Illini hurdler Vanier Joseph’s dad watches over his “unfinished business”


Illinois’ Vanier Joseph races against Indiana State’s Greggmar Swift at a meet on April 12. Joseph is running for his father, who passed away a year ago while Joseph was competing in the NCAA regional. 

By Christopher Kennedy

Last May, Vanier Joseph arrived in Austin, Texas, for the NCAA West Regional poised for success. He was fresh off of a Big Ten Championship in the 110-meter hurdles, and he had come to Austin with the No. 6 seed in the event. Joseph was expected to be one of the 12 athletes to move onto the NCAA National Championship meet.

The Illini had just arrived and were in the middle of a routine shake-out when head coach Mike Turk interrupted to bring Vanier a simple, yet foreboding message.

“I remember Coach Turk coming up to me and telling me I just needed to call home. There was something going on at home. There was something going on with my dad,” Joseph said. “My uncle told me that … they found my dad unresponsive, and they had to resuscitate him, and they put him on bypass.”

“He had an aneurysm. It was a heart attack. He had complications from overnight surgery and had a stroke,” said Carol Joseph, Vanier’s mother.

The news of his father’s critical condition left Joseph with a devastating decision: run in the biggest meet of the season for the opportunity to advance to Nationals or try to return home to Detroit as his dad lay in critical condition?

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    Joseph decided to run. He ran for his dad.

    His dad, Jean Joseph, passed away Thursday, May 23. Vanier competed on Friday.

    “I don’t think he’s really, actually mourned him yet,” Carol said. “I think after everything calms down, maybe after this season is over, everything calms down and he comes back to reality, then it’s going to hit him. Once everything settles down … he’s got to open up a new chapter. But before he opens up this new chapter, he’s got to mourn this old chapter.”

    This chapter is still being written as Joseph steams towards this year’s championship season. He started writing it a long time ago, when he first started track in junior high. He has never stopped running.

    “Even from then, I remember having a conversation with my dad: If I wanted to go to college … I was going to have to help him help me. I was going to have to do something in order to get a scholarship,” Joseph said.

    Joseph grew up in Redford, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. The lasting memories of his childhood involve family. Vanier is the youngest of Carol and Jean’s four children and is the only boy, which is part of the reason he had a close relationship with his father. 

    “When you see his dad, you see Vanier. They were close,” Carol said. “If there’s a car show out, they’d stop and look at it. Any sports, all sports, any kind of sports, they will stop. Kids playing a sport, they will stop.”

    “It was just my way to make sure my dad knew I cared about him a lot, by spending as much time as I could with him,” Vanier said

    Carol recalled how the Joseph family operated as a unit. They did everything together. And as Vanier got into sports, one of the Joseph family’s favorite pastimes was cheering him on.

    “We made it our business … We supported our kids whatever any of them wanted to do. We supported them. We got to be there, we’re there,” Carol said. “Uncles and aunties, if they were available, they were there.”

    Joseph recalled how his parents would come to every sport he participated in: Every basketball game, every football game, and especially every track meet.

    The total support of his family was integral to Joseph growing up. Whenever he was feeling down, he could go to his parents and his sisters to pick him up and keep him moving forward. As Joesph developed as an athlete, his dad always continued to push him to be his best.

    Joseph’s success was just as exciting for his family as it was for him. Carol said that when he won, it was like the whole family had won. Joseph receiving a track scholarship was a victory for the whole family.

    The chapter took a new turn, but the support would remain constant.

    Carol said their support of Vanier never changed as he went off to college. The family still tried to make it to as many meets as it could.

    Away from his family, Joseph became a part of a new family in Champaign.

    “This is his extended family,” said assistant coach Adrian Wheatley, Joseph’s hurdles coach. “These are the guys who are his best friends, the guys who are going to be in his wedding, these are the guys that 10 years from now they’re calling up.”

    His Illinois family traveled with Joseph to Austin last May when he got the news about his father’s health. The situation left Joseph with a gut-wrenching decision to make. It was a brutal contrast for the Josephs. Vanier’s previous meet had fallen on both Mother’s Day and Jean’s birthday, and Vanier had marked the occasion by winning the Big Ten Championship in the 110 hurdles. A week and a half afterthat success, Joseph had to make a tough call. 

    Though he talked to his mom, his sisters and his coaches, the decision ultimately rested with him.

    “He said he talked to his dad and his dad told him: ‘This is what you want. This is what I want. Do what you have to do,’” Carol said. “‘We talked about this. You know what we want. You know what you said you want to do. Go for what you want to do. Don’t let me stop. I know I have to go one day … don’t let me stop you from getting to what you want to do.”

