By Sandy Strickland
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville.
Her injuries were horrific, but her story is one of hope and healing.
Trisha Meili lost 80 percent of her blood during an attack and rape so brutal that doctors did not expect her to live more than a few hours.
She had deep scalp lacerations and skull fractures. Her brain was swollen. Her eye had exploded from its socket. Unconscious and tied up, her body jerked uncontrollably because of massive brain damage. The soles of her feet were the only part of her blood-soaked body not bruised, and she was identified by a gold ring that she always wore.
One of her physicians testified that “she hung onto life by a thread.”
But Meili is at peace with being known to the world as the Central Park jogger.
The 53-year-old, who now lives in Jacksonville, will be the keynote speaker at the 45th annual EVE Awards luncheon at noon Friday, June 6, at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront.
Meili, a New Jersey native, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley College and has two master’s degrees from Yale University.
She was an investment banker at Salomon Brothers in New York who found a release in running 6 1/2 miles daily.
To this day, she has no memory of her attack while running on the night of April 19, 1989. Doctors questioned whether she would survive, and if she did, whether she she would be a vegetable. Twelve days after the attack, Meili emerged from a deep coma.
About four weeks later, she was told what happened. But it took some time for her badly damaged brain to process the extent of her injuries.
“At the same time I was absorbing this information about the incredible level of violence, there was an incredible level of support from all over the world,” she said. “The power of that support outweighed the impact of the violence.”
Frank Sinatra sent roses. Marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson sent running sneakers. Though her identity remained unknown to the public, there was a groundswell of prayers for her recovery.
In early June, she was transferred to a rehabilitative hospital in Connecticut. She was unable to walk or speak clearly, had double vision and every movement required enormous effort.
Little by little, she improved. Though she could barely walk, her physical therapist urged her to run with an Achilles Track Club chapter that met at the hospital on Saturdays. As she got stronger, she began running around the parking lot on her own.
“I think that was part of my spirit, my drive,” Meili said. “A lot of it was for my family, too. I didn’t want them to be worried about me or have to take care of me.”
Meili described herself as a determined person who strove to do everything as well as — or better than– her two older brothers.
Five months after the attack, she returned to Central Park. A family friend who’s a priest and a runner accompanied her to the attack site, where a memorial had been set up. People were still leaving flowers and notes, which Meili said she found incredibly touching.
After five months of rehabilitation, she returned to her apartment and her job at Salomon.
And she returned to running on weekends in Central Park.
“I think part of it was my defiant nature,” she said, adding that she was never assaulted again. “I was going to show whoever did this that you are not going to stop me.”
Five teenagers were tried and convicted for the crime in 1990. Twelve years later, after all but one served their time, a convicted serial rapist and murderer who was serving a life sentence claimed he alone was responsible, and DNA evidence linked him to the crime, she said.
New York State law requires that when new evidence is introduced that may have resulted in a different verdict, then a court may vacate the convictions, and that’s what happened, Meili said.
In 1995, Meili ran the New York City Marathon, in which the last leg goes through Central Park. It was a glorious day, she said, filling her with pride in her recovery and her physical, mental and emotional state.
The petite blonde said she still has issues with balance and has permanently lost her sense of smell but, nonetheless, has made a “remarkable” recovery. Her doctor, Meili said, even called it a miracle.
Not remembering is a mixed blessing, she said.
“There’s controversy in the case, and the controversy is if more than one person was involved,” Meili said. “I will never know what happened. Part of my healing is accepting that I will never know, and that uncertainly is a constant reminder of the attack. From that uncertainly, the turmoil of not knowing arises.”
She left Salomon in 1998 and became president of a New York nonprofit that offered no-interest loans to the working poor. She also gives her time as founding chair to Achilles International, whose mission is to enable people with disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics.
The media had protected her anonymity, but Meili decided to tell her story in the 2003 book, “I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility.” She began giving more and more motivational speeches.
Meanwhile, Meili met Jim Schwarz, a sales consultant, on a blind date. They married in 1996 and moved to Stanford, Conn. She fell in love with Jacksonville, its trees, architecture and friendly people, after flying into the city for a speaking engagement in Kings Bay, Ga., in 2009.
The couple had been considering moving for some years since they worked from home, traveled a fair amount, had no children or family still living in the metropolitan New York area, she said.
By December, they had moved to Jacksonville, where she enjoys biking, kayaking, lifting weights, doing yoga and, of course, running.
Meili also has become active in civic circles. She is vice chair of the Mayor’s Sexual Assault Advisory Council, volunteers at the Women’s Center of Jacksonville, is co-chair of the Women’s Giving Alliance evaluation team and has spoken at hospitals in Baker and Duval counties.
On Wednesday, she received the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence’s 2014 Survivor Activist Award, one of many awards she has received.
Meili speaks to about 15 to 20 groups worldwide. They include violent criminals, entrepreneurs, doctors graduating from Harvard Medical School, medical conferences, rehabilitation hospitals, businesses and brain injury associations.
She has found that her story of hope and recovery resonates with people. In turn, she finds it healing to see their reactions.
“We can do so much more than we ever thought possible,” Meili said.