Leigh Cooper Wallace

My friend and heroe, Leigh Cooper Wallace died Monday morning due to complications with pneumonia.  She was only 43 years old.  Leigh was a hero to many.  A runner, a coach, a powerhouse of a spirit, she inspired so many to reach within and tap into their greatest potential.  When I first met Leigh, she was bringing Girls on the Run back to her hometown.  Her strength, story and energy inspired me so deeply, I felt compelled to write about her…to share THAT KIND OF STRENGTH with the world.  Endurance Magazine ran the piece (thank you Joe Nuss).

In honor of her I am re-posting that story.  The world needs to know that women like Leigh live here…touch us…change us…show us what is good, right and real.  Leigh, I will miss you.  My prayers go to your family, your children, those you coach and your community.  We are all better for having known you.  My heart breaks today, but is stronger becaue of you.

I Am Woman

I am a woman, I am a runner. Much of my experience being a woman has overlapped with the power I get from being a runner. When I run I feel beautiful, powerful, and real. The pieces of myself that I share throughout the day are all assimilated back into one beautiful tapestry . . . one amazing piece of reality . . . one experience that is mine and mine alone. The physicality of it provides me with a powerful reminder that my body is capable, strong, powerful, and MINE. Every time I run, I make a statement to the world, “I own my action, my body, my thoughts, and my experiences. I am not an object to be sexualized, diminished, or dominated. I am real. I am human. I am spirit manifest within this strong, healthy, and beautiful physical body. Honor that which rests within me.”

And this is where Leigh’s story hits me.

Leigh Wallace

Leigh is a new Girls on the Run council director. I had the privilege of meeting her at one of our recent Girls on the Run trainings in Charlotte, NC.

Over the course of two days, women from across the nation descend on Charlotte for a two-day, very intense Girls on the Run training. Participants take back tangible tools and systems to efficiently deliver the Girls on the Run program. What remains with me are their stories. Frequently wrapped into and around a woman’s story are her struggles in battling our culture’s obsession with bodies, sexuality, and power.

I’ve got to be honest with you, when I met Leigh I was intimidated by her. Her physical strength is obvious. She is one of the strongest-looking females I’ve ever met. Her energy, though, was a bit reserved. She was probably intimidated by my extroversion and wide-open persona. We had a kind of mutual intimidation society, if you will: me of her physical presence and she, of my emotional one.

After a day together, Leigh e-mailed me her story.

As a little girl, Leigh was tough. In her words, “I was the athletic girl in my grade and this made me popular with the boys. I knew that they respected my athletic ability and my power and I really liked that. I didn’t feel pretty, but I guess I probably thought I was cute in a way. I didn’t see myself as a tomboy but I did relate well to boys and worked very hard to prove to them that even though I was a girl, I could still do most of what they could do.”

But something happened around middle school. Like many girls, Leigh stepped into the Girl Box, a place girls often go around sixth grade with heartbreaking results. At this vulnerable age, the formerly vibrant and strong Leigh began to morph into a girl overly occupied by her appearance. First it showed up as restricting her food intake, then it appeared as overindulgence. There seemed to be no end to the madness, yet running was the one safe space in the day where Leigh felt some degree of control. She won championship races in ninth and tenth grade and got third her senior year in the Kansas State Championships.

Appalachian State came knocking at her door. The move to Boone brought with it an opportunity to buckle down, focus on her love for running, and get on track with her eating. With a renewed sense of self and a desire for comfort in her skin, Leigh appeared on the ASU campus.

But changing locations didn’t prove to be the remedy she had hoped. With her continued obsession with weight, Leigh was sidelined by stress fractures and distracted by her roller-coaster relationship with the scales. Her first year at ASU certainly didn’t shake out to be what she had hoped.

And then IT happened.

September 29, 1989, Leigh set out on an early evening run. Planning to be back by 6:30, she and her boyfriend (now husband) would then go out for a nice dinner together.

A light rain began to fall when the car slowly approached. A very scary man sat at the wheel. “Get in,” he demanded, pointing to the passenger seat with his gun. Not knowing what to do, Leigh agreed.

What occurred over the next several hours is unthinkable. He drove Leigh to a remote area outside of Boone. With a frightening and disturbing sense of calm and coolness, he raped her while psychologically tormenting her with threats of death. At first, before the numbness set in, all she could think about was how loved she was. “My mother will miss me when I die,” she thought. A strange sense of gratitude seemed to float down upon her shoulders, as the violence raged around her . . . an overwhelming and gentle gratitude for her body, her friends, her family, and her life.

