Trisha Meili Shares How Running Helped Her Heal After Being Brutally Raped Mid-Run 30 Years Ago
She became known as the Central Park Jogger—her attack becoming one of the most publicized crimes of the 1980s.
On April 19, 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meili went out on her regular evening run through Central Park after a 12-hour day of work on Wall Street.
"It was a time in my life where I had become compulsive about running," Meili tells Shape exclusively. "It was definitely to the point where it was a little unhealthy. I needed to run or exercise in some way every day and it didn't matter what day or time it was. I just knew I had to do it."
That night, Meili never finished her workout. Instead, her body was found, four hours later, in a shallow ravine in a wooded area of the park-naked, gagged, tied up, and covered in mud and blood. She was rushed to the hospital where she spent the next 12 days in a coma fighting for her life. When she awoke, Meili had no memory of what had happened to her-but her life had changed forever.
Police and physical examiners determined that while Meili was running, she had been knocked down, dragged or chased nearly 300 feet before she was violently raped, sodomized, and beaten to the brink of death. Seventy-five percent of the blood in her body had spilled onto the ground, and her face was broken into pieces. "She was beaten as badly as anybody I've ever seen beaten," the first policeman to lay eyes on her reportedly said at the time. "She looked like she was tortured." (Related: The Harsh Truth About Running Safety for Women)
Five local teens, who had committed several attacks, assaults, and robberies in the northernmost part of Central Park that night, were quickly arrested for the assault. Given Meili's injuries, she wasn't expected to survive, so the boys were initially charged with first-degree homicide.
The news of the violent crime spread across the country like wildfire. The prosecution of the defendants was front-page news for months. President Trump, who was a real estate mogul at the time, even took out a $300,000 newspaper ad demanding the return of the death penalty in New York state in response to the case.
All five suspects, who by then were dubbed "The Central Park Five," were convicted of assault, robbery, riot, and rape amongst other things and sentenced to between seven and 13 years in prison each-a sentence that many people felt wasn't adequate, given what was done to Meili. (Related: I Was Groped While Running-and Yes, It's a Big Deal)
That said, police and investigators never found a spot of DNA that linked the now-convicted felons to Meili's attack. Even though some of the boys had confessed to witnessing the crime, this had always been a gaping hole in the case. It wasn't until 2002-when most of the defendants had already served or were almost done serving their time in jail-that a convicted sex offender, who was serving a life sentence for murder and rape, confessed to attacking Meili.
He knew details from the attack that had never been publicized before, not to mention his DNA was a 100 percent match to the rape kit taken from Meili nearly a decade ago.
A couple of years later, in 2012, the quintet was acquitted for their crimes against Meili. Their wrongful conviction and unnecessary years spent in prison have been the center of huge debates about race, law enforcement, and our justice system. In May, Netflix releases a series When They See Us based on the story of the Central Park Five. Since then, it's become Netflix's most-watched program overall, viewed by more than 23 million accounts the day it premiered.
But even after all these years and the confession of the true perpetrator, no one truly knows exactly what happened that night in Central Park.
A Long Road to Recovery
There are times when Meili wishes she remembers what happened to her. "There's been so much controversy around the case and if I remembered anything at all, maybe a lot of it could have been avoided," she says. "But since I don't remember, I don't have flashbacks or nightmares, which I feel very blessed about."
While her amnesia saved her from some long-term emotional trauma, Meili's road to recovery has been anything but easy.
To start, she suffered from a traumatic brain injury that, along with amnesia, led to physical and cognitive dysfunction. "Twelve days after the attack, doctors declared that I was no longer in a coma," she says. "But for the next five weeks, I was in and out of delirium and don't remember anything. So for a total of seven weeks, I just don't have any memory."
The first thing Trisha remembers is waking up and seeing her then-boyfriend sitting at the foot of her bed. "I remember not feeling surprised that he was there and then I looked up and saw a nurse and remember asking her a question," says Meili. "But my boyfriend at the time kept answering the question for her which made me mad and so I told him to shut up," she laughed. "Turns out, I had been asking the nurse the same question over and over again without realizing, and he was just trying to give her a break. That should tell you how much I really knew about my situation or what had happened."
It wasn't until days later that Meili started asking her family questions. No one had told her anything at that point, because the police wanted to see what she remembered. "My family could only avoid the inevitable for so long, so they called in a prosecutor who asked if I had any recollection of what had happened that night. It didn't take her long to realize that I didn't know anything."
Meili spent seven weeks in the ICU recovering. "I started to understand the gravity of my physical injuries when I realized I couldn't walk," says Meili. "My body felt heavy and movement was slow like I was going through mud or something."
But the terror of her situation didn't sink in until she had her neurological exam. Meili remembers her therapist asking her to draw a picture of a clock showing two o'clock-and the Ivy Leaguer with two master's degrees felt as though she'd been asked to do the impossible.
