From football to ultra marathons—meet 3 of Birmingham’s toughest women who are the definition of fierce

Screen Shot 2022 03 29 at 9.09.11 AM From football to ultra marathons—meet 3 of Birmingham's toughest women who are the definition of fierce
Meet Olivia Affuso, La’Tanya Scott and Helen Hays. (Melissa Denae, CRS Staff, Helen Hays)

Each of these women in their own right pushes the limits of physical and mental toughness—in addition to their day jobs. Olivia Affuso runs 100-mile ultra-marathons, La’Tanya Scott is a powerhouse in football, rugby + powerlifting and Helen Hays runs Spartan races + expertly kayaks through white water rapids.

It may sound cliche, but these women demonstrate firsthand that if you put your mind to something, you can accomplish it. Read on for their inspiring stories.

Olivia Affuso—Ultra Marathoner

thumbnail DSC 5551 small Melissa Denae From football to ultra marathons—meet 3 of Birmingham's toughest women who are the definition of fierce
All with a smile on her face. (Melissa Denae)

Let’s begin by taking a moment to imagine just how mindblowing running for 100 miles is. That’s like going the distance from Birmingham to Huntsville in 24 hours, only stopping for quick snack + water breaks along the way. Not to mention, you’re running on Alabama’s rough, rocky and often muddy terrain.

If you’re anything like me, you think about that experience and compare it to the single mile you struggled through on the treadmill the other day. Well, it may be hard to believe, but Olivia’s ultra-marathon journey story started just like that, too.

“The first time I ran a mile continuously on the treadmill, I thought it was the greatest accomplishment. I couldn’t imagine why people would want to do this for longer distances. But, I started with a 5K and worked my way up to a marathon. I had a training group and a plan, and little by little I was able to build up my endurance.”

Olivia Affuso

Olivia has gone on a run every day for 1200 days straight. On top of being an all-star athlete, she has a remarkable career as a tenured associate professor of epidemiology at UAB. She’s even given a TED talk on how tapping into the community around you creates a healthy life.

She ran her first ultra-marathon at 44 years old. Throughout her journey as a trail-runner, her biggest takeaway is that she is far tougher than she could have ever imagined, and she works hard to help other women realize the same thing.

IMG 3103 From football to ultra marathons—meet 3 of Birmingham's toughest women who are the definition of fierce
The aftermath of a 100-mile race, including the belt buckle to show for it. (Sara VanNuys Thompson)

“Trail running is an amazing way for women to uncover their strength. I would love to see more women out on the trails. I spend a lot of time encouraging women to take up trail running and I’ve been leading a Tuesday night trail running club, where I try to get more women to take their trail running to the next level.”

Olivia Affuso

Olivia has run a lot of ultra-marathons over the years, including four 100-mile races. Her goal for the future? To run at least a 50K race in all 50 states. With about 15 states under her belt so far, she’s already training for the next one on her list: The Bryce Canyon 50K in Utah.

I had to ask her, when you’re on mile 85 and things are getting really tough, what is going through your head to stay inspired?

Her answer was a simple mantra: “just one more step.” When you really simplify things, running any distance can be as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.

Helen Hays—White Water Kayaking

helenhays From football to ultra marathons—meet 3 of Birmingham's toughest women who are the definition of fierce
Navigating these waters takes major skill. (Helen Hays)

When she’s not working hard as a passionate leader and public relations professional, Helen Hays has a slightly different hobby than most to clear her mind—she takes to the rapids.

For over 20 years, Helen has been kayaking in whitewater rapids and pushing her own limits of athleticism.

At an after-hours whitewater canoeing program at UAB in the late 90s, she realized that the intense sport was a great way to leave everyday stress behind for a while.

“When I got back from that first trip, I was super physically tired, but mentally I was able to focus better at work. It’s been a great hobby ever since then.”

