In June 2000, 17-year-old Heather Hennessy became America’s fastest 800-meter runner. As a national champion and record-setting athlete, her Olympic dreams were almost in reach. She interested colleges from across the country and gained a scholarship to the school of her choice.
Everything seemed like it was coming together.
Soon, August drew near and training picked up once again. A team trip to Tahoe marked the start of a new season, where Ms. Hennessy and her friends took to the cliffs.
“Come on!” her teammates urged. Ms. Hennessy looked down at the lake. It was her turn to honor tradition. With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and leaped.
Suddenly, 60 feet turned to one. Her body smashed against the water, and what once was whole fell apart. Scars from years of abuse resurfaced, dreams of the future falling below. While it all seemed to slip away, Ms. Hennessy refused to sink, relying on strength that made her who she is today.
Now, Ms. Hennessy, who found refuge in Santa Barbara, brings that strength to others. Featured in the documentary, “The Portal,” Ms. Hennessy shared her story on the big screen earlier this month. Focused on the power of daily meditation, the movie features six individuals as they work past trauma. Select showings of the film began Nov.21 around the country, or individuals can host their own screening if none are close by.
Those interested can also learn more about Ms. Hennessy in her upcoming book, “Spiritual Strength.” Set to release this December, the memoirs detail Ms. Hennessy’s path to recovery and how others can do the same.
Ms. Hennessy’s book accompanies her own Spiritual Strength program. Through online coaching, clients can receive spiritual guidance, healing, and empowerment. Ms. Hennessy’s goal is to guide others back to their real self and strength.
“Being able to speak authentically to people is everything,” said Ms. Hennessy. “A lot of girls talk about not knowing how to leave toxic relationships and don’t have the self-esteem to be on their own. I wish I would have had something like this.”
Growing up in the Bay Area, Ms. Hennessy endured chaos. She watched her mother suffer abuse at the hands of her father, and often was mistreated herself. Turns out, she had a reason to run.
“In the third grade, we had an Olympic day,” said Ms. Hennessy. “I beat boys and girls to win the race, and that’s when something sparked in me. I wanted to keep having that feeling.”
When she was 13, Ms. Hennessy’s mom left her father. Through the turmoil, Ms. Hennessy became involved with track more each day. She won championships as a freshman and carved a path towards cross country triumph.
Looking for a better program, Ms. Hennessy switched to Los Gatos High School, where she really began to excel. At home, her family shared a one-bedroom apartment, managing the move for Ms. Hennessy’s future. With Los Gatos, she inched closer to the Olympics.
Until she jumped.
“I remember really not wanting to do it,” said Ms. Hennessy. “Everything flashes ahead of you. It’s like I lost everything in a split second.”
For the next four months, Ms. Hennessy was bedridden. Compression fractures in her neck and back left her in a body cast, making her senior year a challenge to finish.
“Getting out of bed was hard,” said Ms. Hennessy. “I couldn’t carry my books, so they stayed in classrooms. Facing that day in and day out, I’m not sure how I got through it.”
The pain continued into college. Despite her injury, USC honored Ms. Hennessy’s athletic scholarship, where she worked to get back in shape. She tried everything to build her strength but realized it would never be the same.
As a college junior, Ms. Hennessy let go of track. Finishing school with a degree in communications, she went on to become a Fox Sports national television broadcaster.
“I always thought running would be my way to speak to people,” said Ms. Hennessy. “But with journalism, I figured I could turn this into a good thing.”
This new career allowed Ms. Hennessy to stay involved with sports and make an impact like she had always wanted. What she didn’t anticipate was meeting someone from her past. Someone she went on to marry, but who still haunts her today.
“I met him two weeks into freshman year (at USC),” said Ms. Hennessy. “We hit it off pretty quickly and dated all of freshman year but took a break when he transferred out to Texas.”
In the beginning of their relationship, Ms. Hennessey noticed the red flags, but couldn’t seem to let him go. Like her father, her boyfriend had a really good side, but a dark one, too. He was abusive and struggled with alcohol, but Ms. Hennessy looked the other way.
Years later, the couple found their way back to one another. Reconnecting through baseball, Ms. Hennessy’s broadcasting career was just taking off as his Major League dreams faltered. His patterns of addiction kept him in the minor leagues, but Ms. Hennessy wanted change.
“I told him if we’re going to date again, he needed to cut the bad influences,” she said. “I basically coached him away from destroying his career. He went from struggling to getting signed to playing in the World Series within a year.”
For a while, without the distractions, their relationship got better. Ms. Hennessy thought this time could be different, so she committed to marriage. But with his success, old habits returned.
“I fell into this trap where he would continue to tell me if he was successful, with the big house and dream job, we would be happy,” said Ms. Hennessy. “I helped him achieve all that, and he still came at me. That was my breaking point.”
After seven years of emotional abuse, Ms. Hennessy left, leaving everything she owned, everything she had worked for, to get her freedom back. She filed for divorce and,a year later, found herself in Santa Barbara.
“I really felt called to here during that time,” said Ms. Hennessy. “The last two years, Santa Barbara saved me. Just being on the beach with my dog, learning to be happy in that moment, that was enough for me.”
After her separation, Ms. Hennessy dove into healing herself. She went on retreats, practiced meditation and attended therapy. While her journey isn’t complete, Ms. Hennessy has come a long way. She’s learned to put herself first and wants to help other women do the same.
“People need a coach, someone that’s pulling for them,” said Ms. Hennessy. “Being around that energy will start to shift things.”
Through her Spiritual Strength program, Ms. Hennessy helps others remain true to themselves, whether that’s working past an abusive relationship or building more confidence. Still, she wants to do more. Starting with her memoir, Ms. Hennessy hopes to impact a larger audience.
“I’m terrified to share my story, but there’s no way around be real and raw,” said Ms. Hennessy. “One of the hardest things to do it starting that conversation but talking is progress.”