"I thought I couldn't remember which hand was the big hand. And felt this incredible fear of, 'Oh my God, I'm so stupid. I can't do this.' It was terrifying to realize that I wasn't the same. It was the first time I felt that so much had been taken away from me."
Learning to Run Again
After being discharged from the ICU, Meili was admitted to Gaylord Hospital in Connecticut for rehabilitation. "I really started remembering everything once I moved there," she says. "The physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy is all very clear."
While Meili realized she had a lot of work to do, she also started seeing progress. "I built an amazing support system that helped me focus on what I could do, rather than on my deficits," she says.
Knowing that Meili had been a runner, one of her doctor's introduced her to Achilles International, an organization dedicated to enabling people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream running events. There, she met a group of people like her, all with physical disabilities and one common goal: to complete a quarter-mile loop around the hospital. (Related: How Sexual Assault Survivors Are Using Fitness As Part of Their Recovery)
"At first, I thought that there was no way I'd ever be able to do that since just walking a few steps was so hard," says Meili. "But there were people in the group who had more debilitating physical disabilities like spina bifida and amputations. So I thought, 'If they can do it, I can too.'"
So Meili began working toward that simple goal. "Without even realizing it at the time, exercise became an extremely important part of my recovery," says Meili. "As I kept moving and becoming physically stronger, I began seeing a positive impact on my cognitive rehabilitation as well. Down the road, I was even involved in a study about how running and exercise can do wonders for those with traumatic brain injuries." (Related: 13 Mental Health Benefits of Exercise)
On a hot day in August 1989, just three months after her attack, Meili was able to jog and walk the quarter-mile loop, alongside her physical therapist and five members from Achilles. It was a major milestone for her. "When I crossed the 'finish line,' a feeling of overwhelming accomplishment flooded through me," she says. "For the first time since the attack, I felt a surge of hope, and it was a lot of fun! Accomplishing something like that in a community touches everyone in a unique way. It gave me this sense that I wasn't alone, that I didn't do anything wrong and I wasn't to blame for what had happened to me. It was at that moment that I went from being a victim to a survivor."
Returning to Central Park
Meili was at Gaylord for seven months, and by the end of her stay, she was running four to five miles comfortably. After completing treatment, she returned to New York and to her life. In some ways, nothing was ever going to be the same, and Meili had made peace with that. But it was also very important for her to get as close to "normal" as possible. The biggest step? Making the city feel like home again-and that meant returning to Central Park.
"I needed to make a statement," she says. "Not to the world, but to myself. I wanted to prove that I could go back to my life the way it was and that I wasn't going to live in fear." (Related: Runners Are Using #MilesForMollie to Show That They're Not Afraid)
So on a Sunday, a couple weeks after returning to the city, Meili headed to the park during the day with a friend who is also a priest. "It was important that I run the same route as I did that night and so many nights before," she says. "When I got to the place of the attack, I saw that people had laid flowers and created a sort of a tribute to me and my story. Seeing that kind of support firsthand did wonders for my psychological healing," she says. "It was a beautiful day."
Becoming More Than the "Central Park Jogger"
Now, three decades after her attack, Meili has continued to heal and has made running an important part of her life. In 1994, she walked the TCS New York City Marathon and in 1995, she ran it. In 2003, she decided to reveal her identity and became a New York Times best-selling author of I Am the Central Park Jogger. She's also contributed to The Courage to Go Forward: The Power of Micro Communities, a book written by David M. Cordani, president and CEO of Cigna, and Dick Traum, president and founder of Achilles International.
Meili has become a renowned public speaker, serving on the board of Gaylord, where she was once treated. But the work she's most passionate about is motivating and empowering sexual assault survivors. "My hope is that by sharing my story, I can encourage survivors to accept that they are not to blame for the assault," she says. "It's not their fault but rather their perpetrator's choice."
She also hopes to empower more women to share their stories, and not necessarily in a public way. "There are organizations offering a safe environment all over the country, and hotlines where people will listen and not judge, providing an opportunity for a survivor to release all they have been holding deep inside," she says. (Related: Real Stories of Women Who Were Sexually Harassed While Working Out)
"Soon after my book was published, I received a powerful email," says Meili. "A woman told me she had been raped over 30 years before and was so ashamed she never told anyone. After reading my book, she confided to a close friend and, 'felt a 1,000-pound weight drop from (her) shoulders.' Just imagine carrying that sense of shame for so many years. Sharing provided a tremendous relief for her. I continue to witness the impact sharing has and feel it myself."
It's likely that Meili will always be known as the "Central Park Jogger." Yet, what happened to her didn't spark hatred, bitterness, or contempt. Instead, she's used her journey to become a symbol of hope, perseverance, and tremendous strength-qualities that she will be remembered for the most.
If you or someone you love has experienced sexual violence, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).