Joely Pinkston had no intent to run in college.
The idea just didn’t seem plausible; after all, she didn’t run track until her senior year and had never run a cross country race before college.
But it wasn’t just her athletic abilities that pushed her into a five-year running career with IU cross country and track and field. More than anything, Pinkston said, it was her faith.
Pinkston grew up playing soccer and basketball at Heritage Christian High School in Indianapolis. It was during the spring of her senior year that she decided to try out a new sport, the decision being a toss-up between lacrosse and track.
Ultimately, track won out — and Pinkston owes it to her younger brother.
“I started running my senior year because my little brother convinced me to do it,” Pinkston said. “He was like, ‘Hey, if you do track, I’ll do it with you. It can be something we do together before you leave for college.’”
The first event Pinkston ran in high school was the 800-meter. She was new to the track team, but soccer had given her the necessary combination of speed and endurance to find success in the event, she said.
“My coach just kind of threw me in when I got there,” Pinkston said. “And I was decently fast to the point where some college coaches started contacting him.”
In her first meet for Heritage Christian, Pinkston was three seconds off the school record for the 800-meter run. She would later go on to place fourth at the IHSAA state meet in the event, running a personal record of 2:13.06.
But it was near the end of her senior year and Pinkston had already been accepted to the IU Kelley School of Business. She knew that she didn’t want to switch colleges and choose a smaller school just to run.
In fact, she didn’t want to run at all. Pinkston told her coach, Matt Barker, that choosing to further her running career wasn’t going to happen.
Barker encouraged Pinkston to at least contemplate the idea.
“I thought, maybe if I could run at IU, then I’ll consider it,” Pinkston said. “I didn’t even really know how ridiculous that was to say."
Ridiculous or not, things started coming together. Barker had connections, having previously coached one of IU’s volunteer assistants. The assistant was able to put Pinkston in touch with the recruiting coach.
“Things kind of fell in place from there,” Pinkston said. “I met up with the recruiting coach, he came to a meet or two, and here I am.”
Pinkston, a devout Christian, knew that everything was following a bigger plan.
“It was totally just God working out all these details,” she said.
As Pinkston continued to run, she wanted a way to connect with those around her while building a stronger relationship with Christ. During her freshman year, she joined IU’s Athletes in Action (AIA) organization, a Christian-based sports ministry for athletes.
“My faith is really important to me and I wanted to meet other athletes with similar priorities,” Pinkston said. “I knew that I wanted to try it out and I’m thankful that I did.”
After three years with the organization, Pinkston took on the role of an AIA mentor as a senior. As a mentor, she used discipleship to help guide younger athletes.
This year, during her second year as a mentor, she worked with freshman Lauren Butts. Butts was a novice athlete on the women’s rowing team.
“Joely helped me really grow in Christ this year,” Butts said. “We did discipleship where we’d read part of the Bible or a Christian book together and talk about it, or just talk about life and see where we thought God was there. And she was just a great friend.”
Pinkston also participated in multiple Bible studies. She did studies within her church, Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, and AIA. She even did one with a group of her teammates over the course of the season.
“She was very involved with her team and with people around Bloomington,” Butts said. “She was constantly just inviting people to Christian-led events and trying to be a disciple to them.”
Butts noted that her first year of college wouldn’t be the same without the experience of having Pinkston as a mentor.
“I’ve learned to not be afraid of life and that there’s a plan for me, and through prayer and consistency things will turn out how they’re supposed to,” Butts said. “Joely helped teach me that.”
This year, Butts watched Pinkston take her final year of eligibility from a front-row seat.
“It was neat to see how she wasn’t afraid of her faith and knew that God was along her side in all of it,” Butts said.
“Get out of the pool,” her teammate said. “It’s over.”
Pinkston was completing a swim workout when pole vaulter Brock Mammoser walked in with the news that the pandemic had ended the 2020 spring season.
She refused to get out of the pool, instead trapped in a state of disbelief.
“I just remember that I kept going,” Pinkston said. “And then I texted my coach after, and was like, ‘Is this for real? What’s going on?’”
College athletes across the country received the same news that day. There would be no spring season for any level of collegiate athletics. For seniors like Pinkston, the news was devastating.
“After the disbelief wore off, it was just sadness,” Pinkston said. “I wasn’t planning on coming back for a fifth year, and it was just like, ‘Wow, it’s really over.’”
By then, Pinkston had become more familiar with the collegiate running world and was finding success within the 800-meter run. She ended the 2020 indoor track and field season by earning a bronze medal in the event at Big Ten Championships, clocking a time of 2:06.47.
This success she was discovering on the track made the abrupt ending of the 2020 season, due to the pandemic, even more painful for her.
“It was over, just like that,” Pinkston said. “There was definitely an overwhelming amount of emotions. It was just so quick, everything was ripped away.”
When the NCAA announced that spring athletes would receive an extra year of eligibility, Pinkston was still not planning to return for another season. She had a job as a municipal advisory finance consultant lined up with Baker Tilly in Indianapolis and couldn’t envision herself taking a fifth year.
“I had a teammate who mentioned that she was going back, and it was just like a ‘good for you, but I don’t know if that’s for me' kind of thing,” Pinkston said. “Going back wasn’t super on my radar until she said that, and then I kept thinking about it.”
Pinkston’s coach called her one day, asking her if any part of her wanted to return for a final season.
“I told him that of course there was a part of me that wanted to come back, and he told me to just think about it,” Pinkston said. “He said we deserved to go out on our own terms and have another chance if we wanted it.”
Pinkston started talking to her friends, family and teammates in an attempt to get different perspectives on returning.
After spending a lot of time praying about what she should do, Pinkston made the decision to take her extra year of eligibility. Her job with Baker Tilly would be deferred for a year, and she realized that coming back to IU for a final year was simply a minor part of a greater plan.
“I had really enjoyed my previous four years,” Pinkston said. “Ultimately, it was a combination of things that all sounded like coming back would be a great opportunity and something I might regret passing up.”
Another factor in her final decision to return was the chance to continue using her faith to impact her teammates.
“I really wanted an opportunity to continue to pour into and love my teammates well,” Pinkston said. “If I had an extra year to do that, why would I not take that opportunity?”
Pinkston’s decision to return wasn’t always easy. At times, she wondered whether it was the right choice.
“I won’t say that there weren’t ever times where I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’” Pinkston said. “Whether or not I had come back, there were going to be days where I really wished I had chosen the other.”
But nearly a year after deciding to return, and five years after joining the team, she says that she has no regrets.
The high school senior who almost played lacrosse instead of running track sits back triumphantly as Pinkston as she slowly closes the door on this chapter of her life. So does the devastated track athlete who once refused to get out of the pool.
“When I agreed to this five years ago, I had no idea the blessings that would come from it,” she said.