“Set your goals high, and don’t stop till you get there.”
– Bo Jackson
Kayla Montgomery, a resident of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, US, is the eldest daughter of Keith and Alysia. As a young child, she was creative, and quiet. Most of the times, she liked to play by herself. One of her favourite things to do was play dress up. She also loved to play with her dolls and teddy bears. She was not the kind of girl people usually expect to become an athlete. Yet, her parents encouraged little Kayla to do a lot of sports because she was a shy child. They thought that this would be a good exercise for her to learn to open up and make friends.
Eventually, Kayla found her sport. She fell in love with the aggression of soccer. An avid soccer lover, she became a part of the soccer team of Mount Tabor High School. She even enjoyed the occasional warnings from the referee. But, one injury during a football game was all it took to change the whole course of her life. In 2009, when Kayla got injured during the match, she started to go numb in her legs. It started with a tingling sensation in her toes, and then there were shockwaves in her spine. She even complained to her coach, Patrick Cromwell, that after the games, she felt no pain – all she felt was nothingness.
Alarmed, her parents took her to see neurologists. She was then tested for many diseases like Lyme Disease, a spinal tap, a couple MRIs of my brain and spine. Finally, a magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed that Kayla had six lesions in her brain and on her spine. The doctors diagnosed that 14 year old Kayla showed early symptoms of a very aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis, or MS. The whole world fell to pieces for her parents, but mainly, for Kayla herself.
Multiple Sclerosis is an inflammatory disease involving the central nervous system, in which the nerve endings in the brain and spinal cord are damage, such that the communication of the nervous system with the rest of the body is disrupted. The cause of this disease is yet to be discovered, and so is its treatment. The best that medication can do is help the patient with improve function after an attack, or to prevent frequent attacks. Common symptoms of MS include loss of sensation, muscle weakness, difficulty in coordination and balance, muscle spasms, loss of muscle control, speech impairment, etc. It can also cause cognitive impairment, or emotional symptomatology. Thus, MS affects the body and mind of a person.
Kayla’s mother, a care worker, was well aware of all that the future possibly held for her little girl as a patient of MS – a future that involved paralysis, food-tubes and doctors. She was absolutely heart-broken, and so was her father. As for young Kayla, she was shocked and confused, but more than anything, she was very angry. She did not know what she had done to deserve this in her life. She got so depressed that she locked herself in her room and kept crying.
The next eight month were the most agonizing for Kayla. During this entire duration, her legs were completely numb. With treatment, she gradually went into remission, and soon, she was back on her feet. By this time, however, one thing was clear: she could no longer be associated with contact sports like football. She had to give up the sport she was passionate about. However, the doctors cleared her for running. Coach Cromwell, too, believed that she should run, even with MS. As medication helped her to reach remission and stem the onset of the debilitating effects of her disease. So, in April 2010, when she regained her feelings in the legs, she joined track and field.
Once the slowest kid on the soccer team, Kayla was initially quite a slow runner, as well. After joining Mount Tabor’s junior varsity cross-country team, she completed her first 5-kilometer race in 24:29. But, Kayla was not the girl to give up easily. She decided she had to run, and be the best she could be. The doctors had guaranteed her a couple of good years of running, and she wanted to make good use of the time she had left, before perhaps trading her life of sports with that of being bound to a life of immobility.
Kayla entered a very strict training regime, and her coach guided her at every step. She started training six days every week, running 40 miles. By November, her speed improved massively. Having run a 17:22, she was placed 11th in the regional qualifier for the Foot Locker national cross-country championships. Thus began her journey to the top. First, she made it to Varsity. Then she became its fastest member. Soon, she started training full time with the boys’ team. She slowly conquered it all, and became one of the fastest girls in the entire North Carolina.
But, that was not all. Because Kayla was suffering from something that was no ordinary disease, the consequences were visible, and dire. In the middle of every race, her feet started going numb, and by the end of the race, she would collapse. This is because, heat is a trigger for her symptoms of numbness to return to the legs, and as her body temperature rises, she can’t feel her legs anymore. As long as she keeps running, the momentum keeps her going, but the moment the forward motion stops, loses control, and comes to an uncoordinated finish.
This is neither permanent, nor damaging to her body, but it is a painfully weird sensation, nonetheless. The end of every race becomes a dramatic ordeal for her. As she runs, there is one voice that keeps her going. It’s her coach, Patrick Cromwell’s voice. And by the time she comes to the finishing line, Coach Cromwell is waiting on the other side of it to catch her. Before momentum sends her flying to the ground, Coach Cromwell catches her to ease her down without getting hurt. Kayla’s parents ice her down, until her symptoms subside and she is back on her feet.
