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Defending state shot put champ says sports, caring coach led her out of darkness

HERRIMAN — The anger was inexplicable and overwhelming.

Even years later, Amarissa Hawker can’t really point to a reason for the rage she battled during what the Herriman senior refers to as her “dark period.”

“I can’t even describe the anger I was feeling,” she said. “I was angry at everyone, at everything. I was really angry at myself.”

It was so toxic it permeated every aspect of her life, even persuading the honor student to hurt herself to find relief. Creating small but painful cuts on her arms brought momentary calm to the storm she was desperate to navigate. But the anger and frustration always seemed to return until sports offered her a different kind of release.

It began with basketball, but then, as a sophomore, she decided to join Herriman’s swim team.

That decision didn’t just help Amarissa see that she had the ability to save herself from the darkness, it changed the course of her life.

'Miracle child'

Several weeks of extreme fatigue made the Hawkers suspicious.

“Two weeks before I finally decided to get a blood test, I was exhausted,” Amarissa said. “I had no energy, no nothing. I’d walk up the stairs, and I’d have to stop and rest. It was horrible.”

Amarissa said she vividly remembers the day she was diagnosed.

“We’d had a blood test, and I remember the day the phone call came in,” she said. “I was eating pizza and soda. My mom gets a phone call from the doctor saying, ‘OK, go to the ER right now. (Your daughter has) Type 1 diabetes.’ ... It was very traumatic. It was a very emotional day. I started sobbing when they put the IV in me.”

Amarissa's mom, Pamela Hawker, said the diagnosis may have been harder on her than it was on her daughter, who approached it with the same methodical dedication that she tackles almost everything else.

“Primary Children’s did a phenomenal job, but it’s still a chronic disorder that’s never going away,” Amarissa said. “It was just a real change.”

Amarissa said that the diagnosis came at a time when she was already struggling with a number of issues, and before she knew it, she was in a tailspin.

“I felt very stressed,” she said. “It was a lot of things I was going through.”

Those things were not insignificant — a family move, questions about her faith, anxiety about her schoolwork, worries about her future, and a diagnosis of diabetes converged on the teen just as she was hitting puberty.

“It was everything at once,” she said. “We’d just moved home from England. I went from a private British Anglican school to a public American middle school. That was like bam — huge culture shock. I started going through puberty, hormones, craziness, and then on top of that, the diabetes — giving myself shots, trying to figure it all out.”

Amarissa said she also began questioning whether she believed the doctrine of the church in which she’d been raised.

“I starting having problems with my beliefs and my religion,” said Amarissa, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I started questioning what I believed, and I think questioning your core beliefs, that you’ve believed since you were born, I just started questioning it and hating it. From there I started having problems with my family, and it just snowballed.”

She only went to church and seminary because her parents required it.

“I started questioning everything, and that just made me unhappy and depressed and so angry at everyone and everything,” she said. “And that just continued for a couple of years.”

Pamela Hawker said she knew her daughter was struggling with her faith, but she never considered allowing her to not participate.

“Our faith is very important,” she said. “If you live here, you go to church.”

She quotes someone else when she adds, “In my house, there is still God.”

Pamela Hawker had allowed one of her sons not to attend church as a teen, and has accepted that he’s chosen a different path, but with Amarissa, the family decided that would be a decision she could make after she left their home.

“Our faith is very basic and very real,” she said. “And it was just kind of understood that she would go with us.”

Part of the reason Pamela Hawker insisted her daughter attend church despite her doubts was because she understood the role faith played in her daughter’s life even before she was born.

“Amarissa is, in every sense of the word, a miracle child,” Pamela said.

The Hawkers were parents to two boys when they lost two daughters — one 6 hours old, the other 10 hours old — to a very rare genetic syndrome.

“I prayed seven years to have her,” Pamela said. “This is a child born of faith.”

Darkness descends

Amarissa still isn’t sure why she decided to give swimming a try after several years of playing basketball.

“I kind of wandered on to the swim team,” she said laughing.

Kevin Fletcher was Herriman’s swim coach at the time, and he said he knew right away swimming was not her sport. But he noticed how she embraced the sport’s most technical aspects and saw potential in another athletic endeavor.

“Being a thrower is a technical thing,” said Fletcher, a Spanish teacher who coached both swimming and track at the time. “I could see the swim thing wasn’t going to go anywhere. But she was built for throwing. I said, ‘Why don’t you come out and throw for me?’ And so she did. ... With only three months of work, she went to state.”

While Amarissa clearly had natural ability, Fletcher was most impressed with her work ethic.

“From the beginning, it was every day in the weight room,” Fletcher said. “She doesn’t miss a day. That’s kind of a lonely life. I told her, ‘To be good at this you need to be comfortable with being alone.’ And she is. ... She showed up every day, even when no one else did.”

Amarissa said making it to state and not placing lit a competitive fire in her heart that allowed her to endure a grueling summer schedule.

“When we were cleaning up, I thought, ‘I’m going to come win this next season,'” she said. “That summer, I trained six hours a day because I was also playing water polo. I worked my butt off that summer. I’d lift (weights) for two hours, do one hour of throwing, and then go straight to water polo for three hours. It was very tough.”

It was during the team’s summer workouts that Fletcher struck up a conversation with some of his student-athletes about cutting.

“It just came out and seemed that she knew a little too much about it,” Fletcher said. “I said, ‘This sounds personal.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, it was.’”

Amarissa said the bulk of her cutting came during the eighth grade.

“I was very meticulous about it,” she said, admitting she knew human anatomy well, so she could avoid any serious injuries. “And I poured hand sanitizer on it so it would burn. Then I would bandage it up so it would heal very quickly.”

