By Hayden Choate
As she runs, pumping her arms up and down, one after another, through the air, a pair of angel wings and a halo come in and out of her sight.
It is a tattoo, a permanent source of motivation.
The angel wings stem from a heart which contains the initials “JD.”
Heather Fontaine, a junior at Springfield College and a member of the cross country and track and field teams, carries her motivation on her wrist.
As Fontaine wrapped up her high school career at Quaboag Regional High School and her final high school cross-country season, tragedy struck.
A car accident claimed the lives of three teenagers who were all students at Quaboag. Two were Jaclyn Desrosiers and Lena Noonan – Heather Fontaine’s best friends.
She played basketball with Noonan and ran cross country with Desrosiers. Their teammate in high school, Brianna Niedzialkoski, said Heather and Jaclyn were referred to as the “dynamic duo” on the cross-country team.
Fontaine decided to keep running in memory of her two friends who passed away.
“After the car accident, the rest of my senior year I really dedicated that to my two friends that had died,” Fontaine said. “I really wanted to run for them and make them proud.”
“She ran to keep the memory of them alive and to remind herself that life is short and that you have to make the best of it,” Niedzialkoski added.
Losing two of her very close friends at the same time was very hard on Fontaine, and she struggled with her mental health as a result of it. However, she was ready for a new start at Springfield as she walked on to the cross-country and track teams.
A year later, Fontaine again received tragic news.
The first-year college student had lost another one of her best friends to suicide.
She met Tyler Kubert when she was a freshman in high school and they became close friends over the four years.
“I had woken up that morning and one of my friends had called me and gave me the news and it was just so heartbreaking,” Fontaine said. “You almost feel guilt like you could have done something else, it’s no one’s fault, but you always sit there wondering could I have done something more? Could I have reached out more?”
Fontaine had already gone through two unexpected losses and a short year later, she went through another one.
“It took a heavy emotional toll on her, but with the level of trauma she had experienced it would with any individual,” said Tess Chilcott, a teammate at Springfield College.
Now in a twelve-month span, Fontaine had lost three people she was very close to. She needed to find a way to deal with the loss of her three friends and was able to find that in her one passion: running.
“I definitely used running as an outlet,” Fontaine said. “It definitely gives me a place to let those emotions clear out of my mind, it gives me a way to have a fresh slate if it’s been a really hard or heavy day.”
“A lot of other teammates, (running is) an outlet for stress or anxiety, but eventually you end up just hating it… if she’s having a tough morning and she goes for a run, I know she’s going to come back feeling better,” Chilcott added.
Even when Fontaine is in the midst of a hard race she thinks about the losses she has gone through to find motivation to keep going.
“When it gets to that really hard part during the race, when you’re around the halfway point, you might get those thoughts in your head like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, like is this even worth it,’ and you’re wondering if you should just give up… then I think of them and I look at the tattoo that I have on my wrist for my friend Jaclyn, I think about my other two friends and I know that they wouldn’t want me to give up because they were all really supportive of me,” Fontaine said.
Two years later, Fontaine has used the losses she has gone through as motivation to become a better runner.
“I think it’s obvious that Heather runs for something bigger than just herself, and everything that she does isn’t just for herself, it’s for a bigger purpose and just to be able to kind of have an outlet for the things she’s experienced in her life,” said Springfield College head cross-country coach Anna Steinman.
Not only did the experiences she went through help her to become a better runner – but a better teammate, friend and person as well.
“She’s a very quiet, confident leader in a way but when she has something to say, she always has something really important to say,” Steinman said.
Chilcott added, “From her freshman year not being able to discuss these hard feelings, to last year slowly starting to open up and this year I’ve seen a full bloom where she’s a full-blown amazing leader.”
After losing someone so close to her, Fontaine has become more involved in spreading suicide awarness.
“You never want to see someone struggling, you never want to see someone struggling with those thoughts,” Fontaine said.
She has also been a big advocate for suicide awarness on social media, especially Instagram by posting not only in memory of her friend, Tyler, but other content to raise awareness.
“Posting about resources and posting mental health posts and being honest and telling people about her story and letting people see that it’s real, especially coming from a junior, a leader and a dominant athletic force on the country cross team,” Chilcott said.
Fontaine wants to raise awareness about how unexpected suicide can be and the importance of checking in on your friends.
“I really want to make sure that people understand that not everybody shows the same signs, people might be a lot more preserved with those thoughts they don’t want to put on someone else,” Fontaine said.
According to the Center for Disease Control suicide is responsible for more than 47,000 lives a year in the United States alone.
September is Suicide Awareness Month, but Fontaine knows that it’s an important issue no matter what time of year it is.
“People should be making sure they are checking up on their friends. It shouldn’t only be during this one month, I think it’s really important to spread awareness about it all throughout the year,” stated Fontaine.
Photo Courtesy of Springfield College Athletics