This is the first in a series of blogs about strong women I know personally, and today’s obvious choice is Heather, a friend and fellow turbo sweatie.
When I first started classes at the Y, I myself was going through a lot of personal trauma in the wake of my son’s best friend’s suicide, and some severe marital issues. While normally I am quick to make friends, months passed with only a casual greeting between myself and fellow gym mates.
Heather was and remains the friendliest girl in our classes, and was one of the first people I really connected with. She is constantly pushing herself to new heights. At 47 years old, she just won her first boxing match, after only a year of training, against a younger woman with years of experience, who was undefeated.
As a teenager, Heather struggled with anorexia, and was hospitalized for a year. She discussed the impact of athletics on stress within her life then and now.
“In high school, I played varsity sports and had all this potential, straight As...but my parents got divorced and there was this crazy joint custody situation. Every other day, my father would drop me off, and I got cut from the basketball team. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
“I didn’t realize until this match how much sports was always my saving grace. As an adult, I found that again. As grownups, we think we’re not supposed to play team sports. That’s what you do in high school and college, and then it just falls apart.
“Boxing was a way for me to have that back again, when life was getting really out of control. When my anorexia started was when I didn’t have sports. A goal like boxing, and having to train for a year with such purpose kept me focused and grounded and feeling good about myself. If I didn’t have that experience, I might have turned to unhealthy things all over again.”
So, how did she ever end up in the ring?
“Greg [one trainer at the Y] had extra tickets to a boxing fundraiser in Stamford, and there were women, one set who were my age, and they weren’t as in shape as you and I, and you could just see how confident they were. And I was just sitting there, and I had been training three times a week, boxing with Greg, because I loved it and it was rigorous, and he turned to me and said, “You could be doing this.” And I think at that point, I really, really needed something.
“I could say, I’m going to wake up tomorrow, and be a better mother, so my sons can go to a better college, and it always equals that it’s going to be about them, and then I put all these unhealthy pressures on them. But when I did boxing, I thought, this feels good. And it was going way out of my comfort zone to something I was really afraid of. To do that, I had to face a lot of things.”
For her match, Heather packed the place with dozens of her friends, most of whom were members of the Y. We filled nearly half of the venue, even though there were more than 20 other people competing that day, each with his / her own fans.
What was unusual about Heather’s followers was not only their diversity of race, age, socioeconomic class, and background, but the strong, almost familial, connection between the group.
Heather, always self-conscious, insisted, “To have everybody there wasn’t to prove anything to anybody. I really believed that I was going to win, and I wanted to celebrate getting myself back with the people that cared about me.”
“We wanted to go. We were all worried that you were going to get your face bashed in, that you were just crazy, “ I admit, able to say it out loud now that it’s over. “We thought, you’re too old! You’re in great shape, but your opponent was a woman who had six matches, undefeated, doing it for years. I looked at her Youtube videos, and thought, this is a professional. You’re super strong and really driven, but it’s just not gonna happen. I was afraid for you because you were so counting on it. I just wanted you to get out without having a concussion!
“When you were boxing, people were screaming, jumping up, and a bunch of us were crying! I felt so overjoyed. This wasn’t just for you; you represented so many things for so many people. Your determination, perseverance and drive...nobody has any excuses after something like that.”
Heather looks up from her salad. “I kept thinking, I’m supposed to be here. My angels wouldn’t have put me here. This is supposed to happen.
“I knew I was going to be all right when your son Izzy said, ‘I’m so excited for you Heather, because you’ve got this.’ I still remember standing there, looking at him on some other level, like he was a higher power. I think because he’s so connected to Aidan, I thought, ‘I’m doing the right thing.’”
Her oldest son, Aidan, has autism, and parenting him has been an tremendous internal struggle for Heather. A big reason she fought that day was symbolic.
“It’s funny, because when it was over, the person I thought would connect the most, because he’s an athlete, was Liam [her middle son]. But it was the change in Aidan that was astronomical. After the fight, I looked at him and said, ‘Your autism is in there. You’re just Aidan. We’re going to move on.’
“When I got home, I asked what he thought. He said, ‘Are you going to help me get into some AP classes?’ The drive I think he saw was like, ‘Wow! If she’s got that in her, then I’ve got something.’ He’s pulling his grades up, and I’m trying to put more weight into his music. And I just see his chin up a little higher. He’s much more, ‘How do I get there, how do I do this?’ I waited for this turnaround for a while.”
It took tremendous strength for Heather, who takes responsibility for everyone else’s feelings to an extreme, to stay focused.
“There were so many lessons. That Friday before the fight, I was getting my hair braided and I got a call that my son was getting suspended. I had to learn not to fall apart because of the choices of my children. I used to vomit, thinking it’s all about me, I’m awful. I had to learn how to put that over there. Inhibiting fears can stifle you and ruin your life.
“Some days I’m not going to be as strong as I am today, some days I’m going to fall back.”
After dreams of being a foreign correspondent, and dropping out of college for a while to follow the Grateful Dead and hike all over Mexico, Heather found herself back in the States without financial support to return to her education. She figured out a way to put herself through nursing school by cooking for nuns in a convent.
In the early days of her nursing career, she participated in stem cell research and travelled all over the world before ending up working nights full-time as a nurse in the cancer unit. She loves it.
“I think I always wanted to work with people who had hit rock bottom,” she says. “The oncology thing, that’s also about facing fear, facing death, and learning that it can be really beautiful. That’s been a real gift for me, because I think it makes me live life a little more aggressively than the average Joe, to take more risks, because I know that tomorrow just might not come.
“I think once a week I get a lady with pancreatic cancer, who was jumping around in a gym, too. And it can all stop, at the drop of a hat. So I think there is that sense of trying hard to find your happiness. Life’s really short.
“I’m never gonna save the world. But I can walk into a room full of 25 people with their dying relative in the bed, and I can empower them to know that they’re doing the right thing by their choices. It’s awesome.
And if I died, what would I want people to say? ‘She brought people together.” And if I got knocked out, and didn’t wake up, at least that’s what I did.’”
Be sure to visit Lisa's Ebay shop, Psychotic Leopard, for more psychotic treasures at http://stores.ebay.com/psychoticleopard/.
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