- Associated Press - Sunday, March 9, 2014

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (AP) - September 21, 2013, was a day Rachel Layer thought would be her last.

Late into the evening an attacker had entered her residence after prying his way in through the bathroom window, crawled behind where she was lying on her couch, and began choking her, hitting her in the side of the head and pulling her hair. As she screamed for help, Layer, a former East Tennessee State University soccer player and competitive local distance runner, had thoughts familiar to those who have been in similar life-threatening situations.

“I’m going to die, and this is exactly what people think just before they die,” Layer remembers thinking in the blur of violence at her West Pine Street apartment.

But Layer isn’t accustomed to giving in or being a victim. Layer said she squared herself up with her attacker and easily got him off of her, something she thinks surprised him, not expecting such strength, and was able to fight off his attacks and get out of the house.

When she got of the house, her attacker had escaped.

She was happy to find that her neighbors had all come out and had multiple calls in to 911. Her laptop, wallet containing cash, and cell phone - all next to her on the couch - were not of interest to the attacker. Layer believes she was the target of an attempted sexual assault, citing multiple cases of rape in the area around that date, although connection between the two is officially unconfirmed by police.

Despite not being seriously injured, the attack had an emotional drain on Layer, who said she immediately began looking at moving to rural Alaska, and was entirely freaked out for about a month. However, using her undergraduate and graduate degrees in mass communications, Layer decided to turn the negative experience into a positive one, advocating as a proponent for self-defense.

“It sucks to feel like you’re not safe,” Layer said about herself after the attack. “I’m so confident, and it sucks to take that away from someone.”

Coming away from that situation, Layer said she beefed up her confidence even more, taking mixed martial arts classes in downtown Johnson City, and making changes to her everyday life to make her feel safer. Layer, who recently took sixth place at the Charleston Marathon in South Carolina, crossing the line in three hours, 24 minutes and 46 seconds, said she would often go out on double-digit long runs by herself, and thinks the attacker had spotted her and planned his attack earlier in the day because she had gone out for a run.

Following the attack, she opted to run with groups of people, citing the effectiveness of the “buddy system” in fighting attacks. She’d also carry mace with her anywhere she went.

“Any advantage you can take is helpful,” Layer said in regards to fighting attackers.

Precautions aside, Layer doesn’t want to change her entire life because of the attack; she wants to not live in fear like she had before.

As someone who’s survived such an event, and has the ability to be outspoken about the issue, Layer has become an advocate for self-defense through her blog at

www.risingstrength.com , and public speaking.

ETSU Public Safety Officer Amanda Worley, who instructs a Rape Aggression Defense class at the university, says what Layer is doing is great for women in general.

“‘It can’t happen to me,’ is what we always hear,” said Worley, who says putting Layer, a real face on a real story, is effective in showing people this stuff can, and does happen.

Worley said most people aren’t aware there have been RAD classes since 2001. If the once-per-semester classes don’t fill with faculty and students, it’s open, first come, first serve, to the public. The class consists of Worley teaching students how to avoid the kinds of dangerous situations that often lead to sexual assaults, and very basic self-defense moves.

Heightening awareness is the main focus of the class, said Worley, and finds it to be extremely helpful in preparing women in general.

This is something Layer wants to get behind, hoping to decrease the amount of victims of sexual assault.

“In Johnson City, we still feel like this stuff doesn’t happen to us, but it does,” Layer said.

Statistics show that one in four women have survived a sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault, so, it does happen here, too, and Layer wants to combat that.

“The conversation needs to get started,” Layer said. “ETSU is awesome for having a free self-defense class.”

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