“It was horrible. She had a traumatic brain injury. It was a miracle she survived.”
Leslie had been working at a popular Chicago night club, one of the two jobs she had in order to make enough money to go to grad school at one of the Ivy League schools showing interest in her.
It was 1 a.m. and her boss, a flashy and persistent Chicago entertainment figure with a new motorcycle, kept pestering her to take a ride around the block with him. Although still working her shift, she finally acquiesced and got on the back of the bike without a helmet.
She’s been told he was accelerating out of a turn, going around 80 m.p.h., when he hit a pothole in a construction area. The high-speed crash sent her hurtling through the air.
“Her head apparently hit against the curb,” Tina said.
Leslie Keough, the former Chaminade Julienne athlete, lying in a Chicago hospital bed after a nearly deadly motorcycle accident in October 2001 ( she was a passenger and was wearing no helmet in an 80 mph crash) that left her with a traumatic brain injury and a long road to recovery that was aided, in part, by her embrace of yoga. CONTRIBUTED
Although Leslie suffered a serious head injury, second-degree burns and some temporary paralysis, miraculously, there were no other broken bones. Doctors attributed some of that to her physical conditioning. She taught swimming and kayaking, surfed and did distance running.
Mike and Tina soon were joined at the hospital by Anthony and Gina, other relatives, Leslie’s friends in Chicago and many folks from the CJ family back in Dayton. Candace Smith, a CJ grad who later became Miss Ohio, was a law student at Northwestern and visited Leslie every day in the hospital.
Leslie remembers being “half lucid” in those immediate weeks following the accident and the images that swirled around her often were hard to comprehend.
One moment she was seeing the little kids she taught swimming to at the East Bank Club in Chicago all around her in the hospital wearing their Halloween costumes. The next she was slowly walking in her hospital gown with two transplanted CJ friends and their dog along Lakeshore Drive. Another time musician friends showed up and played music for her.
“I thought the whole thing was a dream because it was so crazy,” she said.
When her parents finally brought her back to Dayton, it was like they only brought part of her.
“I have some photos from back then,” Tina said. "If you look at her eyes, there’s no spark, no light. She was depressed. She just wasn’t interested in anything.
“Then one day a friend from college came to visit and he talked to her just like he had before the accident and all of a sudden something clicked.”
Leslie said: "He happened to mention my motorcycle accident and I said, ‘What accident?’
“He said, ‘You almost died.’ He told me to go in the bathroom and put my hands on the back of my head and feel it.” When she discovered the 15 staples holding her head together, he said, “Those are real. This isn’t a dream.”
Tina remembered her daughter coming down the hallway, saying: “Mom, it’s like I just woke up.”
Leslie began making strides in therapy and Tina remembers her curling up in a chair and studying her high school algebra notes and philosophy notebooks from college to retrigger her thinking.
That’s when Leslie said her neurologist made a suggestion that helped change her life. She was told to try a physical class – like yoga – to see if she could follow directions with her body.
She had once taken a yoga class a Loyola, but this time she was hooked and within a year and a half she was certified to teach.
“Yoga got me back into my body,” she said. “As an athlete, I’d dealt with the physical body. I’d had an ACL in high school and another knee surgery in college but yoga was the glue. It clarified my mind and body connection.”
Today, 19 years after her accident and a lot of experiences later – she was married, divorced, is raising two beautiful, young children, 8-year-old Enzo and 4-year old Stella, on her own, has worked in San Francisco, Miami, New York City and now lives in Montclair, New Jersey – yoga and meditation are a bigger part of her life than ever.
She’s been a yoga instructor and wellness coach for New York corporate clients, Montclair State University, other New Jersey schools and groups and even the Vandalia Butler football team back here.
She’s returned to Dayton the past couple of summers – this year with social distancing – to hold yoga sessions with the Aviators, who are coached by her longtime friend from CJ, John Puckett.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered close contact instruction, her online company – Meditate Montclair, whose website is meditatemontclair.com – is becoming more and more popular. She has students worldwide and especially here in Dayton, many of whom are connected from her days at CJ or teaching yoga at the University of Dayton and St. Rita’s parish.