Hour after hour, the torment continued. Somewhere over the course of that time frame, Daniel Lee shared with her that he had murdered another girl, Jeni Gray. He calmly described her slow, cruel, and painful death and threatened to do the same to Leigh.

Leigh managed to escape from Daniel Lee hours later at a gas station. At the trial, as Leigh testified, she intentionally stared her tormenter in the eyes, her proof to him and herself that she wasn’t weaker because of this experience but was much stronger. Daniel Lee received the death penalty for murdering Jeni Gray. He died in prison, several years later, from a brain aneurysm.

After the kidnapping, Leigh was stronger, indeed. She went on to become a 2-time Southern Conference All-Conference performer in cross-country. In track she was named the Southern Conference Most Outstanding Performer. Upon graduation, she continued to train on her own and compete. She won several state and regional races and ran her 5K PR of 16:56. She teaches and coaches at the high school level, leading many athletes to victory in the state championships. Now, Leigh is prepared to engage third, fourth, and fifth graders in the Girls on the Run program.

She is married with two children, wanting first and foremost to be remembered as a remarkable mother, not an elite runner. She is loved, respected, and embraced by her family, her community and at last, herself.

I share this with you because it’s important that our culture honors women like Leigh-that we eliminate our antiquated ideals of beauty and recreate them to include the stories of women who are strong, brave, and authentic. As I read the story that she so openly shared with me, I wept, my head in my hands and my heart in my throat, wondering how I could possibly honor someone as brave, courageous, and bold as she. And as I write to you, I recognize that no words could ever do justice to the pain of her experience, nor the power she has gained from it. But what I can offer comes from Leigh herself.

“I don’t know . . . I guess I just love to inspire people. I love to see that light go on when someone realizes that being strong is one of the greatest feelings in the world . . . and to know that running makes you just as strong mentally as it does physically! To know that no matter what life’s circumstances are and no matter how hard the world may seem to be trying to hold you back, that our own personal strength and belief in ourselves is something that no one can take away without our permission. I believe this more than I believe anything and am committed to helping others believe it too.”

Leigh is, without a doubt, strength, beauty, and woman personified.

# # #

Molly Barker, M.S.W., is the Founder and Vision Keeper of Girls on the Run International and the author of “Girls Lit from Within: A Guide to Life Outside of the Girl Box.” Learn more about Girls on the Run at http://www.girlsontherun.org.

36 thoughts on “Leigh Cooper Wallace

  1. It is a small world…my past and present, mutual friends. Molly do you remember me from your childhood? I am Renee Ross Battle. I live in Boone and Leigh and her family were some of the first people we met when moving to Boone. My eldest son played sports with Jake and both my boys had Leigh’s mom as a teacher. I work in the school system and we all have heavy hearts with the loss of Leigh. I have seen the positive effects Girls on the Run has had in our community. Thanks for sharing.

  2. How sad! I just, this minute, finished watching a show on ID channel where Leigh spoke about her abduction, at the end of the show a message came up saying she had passed away last month. My heart dropped, what a loss:(

  3. Just saw Leigh’s story on 20/20 rerun…. at the end it stated her passing. Upon searching her name, I came across this. thank you for sharing this inspiring story about such a beautiful person. I wish peace to her family.

    1. What a brave girl. She is in heaven now. She can run to her hearts content. She did not allow that piece of garbage (I won’t even type his name) to change who she was. I hope her family keeps her memory alive and never forgets what a hero she was and is.

  4. I just saw the story on Sins and Secrets. Leigh was beautiful and strong! I was so shocked to see about her passing away at the end of the story! so sad. I am inspired by her life may she rest in peace.

  5. I just finished watching the program about her abduction. After seeing she had passed I had to learn more about this amazing person. Thanks so much for this story, her family has so much to be proud of. Prayers to them all. Wish I could have known her.

  6. Leigh Cooper’s story was just on Discovery I.D. and then I read that she had passed away. I am just shocked. RIP Leigh. You are so very respected.

  7. I also saw the program about her abduction and escape, in which she was interviewed about her ordeal. What a remarkable young woman she was – and what a loss for her to die so young

  8. I saw Leigh’s story on I.D., and at the end I caught a brief notation about her passing. I was scrolling through channels at this point, and I didn’t catch it all. How very sad that such a strong vibrant woman’s life was cut short at such a young age! My heart goes out to her family and friends.