In addition to anger and frustration, she felt hopeless and helpless. Cutting allowed her a small release, and she effectively hid it from everyone in her life but a few close friends.

“I was just releasing anger,” she said.

Her mother said she didn’t know about the cutting until a few weeks ago.

“I was totally unaware,” said Pamela Hawker, who was finishing her master’s degree at the time. “I knew she was going through a dark period. ... But I had no clue.”

Amarissa said the pressure would build — sometimes over days, sometimes over months — and then “I’d have to release it somehow.”

After entering high school, athletics slowly began to replace time she’d spent playing video games.

The discussion Fletcher had with his student-athletes during that summer workout revealed that Amarissa no longer cut herself to cope with life’s turmoil. Fletcher, who had become so much more than just a coach in Amarissa's life, asked how she’d overcome it.

“She said, and this was the shocking part, ‘Truthfully, you,'” Fletcher said. “It floored me.”

Amarissa listed a number of changes that contributed to her decision to stop hurting herself.

“I think doing athletics, my mind was more occupied,” she said. “And then having a Mormon coach with the same beliefs that I had was really, really helpful. I watched his example, and I thought, ‘Why is he happy and I’m miserable?’”

And there were other influences — a seminary teacher and an LDS teammate — who gently showed her aspects of her faith she hadn’t considered.

But it was really one night, midway through her sophomore year, that changed everything.

“In the middle of that swim season, I hit rock bottom,” she said, a single tear rolling down her cheek. “I was home alone, and I prayed for the first time in a year. And that really helped me come back.”

Her question was one that had nagged her for years, through all the darkness, the anger, and the chaos.

“I was asking, ‘Where is God?’” she said. “And that’s a question I’d been asking for a while. I guess I truly wanted to know. I felt peace at that point, and I hadn’t felt that in a long time.”

Finding faith, finding joy

Amarissa grins as she prepares to propel the shot across a small auxiliary gymnasium. She listens intently to Herriman throwing coach Darin Beierle’s suggestion for some technique adjustments, after which she fires the shot most of the width of the gym.

As it hits the ground, the smile returns to her face.

“Her work ethic is unreal,” Beierle said. “She won’t quit. ... She’s trying to find a way to get better at whatever she does.”

Amarissa has never shied away from hard work. A self-described perfectionist who “lives in the future,” she has some lofty goals in her senior season. Not only does the 5A state champion plan to defend her title, she believes she’ll throw the shot more than 50 feet, which would be a state record.

“I’m going to do it,” she said matter-of-factly. “I think about it every day. ... I think about all of the work I’ve put into this. I can do this. I watch film of other people; I imagine what it will feel like, the happiness afterward.”

Beierle has no doubt that she’ll achieve any goal she sets.

“I know she can do it,” he said. “She commits to everything. I don’t even have to ask; she’s telling me.” In fact, he has to tell her when to stop.

“Over the fall, I had to say, ‘You cannot throw. You have to get in the weight room,'” he said. “Her technique in the weight room wasn’t very good.”

But that, too, has changed. Now she can squat 315 pounds, while her bench press maxes out at 205.

“She’s so young in the sport, it’s not even funny,” Beierle said. “To not even have two whole years, that’s pretty scary.”

Amarissa said dealing with her diabetes has actually helped her with her athletic desires. She understands her body so completely now and how nutrition affects everything she does, that she feels like she has a bit of an edge over other teenage athletes.

“I joke that I traded my pancreas for knowledge,” she said.

Beierle said Amarissa is a special athlete — one of those that a coach dreams of guiding.

“You get them once in a while,” he said. “And when you have them, you’ve got to cherish them. I think we’ve worked hard, but I also think I’m fortunate to be around some great people. The time we’ve put in together has been unreal.”

Amarissa has already found more than she ever thought she would when she agreed to throw for Fletcher that afternoon at a swim practice. In addition to signing a scholarship to throw for the University of Arizona, she said the sport, and those she’s met, have given her purpose.

“I would say athletics pulled me out of (the dark period),” she said. “And meeting Fletcher. … I’ve reached a very good place with (my faith). I feel great now. I’m still stressed out about school, and I still focus on the future too much. But I absolutely fell in love with shot put, and I started focusing and having a purpose and having fun.”

She said the distance between her and her parents has dissipated as she’s allowed herself to practice her faith more fully.

“I had a pretty good seminary teacher who challenged us to do things,” she said. "I started reading my scriptures again. I started listening in church. I started wanting to change. Things are just looking up.”

Pamela Hawker tries not to beat herself up for not knowing her daughter had resorted to cutting to cope with emotional pain. Instead, she focuses on how grateful she is for teachers like Kevin Fletcher, who do more than try to tally wins.

“I think teachers, in general, don’t realize who they touch,” Pamela said.

Fletcher said his experience with Amarissa has changed him.

“When you’re a coach, you have a special connection,” he said. “You cry with them, bleed with them, sweat with them, and there is just something that’s special about that relationship.”

He also said he won’t hesitate to talk to his students and athletes about tough subjects.

“They hide it pretty well,” he said. “But I will bring it up with kids. When I hear, when I see things, when there is an issue, I will talk to the kids about it.”

Amarissa’s advice for teens struggling with their own darkness is simple.

“Find your purpose,” she said. “Find what makes you happy and stay with it. It will get better.”

And to the parents of those teens (who often create a distance between themselves and their families that feels difficult to eliminate), she adds, “Just be there for them. That’s the only thing you can do.”

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com