Petite in stature, but big in heart, local resident Ashley Cooper-Heath crossed the finish line this past weekend during the JAX Tri Series Sprint #1 triathlon event at Fernandina Beach.
She successfully completed the 1500-meter swim, 20k bike ride, and 10k run, clocking in at right around 3:02 minutes.
It was a finishing time she can proudly add to her growing list of accomplishments. She was, after all, the only adaptive athlete to compete.
Five years ago, she would have laughed at the idea of taking on such a feat. Today, she welcomes the challenge.
The first time Ashley tried hand cycling in 2009 through the Brooks Adaptive Sports and Recreation Program, it was not love at first concrete lap.
The life-long athlete struggled to complete the four-mile ride and decided then and there that she’d rather stick with adaptive tennis, a sport she had discovered while attending University of North Florida.
These days, the petite blond with a born to win attitude, still enjoys hitting the tennis courts, but can’t imagine not having adaptive cycling as a central part of her life.
In 2004, Ashley was involved in a horrific car accident, which brought her life to a halt. She suffered a T-4 complete spinal cord injury, leaving her wheelchair-bound. She spent several weeks in a coma, followed by six long months recovering in a hospital bed.
Once she returned home, she faced the challenges and struggles of navigating a new life. Prior to her accident, she had been very active. She was a beach lifeguard, a cheerleader in high school, and ran track. Now, she was refined to a wheelchair.
Like many in her situation, she battled with depression.
Her saving grace came in the form of her determination to push on. Seeking independence, she packed up her stuff and moved to Miami and later relocated to the Jacksonville area to attend college. Her grandfather had always been a champion of education and Ashley credits him for motivating her to go after her dreams. She pursued an undergraduate degree in Exercise Science and first discovered the Brooks Adaptive Sports and Recreation Program after hearing about the adaptive tennis program held on campus.
As her undergraduate schooling was winding down, Ashley began her internship with the Brook Adaptive Sports Program, helping out with the quad rugby program. This is where she met her future husband, James Heath. He was the assistant rugby coach and they slowly formed a close friendship. He had been involved with hand cycling for a long time and encouraged Ashley to give it a try.
“I hated it right off the bat,” she said. “I did a couple miles and it was beyond hard. It worked muscles I hadn’t used in a long time. I was prepared to give up and call it good.”
She all but threw in the towel then and there, but James continued to encourage her and wouldn’t let her give up.
“Slowly, it became easier and easier. I realized that once I got over the initial struggle, I was a natural at hand cycling. It was a physical challenge and I thrived. It just felt right,” she explained.
Ashley stuck with the sport and has now branched out to paratriathlete training, a combination of hand cycling, adaptive running, and swimming.
She has her sights set on the 2016 Paralympics.
“This sport takes a lot of discipline,” she said, referring to her 6 day a week training schedule and all around healthy way of living.
She gives a lot of credit to her husband for first encouraging her to pursue the sport and for continuing to be her biggest fan.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be able to do half of what I do now. He’s very self-sufficient and driven and I strive to emulate those qualities,” she shared. “He pushed me to try hand cycling and he continues to push me to try harder and do my best.”
She is currently training for the Augusta Half Ironman, set to take place in September in Augusta, Georgia.
With her husband supporting her every inch of the way, Ashley is continuing to pursue her dreams, one race at a time.