  9. Hello, you did your friend justice. What a beautiful person Leigh was inside and out! I too watched her episode on ID channel. I was moved by her story of survival as well. I just was wondering and I would like your take on this….How is it that in today’s modern medical world did Leigh as a 43 year old very fit woman die so suddenly from pneumonia complications? Is there any investigation regarding the odd, sudden circumstances of her death? Just wondered. Very sad early ending for Leigh. Thank You

  10. I just watched a show about the Jeni Gray death and Leigh Cooper’s abduction and rape. I was just so impressed by her resilience to survive. Then at the end a screen came up saying she had passed away from pneumonia complications in 2012. I was just heartbroken…..RIP Leigh Cooper Wallace. You touched many lives directly and indirectly….

    1. I am Leigh’s daughter, and every now and then I like to read these comments. Thank you so much, comments like these are what keep my strong. They are a constant reminder of how amazing my mom was, and how many people she continues to inspire even after she passed. Thank you Donna.

      1. Oh Haleigh Bless your heart… Please know your mom is remembered… Às a woman, a runner. A Survivor. Peace and love to you and your family.

      2. I am saddened and speechless as I learn of the passing of obviously wonderful and awesome Leigh Cooper Wallace. I am watching the ID Channel episode chronicling her awful ordeal with Daniel Lee. As I marveled at her amazing strength, I searched for information about her online. I am shocked that she passed away, and so long ago. I am so very sorry for those in her life who were certainly profoundly impacted by her death. Her beautiful strong spirit no doubt continues to live in those who loved her. I remain with deep sympathy…

      3. I feel remiss that I did not extend also extend my deep condolence to the family and friends of Jeni Gray. Her loss was indeed very sad and tragic.

      4. I too just saw the show and was saddend to hear of her unexpectant passing and at such a young age. How brave your Mother was to do everything she could to save herself and provide justice for Jeni as well as possibly saving others from crossing paths with Daniel. I can only imagine how hard of a road you and your family has had since she has passed but I am confident from just this 1 hour show of learning about her, her personality and drive to live, that she loved you all with everything she had and you know it. She sounds like a wonderful human being and I am so sorry for you and your Family’s loss but keep your chin up and keep moving forward looking for the positive in life as your Mother would be doing till this day and find comfort knowing that many people who have never met her, feel so compelled by her and her spirit, that they searched to learn more about her and reached out to you and your family with loving comments. God Bless you all.

      5. Haleigh I have just watched this show in Melbourne Australia. How proud you must be of your beautiful mother. Enjoy your wonderful memories of her!

      6. Haleigh,
        I wrote out a message on here and somehow lost it so I am going to do my best to write my thoughts again and hopefully my lost one won’t show up later and seem like I am writing two similar messages!!
        I just wanted to let you know that I am thinking about you and your family. I was a student at App when your mom was there. I was a sophomore when Jeni was killed and your mom was kidnapped and assaulted. It was a very scary time in Boone. I knew your mom. We were aquaintences but shared many close friends in common who were part of the ROTC program, one of whom I later married and then divorced thanks to me being a stupid idiot at the time. I also knew your grandfather because I took the ROTC classes and he was the Colonel of the program at that time. He was such a great, well respected man.
        Your mom…..she was such a bright light and everyone who crossed her path saw and felt it. She was so strong and so beautiful both inside and out. After the kidnapping I saw her quite a few times and was always so amazed at her strength and her spirit. And I remember the joy that she radiated. It was special…..and as crazy as it may sound, I can still remember the sound of her laugh even today. It just always stuck with me , as did my admiration and respect for her. Later in my life when I was dealing with my own trials and difficult times your mom would sometimes cross my mind and I would remember that your mom showed so much courage , strength and resilience and if she could not only survive but thrive after putting that animal away then I could certainly be strong and get through what I was dealing with . I know that I am just one of so many who was touched by your mom and her beautiful fighting spirit. I know it has been 8 years since she died and I am not sure if you ever come to this page anymore but I wanted to message you anyway just to tell you that I am one more person who remembers your mom with admiration and the utmost respect and that I still think of her to this day. I have prayed for your family many times over the years and I hope that your lives are full of love and joy. Your mom was one of my heroes and I am grateful that I had the chance to know her. God bless you and your family.

  11. I too saw the story on ID discovery on my day off. I was so inspired by her strength and spirit. I was sick to see the end where it stated she had passed away. I sent a message to her husband on facebook of condolence to the family. I felt I had to reach out to him, that is how much I was moved by the sheer wonderfulness of this woman. I have joined a gym and this is a direct inspiration from the fact that though Leigh was a busy wife mother and teacher, she made time for taking care of herself also. Lets all try to loves others and ourselves a little more.

  12. I too saw the ID program and was shocked and saddened to learn of Leigh’s passing. She truly is a hero. What a strong woman. She is truly an inspiration to women everywhere but especially to those of us who have suffered similar circumstances. God bless her family.

