Newsbank Archive
December 01, 2015
Heath driven to meet high goals
by Andy Diffenderfer
Jul 10, 2014 | 116 116 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ashley Heath's mind is always racing — to the next triathlon, the next challenge, the next chance to see how far she can go.

Meeting and resetting goals is a constant for the Kingsland paratriathlete, the desire to get fitter and faster a never-ending quest. “'I can always do better' is my thinking,” said the veteran of about 20 triathlons.

The 30-year-old has been to Japan and Texas for recent events, and a long list of hopeful future races covers a dry erase board in the living room of the west Camden house in which she and her husband, James — also a paratriathlete — live.

In the couple’s home, handfuls of medals and awards hang from the banister and fill an armoire. The board, she said, is a way “I can see my goal. I have to put stuff where I can see it to remind me.”

In 2004, the Miami, Fla., native, then 20 and a Daytona Beach lifeguard, was paralyzed in a car accident, and has been in a wheelchair since.

“It’s taken me this long to get where it’s nothing,” she said. “This is second nature to me. It’s not even a blip.”

Immediately following the accident, participating in sports from a wheelchair was the furthest thought from her mind. That changed once Ashley, then a student at the University of North Florida, met James on the tennis courts in 2009.

She and her husband share a common history, as James, also wheelchair-bound, was paralyzed as a teenager in a car accident 22 years ago. “It’s so easy for us to be together because it’s all the same,” she said.

Thanks to James — who competes himself, but not as much as Ashley — she got more involved in sports, and her spouse has been an incredible motivator, she said. Ashley didn't like the hand-cycle at first, but as she built up speed on it, he urged her to keep on going.

She hasn't stopped.

“It’s all him, that’s pushed me to this extent,” she said, looking happily ahead to their third anniversary July 16. “He’s the real reason why I’ve started doing as much as I have.”

Her fierce determination, she said, also came from her grandfather, who always made her do the right things by going to school, working hard and never settling.

“It wasn’t until I was put in a wheelchair, and hearing my grandfather’s voice in the back of my head go, ‘You need to push yourself, because everybody is going to see you one way, and you need to prove everybody wrong,’” she said.

“The accident is what pushed me to start doing what I do, and pushed me to be who I am,” she said. “My accident did a 180 with my life.”

The Japan journey in May was an adventure, as the swimming conditions she experienced were nothing she could simulate in south Georgia. The chilly 68-degree water in the Pacific Ocean suggested possible hypothermia, but that didn't keep Ashley from finishing the 750-meter swim, 12.4-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run in an hour and 58 minutes.

The Far East trip brought other difficulties, such as transportation, airports and accommodations that weren’t compatible with people in wheelchairs, a switch of hotels, and a bus driver that didn’t speak English.

Two weeks after Japan at an international race in Dallas, Ashley trimmed her time to an hour and 47 minutes in conditions far more to her liking. “It was night and day how much better I was,” she said.

Ashley's training is mostly bike-related, five or six days a week. She swims at least once a week, and would like to do more work with a race chair for her running. She has coaches for the cycling and swimming, and said the bike is her strongest leg.

While many events she's looking toward are more regional, others are way out west or on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

An event in Stockholm, Sweden may in the plans for August. She's running her first half-Ironman Sept. 28 in Augusta, which will be a big step up in distance with a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bicycle ride and a 13.1-mile run.

In a race that could take as long as seven hours to finish, the preparations will be bumped up with the increased mileage. She recently rode 56 miles with a local bicycle club and reported she had energy to spare.

The paratriathlon nationals will be in September in Tempe, Ariz., and further down the road are the Paralympics and Hawaiian Ironman.

“You know what?” she said about the latter two. “It will happen. When? That’s the question.”

Ashley graduated from UNF in 2009, and will get her master’s degree in exercise science in August. “I would love to work with other individuals with disabilities, and adaptive sports,” she said.

For Ashley — who celebrated her 30th birthday by skydiving — awards aren't as meaningful as pushing her body to the limit and accomplishing things many others haven't. How far she has come in the last 10 years is something she couldn't have imagined right after the accident.

“Who I am now and who I was then, I couldn’t even see myself doing this before my injury,” she said. “I’m beyond a different person than I was. It’s really funny to see where life takes you.”