Leslie Keough, former Chaminade Julienne multi-sport athlete and surfer and later a kayak and swimming instructor who came back from a near-deadly motorcycle accident, in part, through her embrace of yoga. CONTRIBUTED
And the benefits of yoga and meditation have never been more important than in these unsettling times that have come with the pandemic, the current, deep political polarizations in our nation and the economic downturn for so many.
“A negativity spiral,” Leslie called it.
“All of us need something right now,” she said. 'We need some self-care. And this has become a way to show people how to find an inner strength to power through troubling times and lead them to a more mindful, grateful and peaceful life."
‘A communal experience’
At Loyola, she took that first yoga class as an elective.
“I’m a Type-A, classic over-achiever and I called home and said, ‘Mom, this is it! Yoga is what I’m gonna do!’” she laughed. “Of course, I did that with philosophy and astronomy, too!”
That was typical Leslie, embracing life full throttle.
“I remember my dad used to call me ‘Wanderlust,’” she said. “My mom would be, ‘What are you going to do? What’s your plan?’ But Dad was like, ‘She’s just a wanderlust right now.’ It didn’t bother him.”
At CJ, where she was an A-student, she played soccer, basketball and swam.
Her mother’s family is from Sicily and while in college, she worked as an au pair there – she speaks Italian – and then studied in Rome, where she also played soccer.
She worked as a kayak instructor in Sayulita, Mexico and just before the accident she had been planning to go to a Spanish immersion school in Costa Rica, as well as visit clients in Argentina.
Leslie Keough, the former Chaminade Julienne athlete who surfed and taught kayaking and swimming before a near deadly motorcycle accident in October of 2001 that left her with traumatic brain injury and a long road to recovery. CONTRIBUTED
After she recovered from her accident she spent five years teaching yoga all around Dayton and later gave private instruction on South Beach in Miami and, while also working an advertising job in San Francisco.
Once she moved to Montclair five years ago, she began to add corporate clients.
“Because I don’t have tattoos or my nose pierced or anything, I’m not like some granola hipster to them,” she laughed. “I can talk to them and it doesn’t come off as too new-agey to them. And I can back it up with science.”
With the isolation of COVID-19, she believes her offerings are more valuable than ever:
“If people aren’t going to church, if they aren’t going to their book club or not going to play basketball with their guy friends, they’ve lost a sense of community.”
She’s found people reconnecting around her online yoga and meditation classes, especially with a unique one-for-one offering she has.
“For every class you buy, you can give one away,” she said. "You can send someone else the link, someone who might be suffering a little anxiety now or a college student away from home. People from all over share classes with their friends.
“Each time they get to talk beforehand and after. They share something from the class or their lives. It becomes a communal experience.”
‘She always believes’
Puckett said when he sent his team a mass text in the preseason, saying “Bring your yoga mats tomorrow,” his players were excited:
"They were all like "Is Ms. Leslie coming in?'
"A couple of years ago we had just 42 players and we thought we were wearing them out, that’s why I contacted her. And the kids loved her.
"She does a phenomenal job with them. She goes through breathing techniques and the stretching and she takes her time and breaks down the poses. She explains a different way of doing things from a mental aspect.
“Afterwards, they say they’re physically relaxed, they’re mentally reenergized.”
Leslie Keough (left) leading a yoga session with the Vandalia Butler football team. CONTRIBUTED
Puckett recently posted a review of her work with his team on a Google My Business account. It read, in part:
“I whole-heartedly recommend athletic teams use Meditate Montclair as a part of their in and out of season strength and conditioning programs. We are looking forward to our next session in 2021.”
The other evening he said he believes she could work with any team, at any level, in any sport:
“If our team was in Montclair, we’d use her once a week, I think.”
But what impresses him the most isn’t the way his team has benefitted from her, but how she blossomed after that “near-death experience.”
“I know this is coach speak, but adversity doesn’t faze her,” he said. “She doesn’t flinch.”
Leslie admitted: “When you consider everything that’s happened, this has been pretty amazing. It feels like the stars finally are aligning.”
And no one appreciates hearing that more than her parents, who were at her side every step of the way in her recovery.
“I was always amazed and still am by her optimism,” Tina said. "If something doesn’t work out, she believes something else good will take its place. She works very hard to make it happen, but she’s very positive, very determined.
“She believes. She always believes.”
And that’s the sparkle in Leslie Keough’s eyes.