Feb. 2, 2011
By Larry Watts
For one reluctant Wolverine, things sure turned out all right.
"I never thought I was that good,'' says Joyce (Wilson) Eder, a middle distance sprinter on the University of Michigan women's track team from 1983-86.
While attending Tower High School in nearby Warren, Mich., Eder had progressed through the ranks as a quarter-miler. She took eighth in the state meet as a freshman, sixth her sophomore season and fourth as a junior before finally winning the state title her senior season. Current Michigan head coach James Henry, then an assistant under Francie Goodrich, approached her with a scholarship offer at her final meet.
"It was a time when there weren't many options for women's sports. The competition was very tough and the economy was doing well,'' she says. "I told him I really wasn't interested in continuing to run and my plans were to go to Wayne State so I could become a nurse.''
Fortunately, Eder had a solid support system.
"My mother was (mad) when she heard I had turned down a free education at Michigan,'' she says with a laugh. "And then my high school coach started putting a lot of pressure on me. So between the two of them, I felt so guilty that I figured I had better call Coach Henry and tell him I had changed my mind. The rest worked out so well.''
It worked out so well that by the time she had completed her track eligibility in 1986, Eder had her name on the Michigan record board in 16 events as either an individual or a member of the relay team. Four of those records have since been retired since they were in yards, while she still holds the 400-meter outdoor mark of 52.64 from 1985. She captured her only two Big Ten titles in her freshman season as a member of the two-mile indoor relay team and the outdoor 400 meters (54.18).
"They tried to put me in the 1,000 meters and I was not liking that at all,'' she says. "In my mind I was there to run sprints. The 100 was too short, but I really didn't want to hear anything over 400.
"They made me run a time trial for the 880, and the next thing I knew I was in the two-mile relay. I was a reluctant participant in the two-mile relay, but I never wanted to let anyone down because they had enough confidence in me to do this. We wound up qualifying for the nationals and we won the Penn Relays in 1985.''
Eder advanced to nationals in the 400 all four years with the Wolverines. She made the semifinals in 1985.
"I remember how nervous I was during my first prelims (in 1983),'' she says. "I looked over and saw Chandra Cheesbrough in one lane and Florence Griffith-Joyner in another. Three steps out of the blocks, it was game over.''
Eder qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in both the 400 and 800 in 1984, but wound up scratching out of the 800. She also participated in the National Sports Festival in both the 400 and mile relays in 1983 and 1985.
Although her collegiate track eligibility expired in 1986, Eder still had two more years left to finish her nursing degree at Michigan. No longer getting a free ride, she earned money by working as a nursing assistant at University Hospital and the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor.
"By the time I told Michigan I was coming, the nursing class had already been selected and I had to wait a year to get into the program,'' she says. "Then with training and travel, I was unable to sign up for some clinical, and if you miss one class sometimes you have to wait another year before it is offered again. It was a nightmare, but I persevered.''
After earning her nursing degree, her plans were to head to Texas and join the Army Nursing Corps.
"My father had been in the Army for 27 years, and the military had always been good to our family,'' she says. "Being a military brat, we had moved everywhere and I figured it would be a good life and I could accomplish what I wanted to do.''
But between recruiting visits, she also met the man who became her husband of now 20 years. Love wiped out her plans, and she remained in Ann Arbor where she lives today.
"I'm glad I didn't go into the military because it would have been difficult to get back (to Michigan),'' she says. "Remaining in Ann Arbor was a chance to be close to my family. I have six siblings and we are all very close.''
For the past 23 years, Eder has been a nurse at University and St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, where she has been on the midnight shift in the emergency room. She was honored as the Nurse of the Year in the emergency room at St. Joseph Mercy in 2009.
"You see some pretty bad things in there at that hour of the night,'' she says. "I can usually handle it all, but child abuse really bothers me.''
In 2007, Coach Henry again touched her life. He recommended her as Michigan's representative to the Big Ten's Advisory Commission.
Initially formed in 1972 by former Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke, the commission, which was comprised of former African-American student-athletes, was charged with researching racial unrest and academic shortcomings of the black athlete. It has since evolved into the review and discussion of strategies in dealing with topics such as mental health, campus/police relations and female student-athlete financial aid.
"The kids are young and impressionable; some don't realize they are there to get a degree. By the end of their eligibility, if they haven't made any progress toward that, they're out of luck," said Eder, who has the option of extending her team on the commission after this year.
"Over the years, we (the commission) have made tremendous progress in getting things in place for student-athletes,'' she added. "I'm happy with that, but how to make things relevant to today's issues is kind of difficult.''
According to Eder, the advisory commission is now looking into gay and lesbian issues, equitable funding for female athletes and drug abuse/testing.
"We're still trying to get a handle on the gay and lesbian issue because it hasn't clearly been defined,'' she says. "The main concern is making sure scholarships are not taken away because of sexual orientation and the athletes are not victims of hate crimes or ostracized by their peers or coaches.
"There is also the pregnancy issue with women, and we want to make sure scholarships are not lost because of that. And with campus/police relations, we are very concerned about racial profiling and how things are reported. Why is a black athlete's name splashed all over the news for a misdemeanor while a white athlete can commit a greater crime and it gets little to no attention?''
Each representative reports to the athletics director and faculty representative of his or her respective school. These representatives often talk to various student-athletes about concerns they may have dealing with coaches and situations on campus.
"I am protecting the athlete because they are totally defenseless,'' Eder says. "A lot of sports are tightly controlled and access is tough. We are often blown away by the information we receive, but we also run into the problem of the student-athlete being honest for fear of reciprocation. Therefore, we provide them with a website where they can fill out a survey anonymously.
While the scope of the committee has expanded through the years, Eder hopes the original intent has not been watered down.
"The primary focus will always be the African-American student-athlete, but we do want to address all issues the athletes bring up to us'' she says. "In this economy, you want to make sure the athletes graduate with a degree that would apply to something useful.
"There are still a lot of kids who don't get it. You always want to try and reach those who come in thinking they are going to the pros. With time demands on their sports, they may not have the money to pay for their degree when their eligibility runs out.
"A lot of colleges are building these elaborate sports arenas and academic centers,'' she adds. "I'm just hoping the athletes take advantage of the academic centers. It's great if this takes you to the professional ranks, but you want to be able to read your contract.''
According to Eder, she felt an obligation to Michigan when asked to serve on the commission.
"Michigan gave me an opportunity to go to college for free,'' she says. "They had a lot of confidence in my abilities, so I feel like it's a sense of duty to make sure Michigan is presented in a good light and help out the athletes who are there. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and life after your four years of eligibility, but you have to take advantage of the opportunity in front of you.
"It is very difficult to fail at Michigan because there are so many avenues in place to make you successful. You just have to reach out and take advantage of them because there are a lot of people who want to help. I have a great profession as a nurse, and Michigan provided that opportunity for me.''
Although Eder downplays her accomplishments, the university thought enough of them to induct her into the school's track and field hall of fame in 2007. Now, when she takes her three children, ages 8-to-19, to the indoor track facility, there is a portrait of their mother hanging on the wall.
"I am really humbled by that,'' she says. "I just felt as though I could have done better. But now I think maybe I did do something good there.''