Tim and Cease Atkinson with granddaughter Selma, and a signed rugby ball and team photo from the University of Calgary women’s team. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Legacy of South Surrey rugby player comes ‘full-circle’

Joah Atkinson died in a Calgary crosswalk 16 years ago, but her memory remains strong

The parents of a South Surrey woman who died 16 years ago after she was struck while walking in a Calgary crosswalk say their daughter’s legacy of supporting aspiring rugby players is stronger than ever.

In the past decade alone, the Joah Atkinson and Brian Collins Memorial Athletic Award – with an endowment fund valued at more than $260,000 – has benefited 57 women through the University of Calgary.

Recipients include South Surrey natives Sylvie Mullen – who played rugby at Earl Marriott Secondary and with Team BC’s U19 squad – and, most recently, Berlyn Seselja, a Semiahmoo grad who suited up for the Bayside club.

Available to students who are members of the university’s Dinos Womens Rugby Team, the award has come “full-circle” now that it’s benefiting Bayside alumni, Atkinson’s dad, Tim, told Peace Arch News.

The university achieving varsity status (meaning the club competes at the highest level of university sport in Canada), he added, “really gave Joah – her legacy – some real roots.”

Joah and Brian, her boyfriend, were 20 and 23 years old, respectively, when they died in the 2003 tragedy. Both were avid rugby players.

READ MORE: Forever Young Run pays tribute to young lives

The athletic award was established the following year, and has been in its current form since 2009. There have been 11 male recipients.

This year, Seselja was one of three UofC rugby players chosen to share $4,750. In a card sent to the Atkinsons, she thanks them and Joah “for building the program here and back at Bayside.”

“It is always a pleasure to know that I am on the field with her back home and here in Calgary,” Seselja adds.

Letters from the recipients are “one of the nicest things that happen every year,” said Tim.

“They give you a real lift.”

The Atkinsons also beam when noting the women’s team has won the past three Canada West championships.

Four per cent of the memorial fund is doled out to deserving students each year, and Joah’s mom, Cease, said she is “so happy” with where the money is going.

The Atkinsons also personally fund one $500 award annually for an Eagle River Secondary student, Cease added.

Joah, who would have turned 36 last January, grew up in South Surrey and graduated from EMS. At the time of her death, she was in her third year of studies at the University of Calgary and a member of the Calgary Irish Women’s RFC. She had been scouted by the university at age 18, and was asked to play for Calgary following her performance at a game in Salmon Arm.

Asked why she had chosen rugby, Joah’s parents pointed to their daughter’s overall athleticism: “She played every single sport in high school,” said Cease.

A Renegades player from about nine years of age till 16, Joah simply came home one September day – the same year she hit the scholarship zone for baseball – and announced that she was going to play rugby.

“She loved the rough, tough,” her mom said.

The Atkinsons initially raised money for the memorial student-athlete awards through the Forever Young Run, an event which launched in the couple’s memory and continued for about a decade, first in Calgary and then in Sicamous.

Tim said he hopes to one day see a run organized on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, perhaps led by all the kids who now share Joah’s name – there are five so far, including his granddaughter, Selma Joah, he noted.

“We’ve never really done anything locally… in a significant way,” he said.

He and Cease are also hoping to see Joah’s memory – and that of all Bayside players who have died too young – incorporated in the new rugby fieldhouse. The $2.3 million, 7,000-square-foot project is currently under construction in the South Surrey Athletic Park and is expected complete this summer.

READ MORE: Bayside Athletic Association kicks off lottery fundraiser

Those involved in its design tell PAN a memorial wall is planned, complete with photos and name plaques of the lost players.

The Atkinsons say they have also envisioned such things as Joah’s framed jersey on a wall, or perhaps a “Joah night” at the new facility.

“I’ve got all kinds of plans for this rugby fieldhouse,” Tim said.

This fall, the Atkinsons will continue another tradition, of travelling to Vancouver to watch the Calgary Dinos take on UBC. It’s where they “get to meet the girls that got the award,” Cease said.

“They all stand where Joah was when she was 20.”

Following the 2017 game, Calgary coach Simon Chi brought the whole team around the Atkinsons.

“It’s so neat to still be part of all this energy,” Tim said.

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Joah Atkinson died in September 2003 at the age of 20. Sixteen years later, her parents say her legacy has come full-circle, now that a fund established in her memory has boosted a Bayside Sharks player. (Contributed photo)

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