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“Let’s finish this.”
Those were the final words of 16 year-old Cameron Gallagher, spoken just before the finish line of the Shamrock Half Marathon in Virginia Beach, Va. She was excited to conquer her first distance race, but more excited to do so for a cause: to raise awareness of teenage depression and anxiety.
“Although ever-smiling, she faced her own personal battles,” says her father, David Gallagher. “She began to grow weary of keeping her struggles private, and knew there were many teens just like her who were in great pain behind closed doors. She wanted to let other teens like herself know that it was okay to speak up about their personal battles.”
On March 16, 2014, the high school sophomore and competitive swimmer completed her goal of running 13.1 miles. But seconds after crossing the finish line, the teenager collapsed in the arms of her mother and father. An undiagnosed heart condition took the young woman’s life.
Cameron’s parents, David and Grace, oscillated between shock and overwhelming grief. When the emotions became too much to bear, they ran—not away from, but toward the pain:
“It’s hard to explain to people who don’t understand intense grief, but my physical pain often alleviated my emotional pain,” says David. “As I would reach the harder parts of my workouts, I would imagine that Cameron was with me, and at times actually felt her presence. It’s hard to say that endurance racing and training was healing, but it gave me a place to go and reconcile the intense emotions occurring in my heart.”
In late 2014, David completed his first Ironman in Florida. In honor of his daughter, he wore a t-shirt printed with a familiar and inspiring phrase:
“Let’s finish this.”
Cameron’s words became more than a mantra for race day. Shortly after her death, family members began speaking about carrying on Cameron’s passion for helping teens with depression.
Two months after Cameron’s death, more than 10,000 people participated in the launch of the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation for teen depression; shortly thereafter, 3,500 participated in the inaugural SpeakUp 5K. Since then, the race series has expanded to six races across the United States. Currently, the goal of the foundation is to raise $75,000 to implement programming in high schools designed to attack the negative stigma of depression and give students the tools to speak up about mental health issues.
Triathlon continues to be a mode of healing and activism for the Gallaghers. This weekend, 15 members of Team SpeakUp, including Cameron’s parents, aunt, and uncle, will race the iconic Challenge Roth in Cameron’s honor. In addition to telling Cameron’s story at the event’s pre-race meal, the team will be handing out SpeakUp bracelets to participants.
“Ultimately, it’s about spreading Cameron’s legacy and vision,” says David. “The beauty of SpeakUp is that there is more than one message. To some, and most, it’s about speaking up when people are down and attacking the negative stigma of depression. But to others, it’s about fighting for a goal and finishing what you started.”
For more information about Team SpeakUp, visit the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation website.