Helen Hays

Now, Helen is a Level 3 Instructor Trainer and a Level 4 Certified Whitewater Kayak Instructor. Locally, she participates in the Alabama Cup Races, which are entirely volunteer-run kayak slalom races + the longest-running slalom race in the US.

helenhays2 From football to ultra marathons—meet 3 of Birmingham's toughest women who are the definition of fierce
One of the Alabama Cup Races. (Helen Hays)

Whitewater kayaking can be a dangerous and risky sport, so Helen surrounds herself with an excellent circle, including the Birmingham Canoe Club, that work hard to ensure utmost safety and organization in every environment.

After the pandemic, Helen lost her gym community and was looking for a new way to continue her fitness. Through a friend, she discovered Spartan races, an extreme physical challenge where you sprint through obstacles and rough terrain.

“There was at least a mile that was just trudging through mud and water and swamp. Some of the obstacles include carrying a 25 pound sandbag on your back, carrying a bucket of rocks over your shoulder…there are walls you have to jump over. You never know what the obstacles are going to be until you get to them.”

Helen Hays
helenhays4 From football to ultra marathons—meet 3 of Birmingham's toughest women who are the definition of fierce
A photo from the finish. (Helen Hays)

She described one obstacle, named the “dunk wall”, which involves jumping into deep mud, running to a wall and instead of climbing over it, you have to submerge yourself in the mud and swim under it.

Personally, I’ll pass on diving into mud, but Helen is already signed up and training for her next Spartan race later this year.

“I’ve learned a lot of perseverance over the years. If you make a mistake or if you get hurt, my philosophy is that you’ve got to get back up on that horse and try it again.”

Helen Hays

La’Tanya Scott—Powerlifter and Football + Rugby athlete

thumbnail IMG 4281 From football to ultra marathons—meet 3 of Birmingham's toughest women who are the definition of fierce
La’Tanya has a lifelong passion for water. (Hunter Nichols)

Growing up, La’Tanya loved being able to experience nature with her family. It was there that she realized her greatest passion: water. Her grandparents even gave her the nickname “waterbug”, since it was an uphill battle taking her away from waterfalls, the bathtub, even hoses in the backyard.

She credits her parents for fueling her passion for the outdoors and allowing her to explore that path.  

On July 22, 2000, tragedy struck. On a fishing trip, her father was killed in a drowning accident and her mother almost suffered the same fate. Her mother was rescued by an onlooker.

“I could have hated nature after that. I could have never wanted to step foot near water again, but as i’ve gotten older, I see that God and my father are always around me. Every time I step into the Cahaba, I feel closer to them both. I am close to them when I’m in the element where I first discovered my passion.”

La’Tanya Scott

As she continued her journey, she fell in love with environmental science in college, and never looked back.

IMG 4216 From football to ultra marathons—meet 3 of Birmingham's toughest women who are the definition of fierce
Some things never change. (CRS Staff Member)

After a series of field trips to the Cahaba River, she was immediatley captivated. With persistence, she earned an opportunity as a part-time environmental science educator. Now, she serves as the Cahaba River Society’s education director and has been with the Cahaba River Society since 2014—prioritizing restoration and teaching youth about the importance of conservation of waterways.

On top of pursuing her passion for nature, La’Tanya is an all-around athlete.

After playing basketball from a young age, she knew participating in sports was something that kept her head clear.

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Dee Crawford and La’Tanya Scott on Alabama Fire, Birmingham’s all-women tackle football team. (La’Tanya Scott)

In the past, she’s been a star linebacker on Alabama Fire, Birmingham’s all-women tackle football team. She looks forward to potentially joining the team again in the future.

Currently, she’s active in flag football and getting her start on Birmingham Steel, our city’s women’s rugby team. She mentioned that it’s been a challenge learning the ropes so far, but she loves learning something new.

As if her impressive sports resume isn’t long enough, La’Tanya powerlifts every day—currently training to enter competitions later this year.

For La’Tanya, working out grounds her, and helps her feel like she can accomplish and conquer anything that comes her way.

“I say to all who read this article: no matter race, gender, background etc. For the fierce person in you, hold your head up high and don’t worry about what others say or do. Never let the bumps in the road in this journey we call life slow you down.

Persevere in the face of obstacles that society throws at you. There’s only one you, who is uniquely you. Remember that!”

La’Tanya Scott

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Gabby Gervais
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