Heather Casey opens up about how becoming an endurance athlete helped her cope with some of the most difficult times in her life.
Exercise has been an important part of Heather Casey's life for as long as she can remember. She took up swimming when she was just 6 years old and participated in a few other sports, like baseball and basketball. Then, when she was diagnosed with depression at the age of 14, staying active became a way for her to deal with the slew of emotions she was experiencing as a young girl.
"My parents took me to see a family counselor who recommended exercise instead of medication," Heather recently told Shape. "That's when I started to focus more on endurance sports and started swimming and running for longer periods of time. I realized that the longer events allowed me to get out of my own head and deal with some of the destructive thoughts that I was having." (Related: Running Finally Helped Me Beat My Postpartum Depression)
At 14, Heather competed in her first triathlon. And by the time she went to college, she had started running half marathons and continued pursuing endurance-based events.
Fast-forward to 2008: Heather met who she thought was the love of her life. "He seemed like a wonderful person when we were dating," Heather said. "He was a well-respected lawyer who went to church and taught Sunday school, he was a softball coach in his free time and a leader in the community."
After dating for six months, they decided to tie the knot, which is when everything started to change. "We moved in together for the first time after we got married and that's when I saw a side of him I never knew existed," Heather said. "He definitely had a problem with drinking, which would cause his personality to change completely." He became violent.
"I didn't really know how to go to my family or friends and tell them this was happening because I wasn't sure if anyone would even believe me," Heather says. (Related: Should Emotional Abuse Be Considered a Crime?)
After overcoming a year of abuse, Heather realized that she had all the reasons she needed to finally get out of the relationship. "I'd had a police officer tell me that the abuse was never going to end, I'd been to a crisis center that made me realize I wasn't alone and that there are women out there in similar situations, and then finally I got my wrist broken and had a giant purple cast on my hand that made me realize that enough is enough," Heather says.
In some ways, that bright purple cast was a blessing in disguise because, for the first time, Heather wasn't able to hide what was happening to her anymore. She got out of the relationship after being married to her abuser for 18 months and started to pick up the pieces of her life. Once everything was finally out in the open, and she'd had some time to adjust to her new situation, she went back to doing what she loved most and began training for her first marathon. (Related: 6 Powerful Women Speak Out About Domestic Violence)
"I ran the Pensacola Beach Marathon in 2012, and being able to cross that finish line with all those emotions was a huge victory for me," she said. "In that moment I felt like I had taken the first step to regaining my confidence and realized that I was never going to let someone else take control of my body again."
Shortly after, Heather started working part-time in a bike shop. There, she met a woman who would bring her bike in before going to train for Ironman classes. "I was just so inspired by her and could see by the way that she carried herself that she was just a strong woman," Heather says. "Instantly, I thought to myself, 'I want to do that. I want to do an Ironman.'"
After doing a bunch of research and figuring out what it took to do such a challenging race, Heather signed up for her very first Ironman. "I immediately dove in and started training," Heather said. "Just being able to look at my training scheduling, knowing what I had to accomplish and marking stuff off on my list, made me feel like I had some control, even when I was down or feeling depressed." (Related: #WhyIStayed Hashtag Shows Real Life Struggle with Domestic Abuse)
Heather completed her first Ironman in Whistler in 2013, but she was just getting started. In 2014, she went to Whistler again and competed in the event for the second time. Then she went to Chattanooga in the same year, competing in her third Ironman. And earlier this year, she competed in Boulder and her finishing time qualified her for the Ironman World Championships that take place in Kona this weekend.
"It's just been an incredible journey so far," Heather says. "Every time I train or finish a race, I learn to love myself even more. It's after completing those milestones that I realize that there's no pain that I'm going to face that's going to be greater than the pain I've already suffered at the hands of somebody else. What I'm choosing to put myself through while doing an Ironman is exactly that, it's a choice."
Today, Heather is happily remarried and is in a healthy relationship that she deeply cherishes. "I think a lot of people go their whole lives without finding true love, and I know it sounds cliché but my husband and I have found that," she says. "We truly are best friends and it's rewarding to know that you're with someone who your morals, passions, and goals align with and someone you can really truly be happy with."
More than anything, Heather hopes that her story helps other women who've been in her shoes and are afraid to take the first step toward a better life.
"I've chosen to be very open about my experience with domestic violence because I want other women to know that it can be overcome," she said. "I know there are so many women out there who are hiding and I want them to know that I'm here for them if they need any help. While I was able to get out of my situation thanks to the police and social workers, I think the responsibility falls on the community as a whole. We must believe and support women. It's one of the most important things we can offer to help create some safety and help make a woman's decision to leave that much easier."
Need help? Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.