Local attorney reaches new heights while raising money for Academy Prep

Nancy Harris holds up a sign at Mount Everest’s base camp to show her unity with the Academy Prep students.
Nancy Harris holds up a sign at Mount Everest’s base camp to show her unity with the Academy Prep students.
Published Jan. 23, 2017

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

It's a concept most of us can only imagine, but for divorce and family attorney Nancy Harris, it's a way of life.

She has been leaving her comfort zone since she was a competitive swimmer in school, shaking off jitters atop a starting block as she waited for the starting whistle.

And, at age 61, she's still leaving that comfort zone, pushing herself to her mental and physical limits, climbing the world's tallest mountains and trekking across England and Corsica.

And, in between her climbs and treks, she coaxes clients out of their comfort zones to resolve differences out of court — through mediation or collaboration — as a partner in the Tampa-St. Petersburg law firm of Harris and Hunt, P.A.

A bad back . . .

Harris' can-do approach to life has its drawbacks. Years of competitive swimming — the butterfly stroke — and a skiing accident resulted in surgery to fuse three neck vertebrae in 2005.

The surgery brought on periodic back spasms so painful they were crippling. The solution to that? Strengthen your core and your back, her doctor told her.

And, to do that, would not require a yoga mat for Harris, a petite ball of fire who looks 10 years younger than she is.

"I set a crazy goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro," she said while sitting at her desk in her Tampa office, which looks out over downtown and the Hillsborough River and is filled with Clyde Butcher photos.

"My husband thought I was crazy until he knew I was serious. I thought it was a very cool idea to make me get my back in shape," she said.

And so she started training. She walked around and climbed stairs wearing a heavy backpack. She exercised on an elliptical machine.

And, in 2010, she and seven strangers from around the world climbed more than 19,000 feet to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest mountain, which is located in Tanzania. It took seven days to get up and two to get down.

"It was hard," she said, but worth the mental and physical challenge it takes to succeed at something.

"Everyone is going to fall," she said. "It's how you pick yourself up that matters. If you challenge yourself, you are going to fall."

Bitten by the climbing bug, she continued her global treks in 2011. She and her husband and a couple she had met on the Kilimanjaro climb went on the Tour du Mont Blanc, trekking the Alps for six days from France to Italy and Switzerland.

After those climbs, back problems assuaged, Harris was on a trip to England where friends told her it is common for people to raise money for charity while accomplishing feats like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

That gave her an idea. Her next climb would be to the base camp of Mount Everest, and she would raise money for something close to her heart, Academy Prep, a private school for fifth- through eighth-graders. (See far right.)

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"It only seemed right that if I was going to set an outrageous goal for myself, I should do it also to help others," she said.

Staying fit, looking ahead

So, in 2013, she and two friends raised almost $20,000 for the school by climbing more than 17,000 feet to the base camp of Mount Everest.

Few people climb the last 12,000 feet to the summit because it is extremely difficult and dangerous, Harris said.

The base camp was dangerous itself. Two years after Harris made the climb, an avalanche buried 19 people under a wall of snow.

"You could hear avalanches in the distance during the night when we were there," Harris said.

"It was 5 degrees — without the wind chill. I would wake up with ice crusted on my face," she said.

Her most important piece of gear? A face scarf, she said.

"You get really used to being efficient with movements at a 50 percent oxygen level," she said.

Mount Everest wasn't the end of her travels.

In 2014, she and five friends hiked 192 miles on the Coast to Coast Walk across England. Trekking from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, the women raised $24,000 for Academy Prep.

In 2016, she and three friends hiked the toughest long-distance trail — 112 miles — in Europe, the GR20. It crosses Corsica diagonally through all sorts of terrain from north to south. As beautiful to see as it is difficult to cross, hikers have to be fit and confident they can traverse any terrain. They raised $10,000 for Academy Prep.

Harris recalls the parallels between that tough hike and the tough road Academy Prep students face.

"Students go one step at a time, just as we had to.

"Corsica is always trying to gain its independence. Academy Prep students want to be independent," she said.

Her next trip, 12 days in a tour group with the same friends with whom she crossed Corsica, will be in October to Bhutan, a mountainous, high-altitude country on the eastern edge of the Himalayan Mountains that remains steeped in traditional Buddhist culture.

"We are looking for something that hasn't been spoiled. We are looking for Zen. We want a dose of Zen," she said.

Living life to the fullest

While Harris' own beginnings were nothing like those of the students at Academy Prep — she was the daughter of a doctor — she realizes how important the life lessons learned in school are.

She and her sisters swam on the first all-girls swim team at the Academy of the Holy Names, where her first coach taught her a lesson that guides her to this day: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

That's why it is so important to her to open doors to students who want to learn and grow and be part of a larger community. She wants to open doors to schools like Academy Prep, where underprivileged students, who normally would not have the means to attend, can go.

"The school has a liberal arts focus," she said. "Every student there has to learn three things: martial arts, chess and Shakespeare. All things that make you think."

The students leave Academy Prep after eighth grade but it doesn't leave them. The school helps them get into the high school of their choice and also helps get them into college.

"We want them to be ever reaching new heights," Harris said.

Contact Patti Ewald at