Joi Smith, a junior on the Michigan women’s track and field team, died Saturday after a nine-month battle with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of muscle cancer.
A group, mostly comprised of Michigan student-athletes, reminisced about Smith for about an hour and a half last night in the Ross Academic Center.
“We shared stories; we cried together; we prayed,” said Casey Taylor, a junior on the women’s track and field team. “Just shared Joi’s life right now, since we all hold a piece of her in our heart.
“She was just a joy. Her name explains who she was.”
Every freshman on the team is paired with older athletes who they can look to for advice. Smith was assigned to Jenifer Horn, who ran track and graduated last year. Horn, who doesn’t have any sisters, really took to the role, picking on her “little sister” by wearing her clothes.
Horn hosted Smith on a recruiting visit when the hurdler was in high school. She pegged Smith as very popular because of all the time she spent on the phone and her “cute clothes.”
“We were all like ‘Mmm, she’s going to be trouble when she gets here,’ ” Horn said. “But she wasn’t. She was just so much fun.”
Smith had stomach pains before competing in the first event of the pentathlon at the Big Ten Indoor Championships in Champaign last February. After an Illinois doctor diagnosed the pain as a gallstone problem, Smith competed in the 60-meter hurdles and finished with a time of 8.81, just .004 behind her career high. She attempted the high jump, but couldn’t overcome the pain.
That pain didn’t leave when the team returned to Ann Arbor, so Smith was taken to the hospital, where doctors had trouble stopping her internal bleeding.
The doctors removed a lump from under her arm and diagnosed her with cancer.
“At one point, she was in such a critical state that the doctors called in her parents and a minister, because they were not sure if she would make it,” Michigan coach James Henry said through the athletic department in May.
Smith spent two weeks in intensive care before shuttling back and forth between Michigan and Ohio for treatment.
“She got out, and it was like nothing changed for her,” Horn said. “She wasn’t a victim. She didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for her. She got right back on it, with everything – classes, hanging out with her friends. It was just back to her normal schemes. She wouldn’t let it hold her down.”
Smith, who placed a priority on academics, took two classes last spring, but occasionally missed them to receive treatment. At times, teachers didn’t understand.
“She was like ‘I told them I was going to miss class,’ ” Horn said. “But she was like, ‘Whatever, I’m going to get an A on the next paper.’ “
Charneé Lumbus, who runs track at Michigan and attended the same high school as Smith, created a facebook.com group called “In Support of Joi R. Smith.” The group had 896 members as of 11 p.m. last night.
Some of the Michigan fans in attendance at yesterday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., wore black ribbons in memory of Smith.
“She was just that joyous type of person to be around,” Taylor said. “She liked to have fun, liked to smile, liked to laugh. She was like that until the end.”