Fiona Sullivan thrives on sports and competition, and has big dreams of following in the wrestling footsteps of fellow Hazelton, B.C., native and Olympic champion Carol Huynh.
But the 17-year-old, who also plays soccer and volleyball, has been sent to the sidelines for her Grade 11 year, after B.C. School Sports (BCSS) declined to grant an exemption allowing her to compete for Smithers Secondary, where she now attends.
A BCSS bylaw says student athletes who transfer schools after Grade 9 must sit out a year unless they meet certain residency or academic exemption criteria.
But Sullivan argues that while that rule makes sense in higher population centres where there is a lot of opportunity for student athletes, it doesn't make sense in her world where the opposite is true.
She said she now feels like she's being punished for wanting to take advantage of programs in Smithers, population 6,000, that just aren't available in Hazelton, population 300. Both communities are in northern B.C. located about halfway between Prince George and Prince Rupert.
"There's rules down [in Southern B.C.] that are applicable to the South because they need them for fair sport. But it just restricts us up here. Like, the opportunities get smaller and smaller and smaller," she said.
Sullivan started taking classes in Smithers in Grade 10, in part because of a teacher shortage in Hazelton that made completing needed academic courses, like Math 10, difficult.
Her exemption request for this year was denied first by a BCSS eligibility officer, and then by a seven-person appeal panel which ruled she didn't meet either the residency or academic exemption criteria.
Generally, the penalty year is waived if a student's family or guardian moves, or if a student changes schools to access three or more classes that aren't available at their old school.
B.C. School Sports executive director Jordan Abney said his organization is always striving to find the right balance between preventing abuses of the school sports system and providing opportunities for students.
"At the end of day, this student is making a transfer that is almost entirely based on sports and the decision to try and compete at a higher level. And that's a wonderful pursuit. But it doesn't really align with the purposes and goals of B.C. School Sports," he said.
'No competitive edge'
Sullivan's case has received support from local Skeena–Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach, her old school in Hazleton, her new school in Smithers and a top school district official.
"There is no competitive edge to gain in Fiona's transfer," said Matthew Monkman, School District 54's assistant superintendent. "The programs she needs access to aren't available in her home community."
Engage Sport North, which runs athlete development programs at Smithers Secondary School, is also advocating on her behalf, saying Sullivan is being "punished" by the "blind application of a BCSS bylaw."
"Fiona's circumstances and academic need to move to Smithers precedes her interest in the sport school. If pursuing academics outside your home community to obtain necessary credits to pursue post-secondary education is not a bona fide academic reason, then I don't know what is," said Mandi Graham, Engage Sport North executive director.
The last year has been one of ups and downs for Sullivan. She qualified for her first Canadian national wrestling championships in March 2020, only to have the tournament cancelled because of the pandemic.
She found a billet family to live with in Smithers and has now relocated on her own because her parents are unable to leave Hazelton.
But without the exemption, she missed the high school volleyball season and is losing hope for soccer and wrestling, too.
Still, she feels being in Smithers is better for chasing her goals of one day wrestling for the high-powered Simon Fraser University team, just like her idol Huynh did, and making the Olympic team.
"I have all of this supported training to get me to where I need to be," she said. "Without all this, I'm training by myself in my own little gym [in Hazelton] that I created last winter, and it's just not the same."
She's still hoping BCSS will reconsider her case, or at the very least, look at ways it could help reduce barriers for future student athletes in the North.
"It's really not about me. It's about all of the North, and all of the kids in the North, trying to have better opportunities," she said.