  13. Leigh was a tremendous inspiration to go thru what she did and to persevere the way she did is utterly amazing. So sorry for the loss of such a beautiful vibrant woman. Condolences to her family. Much love!

  14. Haleigh, I remember the shoes (Van’s) she got you for Xmas that were in the closet. I don’t know but I think she wants you to know how much she loves you and misses you. Take care. I went to high school w/ Leigh and we ran cross country. We also did swim team together in Ft. Buchanan, Puerto Rico. Take care, Maria

  15. Molly, thank you for sharing Leigh’s story with us. She overcame a great deal. What a bright and courageous women she was. We should all strive to be so emotionally strong.

  16. My wife is a distance runner and also a Soldier. Before I heard the name “Leigh Cooper Wallace” I thought she was the strongest woman I had ever heard of. She is a survivor of a violent attack, too. I’m heartbroken by Leigh’s passing. Such a bright light of strength, resiliency, determination, courage and compassion. It’s clear to see how many lives she touched. I look forward to sharing her story with my wife and countless others that I teach in my self defense classes. My heart goes out to all of you who carry her memory. May each of you find peace, live without remorse and carry her memory so that others may thrive by her exceptional example.

    1. I saw Leigh’s story on Sins & Secrets yesterday and my heart went out to her during the show. At the end of the show they told of Leigh’s passing and that really saddened me. The whole sordid story was still on my mind today and I googled Leigh’s name and came to this site. Molly, you’ve done a good job honoring Leigh and keeping her memory alive. Of course I never knew Leigh, or even knew of her until the one hour program yesterday, but when the show was over I felt I did, in some kind of detached way. I give my sympathy to you and her family and may she rest in peace.

  17. I too saw Leigh’s story on TV today and I felt so sad to read about her passing at such an early age. I lost my own mother when she was almost that same age too, so this is doubly touching. Leigh was clearly a remarkable person. May she rest in peace and God Bless her family and all of you who were her friends. Her story is inspiring for her bravery, intelligence and endurance.

  18. What an amazing woman Leigh Cooper Wallace was!!. I just watched the Sins and Secrets and learnt what had happened and how Leigh was able to stay strong and focused during such terrifying and agonizing ordeal when she was younger. I was so inspired by her, at being such a strong, mentally powerful, fearless woman and one who was not just a survivor but an overcomer!!! I too was so intrigued by her and wanted to know more about, I had turned from TV screen for a second , only to look back and see a comment that she had passed and I felt so saddened and cheated out of getting to know her. She has achieved so much in her lifetime and I am happy that she has her 2 wonderful children to continue her legacy. I am so thankful to her husband and her children for having shared a fulfilling life with her. Truly an awesome, amazing woman who has touched so many of us and inspiring us to be more than what we are!. Haleigh, continue to cherish your mom’s wonderful memories, I know you miss her so much but know that you had an exceptional human being as your role model.

  19. What an inspiration. I admire her grit, intelligence and courage. She was so brave to engage her kidnapper and win him over waiting for the time to escape. She was courageous in the courtroom when she boldly made eye contact with him recognizing control was in her corner this time. She kept her wits when others would have dissolved waiting for the moment to jump from the car to safety. What an inspiration.

  20. As well as a few, I saw it today on TV as well. Her awesomeness is unmeasurable. I was completely sad to hear that she passed. Much love to you Haleigh and your family.

  21. I saw the Leigh Cooper story on ID investigation, and at the end of the program it said, Mrs.Cooper had passed. Her story touched my heart so deeply, and help me to understand that what happened to me wasn’t my fault, and never let anyone take my power away from me by staying the victim. I wish I could have met you, you are the greatest woman I never got the chance to meet thank you. May you rest in heaven !

  22. I watched ID about Leigh today…..she was an amazing person, for what she went through and letting people know that this guy did to her that he would and will not break her spirit…I had just looked down at my laptop and there was silence at the end of the show…I looked up in time to see even through death Leigh continues…and I thought OMG she died. I googled her name and found this story, she truly was an inspiration to young women everywhere, she definitely left this world a better place……

  23. Words can not be said that tell how Awesome this Woman was to her Family her Friends.you have truley lost a Great Woman. i hope what she started with Running and fitness for Females of all ages carrys on in her name.even from the other side of the world our Hearts go out to Leigh and her Family may she run with the Angles

  24. Just saw Leighs story today and the end said she died. This makes me so sad fo e her family and friends. Such a strong woman. Sorry for your loss even after these years.

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