Kayla feels uncomfortable about making the onlookers their nervousness, but she can’t help coming to a dramatic finish. As her coach carries her in his arms to a less crowded area, a team comes along to help her. Kayla seems almost unaware of all this as she involuntarily starts to scream. She moans for help. She begs for water. She cries. She can’t even feel if a part of her body is there or not. For her parents, it is difficult to watch her crash and collapse like that. For Coach Cromwell, the only thing that matters at that moment it to help her, because for a short while, helpless is what Kayla becomes.
For Kayla, her coach is like her father, and she trusts him with her life. He drives her to do her best. He gives her just the right dose of encouragement. She knows he will always be there to hold her when she falls – literally so, because whenever she partakes in a race, she ends right in her coach’s arms. In fact, Kayla’s parents, too, have immense faith in how Cromwell trains their daughter and helps her get through each and every race, giving her encouragement, and just the right amount of push.
Many feel that she has an unfair advantage. How? Because, when Kayla runs, she cannot feel her legs. This knowledge prompts people to believe that she cannot feel the ache or tiredness in her legs like other athletes. But it isn’t as easy as people think, according to Kayla. There is one thing no one seems to understand: with no sensation in her legs, she can’t tell what she is doing. She cannot calculate whether she is going too fast or too slow, which is a big drawback. She compares this feeling to being on autopilot mode. Unlike popular belief, she feels the same kind of exhaustion as any other runner, and even intense exercise can cause weakness and instability.
Kayla is not ready to gain sympathy from people for her health issues, and she has played down her condition, because she does not want to be known as the athlete with Multiple Sclerosis. As a result, most people do not understand her unusual racing finishes. In the national indoor 5,000-meter championship of 2013, officials forgot to arrange for her to be caught at the end, and Kayla fell on her face. She lay prostrate on the track until someone carried her away. Announcers thought that she was having a seizure. People do not understand why she crumples to the ground. Some just assume she is fainting. Some, Kayla says, are cynical enough to say that she is a wimp. But, does anyone wonder if she screams in fear of going numb in her legs permanently?
But, neither her condition, nor the negative perspective of ignorant people makes any difference to her spirit. She has completely dedicated herself to conditioning herself so that he can overcome the barriers with which running comes for her. To keep her mind off the numbness and feeling of uncertainty during her races, she has trained herself to thin about other things, to get through the competition. She uses the length of her arms as measures of effort. She tries not to think about how she will fall once she breaks the motion after reaching the end line.
Kayla wants to be the best in her craft, and she has not disappointed herself. She is one of the best athletes of North Carolina today. She considers herself a competition, and keeps challenging herself into making new records and breaking them. In 2013, she recorded North Carolina’s top 5k performance, with a time of 17:22, the fastest in the history of Foot Locker South Regional championships by a non-qualifying female athlete. Earlier in 2014, she won herself North Carolina high school state title in the 3,200 m earlier, finishing with a time of 10:43, the 21st fastest time in the country.
For the last race of her high school career, all eyes were set upon Kayla. As she started running, she fell, in the very first lap. Her coach was shattered. But, Kayla was not. She got up, and started running. Soon, she caught up with the rest. She decided to give it her best shot, and speed on, no matter what. Kayla ended the race like she mostly does – in her coach’s arms, and in the top position. In March 2014, during the 5,000 m national indoor track New Balance Nationals Indoor Championships in New York, she was placed 8th, as she finished with a time of 17:16.82, besting herself by 6 seconds.
Now a freshman at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., Kayla plans to plans to major in molecular biology. But, racing isn’t all she wants to limit herself to. Besides her studies and sports, and managing her medical condition, Kayla hopes to someday become an ambassador for the National MS Society. She herself has drawn inspiration from another high school sports phenomenon with a medical condition – Tessa Barrett, a national champion who battles migrapelsy that causes her migraines and occasional seizures.
Kayla’s future is uncertain. Someday, her medals and track shoes could be replaced by wheelchairs and hospital beds, paralysis and tube-feeding. At the end of every race, she is reminded of her condition. Her body wages a war against her, but Kayla wants to win this fight against her own body. She may when fall to the ground, feeling like a part of her body is missing, but that’s the price she is ready to pay, for the sake of feeling normal and whole. For young Kayla, everything is fine as long as she is running. She wants to do something that she can look back to when she can no longer run. She does not want her MS to keep her from doing what she loves, and strives to succeed in it. Kayla Montgomery is not just any athlete with a health condition. She is a successful and dedicated athlete with Multiple Sclerosis, inspiring others reeling under the symptoms of health issues, and from depression. With her parents to support her and her coach to share her dreams, Kayla is living in her today, and is living it the best she can.
Watch this beautiful short, “Catching Kayla” that perfectly captures the tale of her life.
Source and images: DOGO News, Sporteology, Lipscomb Athletics, Women Running, Wikipedia, Daily Mail, New York Times, ‘E:60’ – Catching Kayla (Youtube)