With last month's triumph at the Canadian Junior Wrestling National Championships in Saskatoon, 18-year-old Jayden Sparks can add a silver medal to her growing collection.
And a week later, she got the bonus news: because of her performance at the Nationals, she will be representing Canada at an international tournament in Romania.
It was a great note on which to return to Ontario after being recruited to work at one of four national training centres last year in Montreal, and Jayden is now taking a victory-lap year at Cobourg Collegiate institute – where she was a freshman when she first gave the sport a try.
Jayden said she was influenced by how much her brother enjoyed wrestling with the Kawartha Olympic Wrestling Club.
“My parents always encouraged us to pursue what we wanted to pursue and to try as much as possible,” she recalled.
“In Grade 9, I signed up and it kind of took off. I started wanting to become better at it and really found the thing I was passionate about.”
The club is no longer in existence but, even before it closed, she became affiliated with a Brampton club and formed a wonderful working partnership with her coach, Neal Ewers – who is extremely supportive of women's wrestling, which she has found is not universally the case.
She met Ewers four years ago, while working with a Toronto program designed to offer recreational opportunities to under-privileged young people.
“I remember standing outside one of the schools the camp was at. He said, 'What are your dreams for wrestling?' I said, 'I want to be an Olympic champion.' He said, 'OK, let's do it.'
“We just connected.”
Along with being an enthusiastic participant on the CCI team during the school year and coaching at the local Thunderwolves club, Jayden pretty well wrestles year-round on her own time.
Over the years, her honours have included a gold medal in the 2016 Canada Summer Games and, that same year, a bronze medal at OFSAA (Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations). Also in 2016, she was honoured to represent Canada at the Junior Pan American Summer Games wrestling event.
“I have definitely had my accomplishments, and I have really been trying to improve myself to do as much as possible. I have gone to different countries, different provinces, worked with different clinicians, different wrestlers, doing everything I can to improve myself.”
Jayden's ultimate career goal is to be a clinical psychologist, specifically a sports psychologist, hoping to be able to help athletes who struggle with issues – as she does.
Jayden is very forthcoming about the fact that she was diagnosed at age nine with generalized anxiety disorder, and two years ago with obsessive-compulsive disorder. She hopes speaking out may prove helpful.
“I try to be open, because I want to inspire people with my story, to show people that no matter what happens, you can fix it and thrive.”
Jayden is also honest about the struggles these issues have caused her, though she wonders if the OCD might not have worked somewhat in her favour.
“It also has helped me to become the person I am, and a lot of it comes down to the fact that I am extremely obsessed with wrestling. Every time I am at practice, it becomes an opportunity to be my best, to do my best.”
She was glad for the opportunity to mentor two girls at her club. Later, at a training camp, one of them approached her to say how inspiring her story had been and how grateful she was that Jayden had shared it.
“That is one of the main reasons I talk about it openly. Any time you talk about something like that, you are opening yourself up to vulnerability – some people may not believe you or may say you're exaggerating. But you have to ignore those people and look at the people you are inspiring, the people you are motivating, the people you are helping to open up about their issues. It's important to just keep talking about it.”
This wasn't the only challenge she faced this year. Even though she qualified for OFSAA by winning COSSA (Central Ontario Secondary Schools Association) competition at Kawartha, paperwork kept her out of the OFSAA competition.
The problem stemmed from returning from Montreal to CCI, which caused her to be treated as a transfer student and the paperwork was not submitted in time – which she learned only two days in advance of OFSAA.
“I wanted to share that, because I want action to be taken so this doesn't happen to someone else,” she said.
“Two weeks later I had to compete at the nationals, which was very challenging going from there and having to pick myself back up. It was a lot to process,” she admitted
“I know other people have been affected by these OFSAA rules of transferring, and I understand why they are in place. But I really want to raise awareness for the fact that there are exceptions – there are people being denied the right to compete or being able to accomplish things because of paperwork.”
No matter what obstacles she has found over the years, Jayden could always count on her parents Kalon and Jill Sparks to be “extremely, extremely supportive.”
Her dad was with her at the nationals. Her mom keeps track of her programming, helps her with research and oversees her diet and exercise routine. And until recently, when she could begin to drive herself to practice in Toronto from their home in Alnwick-Haldimand Township, it was up to her parents to get her there as often as five times a week.
“I am really grateful to them for really supporting me, because I know a lot of people who don't have that.”