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Sylvie Mullen playing rugby.
Ron LeBlanc/the Gauntlet

Bursary keeps rugby star's memory alive

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Robust, gregarious, loving, outgoing and passionate are all adjectives that can be used to describe Joah Atkinson, a graduate of Earl Marriott secondary school bordering Surrey and White Rock who was killed by a careless driver in 2003.

Those positive descriptions can be applied to Sylvie Mullen, also a Marriott alumna, who is keeping Joah's memory alive on the rugby pitch in Calgary.

"[Sylvie's] got the same personality as Joah," said Cease Atkinson, who, along with husband Tim, raised Joah in South Surrey.

"She's the same. It has come full circle."

A minivan ran over Joah, 20, and her boyfriend, Brian Collins, 22, as they were walking across the street in a crosswalk after a University of Calgary Dinos rugby meeting on Sept. 30, 2003.

Collins died that day in Calgary and Joah, who suffered massive head injuries, was pronounced dead a day later.

Both families have chosen to find some good from the devastating accident.

In 2004, two bursaries -- the Brian Collins and Joah Atkinson Memorial Awards -- were created at the U of C.

Every year since then, two student-athletes -- one male, one female -- who have solid academic records and exhibit outstanding citizenship through volunteering or community service are given the awards. The awards range from $750 to $3,000 each, depending on the amount of principal in the bursary fund.

More than $40,000 was raised in the first year alone and the fund is now hovering around the $120,000 mark.

The Atkinsons had long wanted the bursary in their daughter's name to be rugby-specific but due to university rules, that would not be possible unless rugby was a varsity sport.

Cease said the family, while happy to give the award to anyone deserving, has been longing for the day when Dinos rugby went big-time.

In 2009, the family got their wish.

"Not knocking any other sports at U of C, but this turns the legacy of the award on," Tim said. "Once varsity status is reached, history starts to record."

The Atkinsons, again due to university rules, have never been able to hand-pick the award's winner.

So, when they heard Mullen had been selected -- and subsequently learned of the budding rugby star's background -- they were blown away.

Mullen, like Joah, played rugby at Marriott with the Bayside Sharks, a club based in South Surrey and with the Dinos.

And the similarities don't stop there.

Both Mullen and Joah -- beloved leaders on their respective teams -- were utility backs, using their speed to evade opponents, especially when positioned on the wing.

"We'd always hoped, down in our heart, to have someone from White Rock and someone from Bayside, and she's just everything," said Cease of giving Mullen the award. Cease taught at Laronde elementary for 26 years, the same school Mullen attended as a child.

Mullen admits she knew little at first about the tragic accident that occurred eight years ago, but she has since learned more about Joah and her boyfriend.

"After hearing it, even without knowing a lot of the story, it's so inspirational," said Mullen, who won a provincial club rugby championship this summer with the Calgary Hornets.

"I want to get to know [the Atkinsons] better, just because of everything that's happened."

The Calgary bursaries are not the only awards given out annually in the couples' memory.

At Marriott, a Flying Shoes trophy (and $100 toward a new pair of cleats) is given to the best back on the senior girls' rugby squad. Mullen won the award in 2010.

In Sicamous, where the Atkinsons host a fundraising run at their lakeside cabin, a $500 Joah Atkinson-Brian Collins Forever Young Athletic Award is given to a graduating athlete from Eagle River secondary.

The driver responsible for the couples' death was convicted of careless driving and given the maximum sentence for that crime -- a $2,000 fine and three-month driving ban.

But, with each year that goes by, and with every person who benefits from the couple's legacy, both families are able move on with their lives.

"I don't think you ever really get over it, but this has really brought people together," said Joah's sister Lena. "It's hard not to dwell on it, but if you can change it to positive. I think it really helps with the healing."

Joah's father echoed Lena's sentiments.

"This is an award that has heart," Tim said. "A lot of these awards, they get a cheque and that's it. This is a kind of bursary that's alive. And, with Sylvie, it's like a home run."

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