Leigh Cooper Wallace, a Watauga High School teacher, a coach and a dedicated athlete, died unexpectedly Monday at Johnson City Medical Center after a brief illness.
Wallace, 43, of Todd was diagnosed last week with pneumonia and was airlifted to the Tennessee hospital on Sunday as her breathing became labored, according to Facebook updates from family members. Low oxygen levels required her to be placed on a ventilator, but complications from the illness ultimately led to her death around 5 a.m. Monday.
She is survived by her husband, Chris Wallace, and two children, Jake and Haleigh, all of whom share her passion for athletics.
Part of a military family, Wallace was born in the Panama Canal Zone and lived in towns across the United States in her youth.
Wallace graduated in 1992 with an exercise science degree from Appalachian State University, where she ran cross country and track. She earned tremendous honors in distance competitions, winning the Southern Conference championships in the indoor 5,000-meter run and the outdoor 3,000-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs her senior year.
Even after college, she remained a talented runner well-known in Watauga County for her athletic endeavors.
She competed at least eight times in The Bear, a five-mile race up Grandfather Mountain, placing in the top five female finishers each time.
Physical fitness was more than a hobby for Wallace, who taught healthful living and physical education at Watauga High School from 1998 until her death.
“When you stay physically fit, it empowers you,” she told the Watauga Democrat in 2011. “That's part of the reason I teach.”
For more than a decade, Wallace helped coach the Watauga High School cross country and track teams, often outpacing the young men on the team.
Head Coach Randy McDonough described Wallace as the force behind the success the cross country team had in the 1990s and beyond.
“She was able to get a lot out of the kids that I couldn’t,” he said. “She was a ball of fire. When she came on the team, she was faster than all but a couple boys and girls on the team. As the years went by, we were able to build up a team that could finally beat her.”
Wallace was inducted into the Watauga Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 and later served as the first women’s lacrosse coach when the club team became recognized as a varsity sport.
Ever devoted to her students, Wallace also served as a Student Council adviser for several years and helped judge the Mr. WHS Pageant, a satirical male beauty pageant fundraiser sponsored by the Student Council.
Both youth and adults alike responded to Wallace’s motivational presence, said Jodi Cash, director of the Paul H. Broyhill Wellness Center.
Wallace visited the gym regularly and taught spin classes there for almost nine years. She exuded strength and determination, and her classes were always full of people seeking to tap into her enthusiasm, Cash said.
“She was a big part of turning that light on for a lot of people and helping them find wherever their strength would be,” Cash said. “That was her biggest thing, just helping people figure out how to believe in themselves.”
In September, Wallace was part of the winning team in the Blue Ridge Relay, a 208-mile relay race from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia to Asheville, Cash said.
Many of her fellow teammates — many of whom she met for the first time that weekend — were gathering in Richmond, Va., on Tuesday for a commemorative run, Cash said.
That wasn’t the only instance in which Wallace touched the lives of those who barely knew her.
She became a symbol of strength and courage for many after she survived a kidnapping and sexual assault in 1989, when she was a junior at ASU. The man who attacked her killed another young woman, Jeni Gray, shortly before approaching Wallace. After her escape, she was instrumental in the apprehension of the suspect and the closure of the Gray case, police have said.
She shared her experiences for years at ASU's Walk For Awareness, which encouraged the community to be aware of safety risks and to stand against violence.
Her story also was shared on several television programs, including an episode of Investigation Discovery's "Sins and Secrets" that aired in October.
“I think the message I hope to give people is, ‘This is what I went through, and I still live my life to the fullest,'” she said in 2011. “It doesn't have to ruin your life. It's a part of your history. It's a part of you. But it doesn't have to consume and destroy your life.”
A visitation with the family is scheduled for 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Watauga High School. A private internment for family will be conducted Thursday before a memorial service at 3 p.m. Thursday at WHS.
Hampton Funeral Service is assisting the Wallace family.