    The decision to compete in the meet was Vanier’s alone. After much prayer and discussion, he knew that running was the right decision. His father had always pushed him to be the best he could be. From his first strides on the track, they had talked about him competing as a scholarship collegiate track athlete. Competing in the season’s most important meet fulfilled those shared dreams on the highest level of the sport.

    “Ultimately I decided my dad would love me to stay, compete and try my hardest,” Joseph said.

    Joseph ran the day after his father passed away. He won his heat and qualified for the next days national quarterfinals.

    “At that time, sometimes being around friends that care about you kind of diverts the burden of things and gives you some time to kind of reflect on what had just happened and things of that nature,” Wheatley said. “Being here with the guys is the best thing for him.”

    That Saturday, Joseph’s finished 13th, one spot short of qualifying for Nationals.

    “I knew that I had to leave it all out on the track for my dad and keep in mind that he’s watching me still,” Joseph said.

    Wheatley said Joseph ran as well as he could in the situation. 

    He ran a 13.88 while weighed down by a heavy heart. He missed the 12th and final national qualifying spot by 0.01 seconds.

    After the meet, Joseph returned home for his father’s funeral. Friends and family mourned Jean’s passing but as Carol said, Vanier has yet to truly mourn. He’s too focused, too locked in on running and all the good it represents for him.

    “Sometimes when things are happening really good and then somebody throws a wrench in it … you just focus on the good,” Carol said.

    Joseph will find his time to mourn after this season, his college career, this chapter of his life comes to a close. His mother knows the family will support him then, just as it has through everything he has been through. They are there to celebrate his successes with him and mourn his losses with him. For now though, they won’t let him mourn. The Joseph family has been keeping Vanier focused on moving forward, on looking forward rather than behind.  

    “We’re not letting him sit there and think about it, we’re not letting him sit there and ponder,” Carol said.  

    Joseph hasn’t had much time to sit and ponder. He is in the middle of finishing the best season of his career. He is ranked third in the country in the 110 hurdles and held the nation’s fastest time for a period of time this year. Every time he has run the event this season, he has won.

    Joseph is on a tear, and his dad is still playing a role in it all. This season has been special, and Joseph knows he has unfinished business when he returns to the NCAA regional in a few weeks.

    “It’s just really important for me to not come out here and not do it to the best of my abilities,” Joseph said. “I know if my dad was still here that’s what I’d be doing, competing to the highest of my abilities. He’d be ecstatic to the season I’m having. I’m happy about it, I know he’s happy about it, that’s what makes me happy about it, makes me able to focus on what I’m doing.”

    Joseph knows he was supposed to finish much higher in the national ranks last year. He knows he will be ready to run with the country’s top hurdlers.

    “I know he’s got a lot of things to prove, he’s got a big chip on his shoulder,” Wheatley said. “He wants to prove to himself and prove to people around the country that he’s one of the top hurdlers.”

    Wheatley knows that when Joseph has a goal he fully commits and focuses all of his energy on it. Right now it’s being focused on the end of the Illini’s season: Big Tens and the return to the NCAA regional. In the future he has aspirations to continue running and compete in the Olympics, something else he had talked to his dad about all those years ago when he was starting out in the sport.

    But that is a for another chapter in his story. Right now, Joseph is locked in on the exciting conclusion to this one. He is eager to return to the regional and perform the way that he knows he can, but he also knows he needs to stay focused.

    “I can’t let myself get too hyped up, too caught into the moment,” Joseph said. “I really need to dial in, be able to clear my mind and be able to just focus on my race and not focus on all the other emotions that will be going on.”

    With his family and his family of teammates behind him, Joseph is ready to prove himself on the national level. He knows his dad would be proud of the way he’s finishing his chapter.

    “The last meet that his dad went to … my husband knew he was sick,” Carol said. “My husband’s like, ‘Wow, my son’s going to make it … you know what, I think my son is going to do real good, I have high hopes for my son.’”

    The NCAA West Regional comes at the end of May and is the beginning of the end of Joseph’s collegiate career. It is the end of this chapter for Joseph, and it gives him a vehicle for fulfilling his father’s hopes. Joseph will toe the line at the meet as a culmination of everything he and his dad dreamed of when they hoped he could earn a scholarship. His father’s words will echo in his head.

    “Don’t stop doing what you’re doing. This is what you want. This is what I want. Do what you have to do.”

    Chris can be reached at [email protected]