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Fitness specialist overcomes bullying, health crisis to become an elite racer

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jodi Martinez
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

At the time Nicole Wilcox tightened her shoelaces for her 13th marathon of the year, she had already run the distance of the West Coast and qualified for the Boston Marathon twice.

Each step added to 1,400 miles of pavement she ran in 2016, but it also took her deeper into a life-long journey to find the unconditional self-acceptance that she’d been chasing since she was a child.

“Growing up I never thought that I was good at something,” said Wilcox, a volunteer for the 375th Aerospace Medicine Squadron Health Promotion Office at Scott Air Force Base. “Despite what people told me, I felt I wasn’t special.”

She faced bullying about her looks starting in fourth grade, which crippled her confidence. Then in high school she was involved in a debilitating car accident, hitting her face into the windshield twice.

Students taunted her by calling her “scar face,” adding to the insecurities she collected over the years as a young child. As Wilcox looked at herself in the mirror, she said it felt like nothing was right, and she noticed every flaw. After years of the bullying, she began to believe that the insults defined who she was. That was until she found running at age 24.

“When I was introduced to running by my dad, I not only found something that I was good at, but I found something I loved,” said Wilcox. “I started to like what I saw in the mirror when I looked in it. Running gave me the confidence to be the person I want to be, which was simply to love me more.”

Wilcox credits running for allowing her to break out of her shell, make a handful of life-long friends, and discover her identity.

“Running gives me the freedom to be me,” she explained. “When I run, I am free. I’m free from life and all the troubles that it gives.”

In the past six years, she has conquered countless marathons, became a sponsored runner, and learned to love herself. Along the way, she also overcame a trial in 2013 when she over-trained and was diagnosed with a health disorder known as the female athlete triad.

“After weeks of not being able to run, doctors finally found a severe stress fracture that needed surgical attention,” said Wilcox. “Then six weeks after having screws put in the femoral neck, I turned wrong in my kitchen and snapped the top of my femur directly under the screws’ heads.”

Wilcox was in the hospital again, requiring hip surgery. After doctors drilled a hole down her femur to insert a rod and insert screws above her knee and in her femoral neck, she faced a year-long recovery process.

The injury prompted her to go back to college to study health and wellness with a focus on fitness. She slowly rebuilt her endurance, and in 2014 she was back at the front of the pack again, where she qualified the first time for the Boston Marathon. She said she wants her two hip surgeries to be proof that people are capable of more than they realize.

“As long as you believe in yourself, stay determined, and push through, you can absolutely accomplish anything you set your heart and mind to,” she said.

For those who know her today, they don’t see the shy and self-conscious person she once was. Perhaps even more important, they don’t see a person filled with spite and bitterness, no matter how justified that could be. Instead, Wilcox has earned the reputation of living her life as compassionate and giving person.

“How can she not inspire anyone she comes into contact with?” asked Heather Braundmeier, 375th AMDS health promotion manager. “Nicole’s positive attitude and passion is infectious. Although, yes, running is definitely one of her top loves, Nicole truly wants to educate the base on how to live a healthy life in its entirety.”

Wilcox also serves as an assistant coach for cross country at Althoff Catholic High School. Her time at Scott has stretched from volunteering at the Youth and Child Development Center to being a group leader with the run clinic, where she inspires and helps others improve their run time. To Braundmeier, Wilcox directly impacts the success of the mission at the Health Promotion Clinic.

“Nicole’s dedication to the Health Promotion office leaves me in awe,” said Braundmeier. “She completed her internship with us over a year ago and has continued to volunteer with us full time.

“Without Nicole, Scott AFB Health Promotion would not be able to provide the services and customer satisfaction that we pride ourselves on.”

As for the future, Wilcox has set her sights on a number of races. She hopes to conquer a marathon in each state and two out of country, one being on The Great Wall of China. All the while, she will continue to remind herself of the person she wants to be as she looks to the sky for strength.

“I found something that shows me to always be positive, motivated and determined to always push hard, be better and do better,” she said. “As Phil. 4:13 says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’”