Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Courage to Look Him in the Eyes

“Wisdom is nothing more than healed pain.”Robert Gary Lee

I’ve been traveling so much lately. I always come home with a strong dose of gratitude. Gratitude for the amazing women and men connected to our GOTR movement.

Time on planes, in cars and alone in my hotel room, gives me plenty of time to think, imagine and dream. I realize that we really are not creating a movement, but are part of one that is already happening. This new definition of beauty is showing up everywhere and I’m finding that the women and men involved in our program are as impacted and as moved by this message as are the girls we serve.

This is where Leigh’s story comes in.

Leigh Wallace is with a new Girls on the Run council. I had the privilege of meeting her at one of our recent Girls on the Run trainings in Charlotte, NC.

Over the course of two days, women from across the nation descend on Charlotte, NC for a very intense Girls on the Run training. Participants take back tangible tools and systems to efficiently deliver the Girls on the Run program…but what remains with me are their stories. Frequently wrapped into and around a woman’s story are her struggles in battling our culture’s obsession with bodies, sexuality and power.

I’ve got to be honest with you, when I met Leigh I was intimidated by her. Her physical strength is obvious. She is one of the strongest-looking females I’ve ever met. Her energy, though, was a bit reserved…probably intimidated by my extroversion and wide open persona…a kind of mutual intimidation society, if you will…me of her physical presence and she, of my emotional one.

After a day together, Leigh e-mailed me her story.

As a little girl, Leigh was tough. In her words, “I was the athletic girl in my grade and this made me popular with the boys. I knew that they respected my athletic ability and my power and I really liked that. I didn’t feel pretty, but I guess I probably thought I was cute in a way. I didn’t see myself as a tomboy but I did relate well to boys and worked very hard to prove to them that even though I was a girl, I could still do most of what they could do”

But something happened around middle school. Like many girls, Leigh stepped into the Girl Box, a place girls often go around sixth grade with heartbreaking results. At this vulnerable age, the formerly vibrant and strong Leigh began to morph into a girl overly-occupied by her appearance. First it showed up as restricting her food intake and then it appeared as over-indulgence. There seemed to be no end to the madness and yet, running was the one safe space in the day where Leigh felt some degree of control. She won championship races in 9th and 10th grade and got 3rd her senior year in the Kansas State Championships.

Appalachian State came knocking at her door and so the move to Boone brought with it an opportunity to buckle down, focus on her love for running and get on track with her eating. With a renewed sense of self and a desire for comfort in her skin, Leigh appeared on the ASU campus.

But changing locations didn’t prove to be the remedy she had hoped. With her continued obsession with weight, Leigh was sidelined by stress fractures and distracted by her roller-coaster relationship with the scales. Her first year at ASU certainly didn’t shake out to be what she had hoped.

And then IT happened.

September 29th, 1989 Leigh set out on an early evening run. Planning to be back by 6:30, she and her boyfriend (now husband) would then go out for a nice dinner together.

A light rain began to fall when the car slowly approached. A very scary man sat at the wheel. “Get in,” he demanded, pointing to the passenger seat with his gun. Not knowing what to do, Leigh agreed.

What occurred over the next several hours is unthinkable. He drove Leigh to a remote area outside of Boone. With a frightening and disturbing sense of calm and coolness, he raped her while psychologically tormenting her with threats of death. At first, before the numb set in, all she could think about was how loved she was. “My mother will miss me when I die,” she thought. A strange sense of gratitude seemed to float down upon her shoulders, as the violence raged around her…an overwhelming and gentle gratitude for her body, her friends, her family and her life.

Hour after hour, the torment continued. Somewhere over the course of that time frame, Daniel Lee, shared with her that he had murdered another girl-Jeni Gray. He calmly described her slow, cruel and painful death and threatened to do the same to Leigh.

Leigh managed to escape from Daniel Lee, hours later at a gas station. At the trial, as Leigh testified, she intentionally stared her tormenter in the eyes…her proof to him and herself that she wasn’t weaker because of this experience but was much stronger. Daniel Lee received the death penalty for murdering Jeni Gray. He died in prison, several years later, from a brain aneurysm.

After the kidnapping, Leigh was stronger, indeed. She went on to become a 2-time Southern Conference All-Conference performer in cross country. In track she was named the Southern Conference Most Outstanding Performer. Upon graduation, she continued to train on her own and compete. She won several state and regional races and ran her 5K PR of 16:56. She teaches and coaches at the high school level…many of them to victory in the state championships. Now, Leigh is prepared to engage 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in the Girls on the Run program.

She is married with two children, wanting first and foremost to be remembered as a remarkable mother, not an elite runner. She is loved, respected and embraced by her family, her community and at last, herself.

I share this with you because it’s important that our culture honors women like Leigh…that we eliminate our antiquated ideals of beauty and recreate them to include the stories of women who are strong, brave and authentic. As I read her story that she so openly shared with me, I wept…my head in my hands and my heart in my throat, wondering…how I could possibly honor someone as brave, courageous and bold as she. And as I write to you, right now, I recognize that no words could ever do justice to the pain of her experience, nor the power she has gained from it. But what I can offer comes from Leigh herself.

“I don’t know…I guess I just love to inspire people. I love to see that light go on when someone realizes that being strong is one of the greatest feelings in the world…and to know that running makes you just as strong mentally as it does physically! To know that no matter what life’s circumstances are and no matter how hard the world may seem to be trying to hold you back, that our own personal strength and belief in ourselves is something that no one can take away without our permission. I believe this more than I believe anything and am committed to helping others believe it too.”

Leigh is, without a doubt, strength, beauty and Girls on the Run personified.


  1. Holy God. Bless this dear woman and thank you for your story. Thank You for the entire focus you bring, Girls on the RUN. What you are doing is outstanding. Thank you and bless you all involved in Girls on the Run.

  2. Wow Molly! Reading your blog is an inspiration in itself. I met you YEARS ago when I worked with a Girl Scout group called FACES and GOTR was mostly your individual vision - and look what it has become! You go girl - and keep on going, and going, and going.
    Terri J

  3. I am so sorry to tell you that Leigh Cooper died in December 2012 as a result of complications of pneumonia. I saw this at the end of her story on ID on tv. God bless her and God bless her family. She leaves behind a husband and 2 children.