Through tragedy, Notre Dame's Jessica Harris finds triumph on the track

Jessica Harris

Maintaining focus last weekend was difficult for Notre Dame’s Jessica Harris. The Senior was competing in the mile at the ACC outdoor Track and Field Championships, which just so happened to fall on Mother’s Day.

An important holiday for everyone, but especially so for Harris, because had it not been for her mother she might not be representing Notre Dame.

"I didn’t decide on Notre Dame, I had picked another school but my mom sat me down and said I want you at a catholic university with good people and a good community, a good family.” said Harris, “Try it for a year if you hate it you can re-apply to this other school."

So Harris obliged her mother and decided to attend Notre Dame. Like so many freshman she moved into her dorm with her mother and father in tow.

“You walk into this room and there is like nothing there and you're meeting your new roommate and all these new people,” said Harris. “It can definitely be overwhelming, but I had my parents with me for that first weekend and then they dropped me off and went home."

Harris attended classes and went to practice in that first week in an attempt to build a routine, but just five days after the start of her freshman year in college she got a call no 18-year-old could prepare for. After a long day of classes, she returned to her dorm and was notified that her mother, the driving force behind her choice to come to Notre Dame, had passed away.

"My first thought was that I had to go home,” said Harris. “I had to be with my family but then getting back to my home in Maryland where we had the funeral and all these things going on all this family in town, I was thinking about this family that I had at Notre Dame.”

In the aftermath of her mother’s death, it was Notre Dame that would provide Harris comfort.

“I had a family here, where I had so many new opportunities for growth and things to distract me I guess." she said.

Harris took all of the grief, the anger, the sadness from losing her mother and funneled it into two things-- academics and athletics. When she wasn’t studying, she was running and when she wasn’t running she was studying.

"It was a reality that I was able to come to terms with on my own time,” said Harris. “If I were at home it would have been a rougher adjustment, whereas here I didn't have to face that grief every single day."

What she did face every day was the track. Over a span of three years, Harris has grown into one of the top middle distance runners in the ACC, winning two conference titles at this year's ACC Indoor championships.

"It was so special and I would have loved to share it with my mom, more so for my own gratification than for her because she is witnessing this and knows what’s going on,” said Harris.

While her mother may not be physically present, the influence she’s had over Harris has continued to shape who she is both on and off the track.

"I was loved so well and so much time and effort given to me by my mom,” said Harris. "So much so that I come here and I know who I am and I know what I want to do and I have that room for growth because she loved me so well."

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off