I know the power of sports, and I honestly wouldn't be alive today without them.
I was a foster-care kid from birth until age 2 before being adopted by a loving family. While I was in foster care, though, I was in four different homes, and I've been told there was a lot of trauma and some abuse that occurred. Then, when I was 8 years old, my next-door neighbor started sexually abusing me.
I was really afraid to say anything to anybody, but I did write it down in a notebook and my mom found what I wrote. She decided that we wouldn't tell anybody what had happened because she was afraid of how my dad would handle it.
So it was a secret that I kept most of my life, and it was a tough one because at that point I was only 9 years old and didn't know what to do with the emotions I was feeling. It put me in a dark place with depression and a lot of self-hate. Sometimes, I wanted to kill myself.
I can say that sports truly saved my life. I found running, and would get so wrapped up in my own little world -- my feet hitting the pavement, feeling exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time. I could fully focus on it, and I kept improving. Without running, I don't know that I would have had the strength to move forward when I had so much self-loathing, a lot of anger and just no self-worth. The sport helped me work through all of these feelings.
I became a serious swimmer in college, and after college I continued with swimming and running and biking. I've now done five Ironman triathlons and hundreds of road races. The freedom and joy of running and racing made me want to keep pushing myself further and further to see what I could do -- and it really did open up my world. I started to feel better about myself.
There is nothing like the feeling when you reach the finish line of a race. It's completely euphoric. When you're out on a race course, no matter how long it is, you feel like you can't take one more step -- and yet you do.
That "finish-line feeling" is special because it's something only you can achieve for yourself. No one can do it for you.
When I finally got to a point in my life where I felt I was healed, I started Girls With Sole because I didn't want anyone else to feel the darkness I had felt for so long. We provide free fitness and wellness programs to empower the minds, bodies and souls of girls who have experienced any type of abuse or who are at-risk in the Northeast Ohio area.
The girls in the programs know I can relate to them -- and that makes them listen a little bit closer. I try to bring girls to the point where they recognize their strengths and realize they do have all the power they need inside of them. The girls end up seeing they can do so much more than they thought they could.
Four years ago, I decided to do something that would be way out of my own comfort zone, because that's what I ask the girls to do. So I set the goal to run a full marathon in all 50 states to raise awareness and money for Girls With Sole. I gave myself five years to do the marathons, but then the "finish-line feeling" took over and I ended up achieving all 50 states in two-and-a-half years.
It was an intense, incredibly challenging experience -- some of the marathons were just days apart -- but I also learned so much about myself. I continued to realize that I'm stronger than I ever thought I was.
Whenever I'd start to wonder if it was too much -- if it was really worth it -- something would happen that would make me realize it was. During each race, I'd talk to the runners around me, sometimes for 26.2 miles. I'd talk about the experiences I'd had and about my work -- and I found that so many other women had stories like mine, or knew girls who needed help. A few weeks after one particularly grueling race, one of the women who'd run alongside me sent a check to Girls With Sole for $11,000. I still can't believe it.
This weekend, I'm preparing to do what may be my biggest challenge yet: the Great Wall Marathon along a section of the Great Wall of China. It includes more than 5,000 vertical steps and is a really daunting race.
But that's exactly why I'm doing it.
They say not everyone finishes this marathon, but I'm not like everyone. I've been training really hard for it -- and I'll go show all the girls in my program that no wall is too big to conquer.