor your health with respect to your training and performance, and why?
"I think it’s so important! A few years ago, my coach encouraged me to start
using a daily training journal and take note of how I’m feeling, both mentally
and physically. This made it a lot easier to understand how different aspects
of my life affect my training and competing."
How do you think access to tools like this will impact not just elite athletes, but athletes of all levels (upcoming, junior, masters, etc)?
"I think it’s important for anyone regardless of skill or level to understand how their bodies are reacting to training. It will only make you better and healthier."
What are your athletic goals currently and how you are overcoming challenges related to covid.
"I’m hoping to qualify for the Canadian Track and Field Championships and
run in the 800m final. But it depends on what things will look like this
Summer and if there will be a track season. The way I approach it is that I can use
this extra time away from racing to work on the little things and take care of
my body so I’ll be ready to go as soon as things open up."