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WOMEN’S COLLEGE WRESTLING

Ferrum's Smith is the recipient of a national award that cites her for courage

Ferrum's Smith is the recipient of a national award that cites her for courage

Talum Smith (middle), a member of Ferrum College’s women’s wrestling team, poses with President David Johns (left) and her head coach, Breonnah Neal (right).

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Ferrum College senior Talum Smith has been honored by the Wrestle Like a Girl Foundation with the 2019 Afsoon Roshanzamir Johnston Courage Award presented by Tiffany and Company.

The award was presented to Smith at the Wrestle Like a Girl gala, held Oct. 30, at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Accompanying Smith were Ferrum President David Johns and women’s wrestling coach Breonnah Neal.

The Afsoon Roshanzamir Johnston Courage Award was created in 2016 by Wrestle Like A Girl to honor Johnston, who has exhibited great personal courage during her amateur wrestling career and in her life

The award honors athletes who have to use immense personal courage to be able to participate or compete in sports, even when participation could put them at great risk.

Johnston left a life in Iran to join her family in the United States, where she become the first woman in America’s history to win a wrestling medal at the World Championships for the United States in 1989.

Smith, who received the award in her hometown, was nominated for the award by her former coach Jessica Medina, who coached her for two seasons.

Smith had no aspirations of going to college. It wasn’t until she began wrestling and fell in love with the sport that she began thinking about attaining a college education.

A challenge was leaving her siblings. Through the encouragement of her high school coach, Smith decided to give collegiate wrestling a shot and enrolled four years ago at Ferrum.

It was her second year at Ferrum that Medina first met Smith, who came out for the women’s wrestling team. Unfortunately, she had a difficult first year as a college student and was ineligible for the season.

Also Smith was working a full-time job at McDonalds in Rocky Mount to pay for her education. As an NCAA Division III affiliate, Ferrum is not permitted to give athletic scholarships.

Smith’s schedule did not allow her to practice full time, but she made every effort to be a part of the team and continued to make strides in the classroom with the intention of becoming eligible to get on the mat.

“Talum always came in with a smile on her face even on days she was facing adversity,” Medina said.

Then, Smith’s story took a turn.

One day Medina said she received a text from Smith asking to meet Admitting that she wasn’t sure what was to be discussed, Medina said she was “blindsided” by the news that at the age of 19, Smith had been diagnosed with leukemia.

“As she told me the news, Talum had a smile on her face,” Medina said. “She told me she didn’t want her teachers or her family to know. Talum didn’t want anyone to pity her or worry.

“In that moment, my gut instinct was to hold a strong face. It wasn’t until she left my office that I broke down in tears. It was a lot to take in and my heart broke for her.”

Throughout the spring 2018 semester, Media said it was tough watching Smith as she continued to work, go to class and carry an oxygen tank around Ferrum’s campus. At the time, Smith was undergoing treatments at the children’s hospital in Roanoke.

Medina said she remembers that on her own tough days as a coach, she would stop and think of Smith and be inspired to push through.

At the end of her sophomore year, Smith returned to Washington, D.C., to be close to her siblings, continue treatments, work full time and take summer courses to raise her grade-point-average (GPA).

As the fall of 2018, her junior year, approached, Smith’s cancer was in remission and she had hopes of competing because her GPA had improved.

Unfortunately, she fell short by a mere tenth-of-a-point of meeting academic eligibility standard. IMedina said Smith “had done everything she could to become eligible.’’

“The Ferrum women’s wrestling team was more than a program, it was (Smith’s) family and a huge part of her support system,’’ Medina said.

“It would have been easy for her to give up or quit the team, but we sat down and put a schedule together that worked with her 21-hour class load and 40 hour/week job. Even if it was just a lifting session, a 6:00 a.m. practice or an opening in her schedule, she would show up to support the team.

“I could see the days were wearing on Smith and how important it was to make her a part of our wrestling family,’’ Medina said.

With her doctor’s permission, Smith was able to return to the mat, this time with intentions of competing in the spring 2019 semester.

And that’s just what she did.

In January, Smith made her return to the mat in time for the Tornado Open, hosted by King University in Bristol, Tenn.

Smith wrestled that day, Though she did not earn a medal, she became the embodiment of champion.

Smith is on this year’s squad and intends to compete in the 171-pound weight class as she continues to pursue a degree in criminal justice.

Editor’s Note: Gary Holden is Ferrum’s interim director of athletics and long-time sports information director.

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