Sprinter on track for success as an athlete and community leader

Evan Essapa is dedicated to supporting wellness among the Black community at the U of A and beyond.


Master’s student Evan Essapa is on track for success as a varsity athlete, a researcher and a leader supporting wellness among the Black community at the U of A and beyond. (Photo: Supplied)

Eight athletes line up on the starting line. A hush falls over the crowd in the Universiade Pavilion. Fifth-year Golden Bears sprinter Evan Essapa does one last look to his left and right as he lines up his feet in the starting block. His heart is pounding, and the adrenaline kick is just hitting.

Essapa knows this 60-metre sprint will last less than seven seconds. If he wants to finish in the top three, it has to be 6.8 seconds or less. He’s spent the last five years putting in countless hours in the gym and on the track, training for moments like this.

And yet, this isn’t the biggest test Essapa is facing. A science graduate and current master’s student, he has dedicated a great deal of his life and academic pursuits to bettering the Black community, both at the University of Alberta and in the greater Edmonton area.

Fearless, driven, caring

Three defining characteristics are immediately obvious about Essapa — he’s a fearless competitor, he’s incredibly driven and he cares deeply about his community.

After graduating from the Faculty of Science in 2022, he moved immediately into a master’s degree in counselling psychology. His subsequent academic work and community involvement over that time speak to each of those traits. His graduate research is focused on mental health disparities among Canadian immigrants, he created a website to connect the Black community with Black professionals, he has been a wellness coach for the Experiential Learning in Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (ELITE) Program for Black Youth on campus, and he developed a 10-week mental health therapy program for Black individuals — all while juggling the demands of being a full-time student-athlete.

“Evan is an amazing young man. Certainly somebody with a high level of self-awareness; he genuinely cares about his teammates and the people around him,” says Wes Moerman, head coach of the U of A track and field program. “We ask our athletes to be a part of something bigger than themselves. He has been quiet about the incredible work he is doing in the community, and I think that speaks to his character and who he is as a person.”

A native of Bordeaux, France, Essapa and his family immigrated to Regina in 2015 when he was 14 years old. Like many who find their way to Canada, the Essapa family was looking for a better life and a fresh start.

His passion for bettering his community is something he can trace back to his parents, who are originally from the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire.

“Since I was very young, my dad always taught me that community is very important. That was what made him so successful. My parents have always been very involved, back to when we were in France and Regina, and I’m trying to do the same — tying everything I do to my community and the Black community in general,” he says.

Though his family improved their way of life by moving to Canada, Essapa still noticed something about the struggles Black people face in Canada, and at the U of A — mainly, a lack of focus on mental health.

“I think the biggest thing for the Black community that I understood was that we don’t really talk about mental health, we kind of just avoid it. So for me it was finding ways to reach out to the Black community, bring a little bit of awareness and better the mental health of Black Canadians in general.”

For as long as I can remember, people have come to me when they needed help. When I was able to help them or make them happier, it fulfilled me. So I’ve always been involved in mental health and trying to help other people have a better life in general.

Evan Essapa

Evan Essapa
(Photo: Supplied)

Supporting the Black community

As part of his master’s program, Essapa is investigating mental health disparities among Canadian newcomers and recent immigrants in Edmonton, focusing on different admission categories such as economic, family and refugee classes. Using quantitative surveys and established mental health questionnaires, he aims to understand these differences, providing valuable insights for policy-makers and professionals to enhance support services for immigrants in Canada.

His research also suggests that immigrants’ mental health often declines the longer they stay in Canada, as does their likelihood of accessing mental health services — a phenomenon known as the healthy immigrant effect.

“Through a literature review, we found that Black people in general are more satisfied with public services when they find Black people, Black professionals. And our research showed that in general, they’re less satisfied when these services come from other communities. But one of the biggest issues is that it is hard to find these professionals.”

That’s why Essapa is creating Afro Pro Unity, a website aimed at connecting the Black community with Black professionals including doctors, lawyers, therapists and other health-care workers. The platform also offers free resources covering topics from mental health and financial literacy to career development and entrepreneurship.

“For as long as I can remember, people have come to me when they needed help. If they were having issues, or sad, they often came to me. When I was able to help them or make them happier, it fulfilled me. So I’ve always been involved in mental health and trying to help other people have a better life in general.”

“I’ve heard I am fast. Can I try out?”

Like the person himself, Essapa’s origins with the track and field team are humble, modest and understated.

Originally coming to the U of A to compete with the Golden Bears soccer team, Essapa first approached Moerman about joining the track team in the summer of 2019. While many elite-level athletes don’t shy away from self-promotion, Essapa had a different approach to his self-recruitment that encapsulates his persona: “I’ve heard I am fast. Can I try out for the team?”

“It really started with a humble email from him — not an athlete with expectations, but a simple request,” said Moerman, who first worked Essapa out before the 2019-20 season. “His commitment to our program and his craft has impressed me the most over the last five years. To go from somebody who really doesn’t know what he is doing as a track athlete to somebody who is a well-respected captain on our team, a medal threat and somebody respected amongst our conference.”

Over the last five years, Essapa has transformed into one of the best short-distance runners in the country.

Among his list of athletic accomplishments, he earned a gold medal as the anchor of the Bears 4x200m relay team at the 2022 Canada West and U SPORTS Championship, which included setting a new U of A record with a time of 1:26.61. He was also the only male in the country to make the national final in both the 60m and 300m races in 2022.

This season — his last on the track as a student-athlete — will be punctuated with the Golden Bears and Pandas hosting the 2024 Canada West Championship in the Butterdome from February 23 to 25.

“I think hosting Canada West track has to be one of the best things in the world, right?” he says with a grin. “We get to compete at home in front of our fans, family and friends. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most — competing in front of the people that care about me.”

The Golden Bears are ranked fourth in the country and will be among the favourites at both the Canada West and U SPORTS championships over the next three weeks.

“I just want my times to be a little quicker than what they are right now. I feel confident that I’ll be able to reach what I want to achieve. But even if I don’t win anything individually, I want a Canada West banner for myself, the team, the coaches and everyone involved.”