Morgan Stickney’s Race Against the Clock
Four minutes 40 seconds and change. That is the time marker, the destination, the magnet drawing Morgan Stickney ever closer. For over a year …
Four minutes 40 seconds and change. That is the time marker, the destination, the magnet drawing Morgan Stickney ever closer.
For over a year, Stickney has been training diligently in a pool in Cary, N.C., slicing off seconds in her relentless pursuit of those prized numbers on a digital clock.
“That’s the goal,” Stickney said. “I’m going after it.”
The precise figure is 4:40.33 and it belongs to Lakeisha Patterson, who swam it in the 400-meter freestyle in the S8 classification at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. Patterson’s time is the current world record. It is Stickney’s irrepressible ambition to pass it.
She is currently a little more than three seconds off that pace. But she is getting closer. Over the past year or so, Stickney has lowered her best time by almost half a minute, a remarkable achievement, especially for a swimmer who only recently became a double amputee.
“Morgan is a very driven person,” said John Payne, Stickney’s coach. “With the work she has put in, she is capable of doing what she wants to do.”
Less than two years ago, few could have foreseen Stickney being in a position to even swim competitively again. Now, she might win a medal at the Paralympics in Tokyo.
Her journey there has been tumultuous, agonizing and rapid. It has veered well off course several times. But each time, Stickney kept getting back in the water. The pool, she once said, had always been her “most happy place.”
At 14 she ranked in the top 20 in the country as an able-bodied distance swimmer, and set a goal of competing in the 2020 Olympics. But a broken bone in her foot and a medical condition that prevents adequate blood circulation to her limbs led to years of intense pain and an addiction to opioids to mitigate the agony. Finally, in 2018, when she was 20, she agreed to have her lower left leg amputated.
After the surgery, Stickney returned home to Bedford, N.H., ditched the pain killers and recalibrated her life. She learned how to get around on one foot, jumped into the pool again and switched her event to the 400 meters. In almost no time, her performances were good enough that she was invited to train at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic headquarters in Colorado Springs.
Stickney and her father moved to North Carolina to train for the Tokyo Paralympic Games.Credit…Veasey Conway for The New York Times
But then the same condition attacked her right leg, and doctors performed a second amputation below the knee in October 2019. Once again, Stickney went back to work, first learning how to sit up in bed, then to get in and out of a wheelchair, then how to walk on two prosthetic limbs. A few months later, she dove back into the pool again, this time with no lower legs, but still determined to compete at the highest level. On each step of her journey, with every milestone achieved, she had the undying support of her parents, Tony and Sheri.
To chase Morgan’s dream, the Stickneys sold their home in New Hampshire and moved to North Carolina so that Morgan could train with Payne, a U.S.A. Swimming coach who also teaches at the Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary. Payne has worked with several medal-winning Olympians, but never a paralympic swimmer. The Stickneys had considered other coaches, but chose to gamble on one who had no experience with swimmers missing their feet.
“Because I grew up as able-bodied, I didn’t feel like it was that much of a risk,” Morgan Stickney said. “I was used to that kind of coaching. The biggest risk was relocating and dad’s job.”
The gamble paid off, as Tony Stickney found work as a facility director for Dell computers. Most important, Stickney, the athlete, has thrived since joining forces with Payne, who helped refine her stroke to make it more efficient. Stickney said she would not be so close to her goal without her work with Payne, but coach and swimmer agree that something else helped her slice 30 seconds off her time in less than two years, something inside of her.
“I don’t know how many people would put in the amount of work that I have,” Stickney said. “A lot of people might think it has to do with talent. Honestly, it’s pure hard work that got me where I am today.”
In April, Stickney swam 400 meters in 4:43:70 at the World Para Swimming World Series in Lewisville, Texas, to take over the No. 1 world ranking (by about a half second) from the para-swimming legend Jessica Long, who has won 25 Paralympic medals, including 14 golds. Stickney’s time was the fastest any S8 swimmer had gone since Patterson set the world record in Rio. Stickney’s problem was that she still needed to find 3.37 seconds somewhere.
Even before that result, Payne said he sensed Stickney had the ability not only to catch Long, but to break the world record. Still, the two must take extreme care with Stickney’s training regimen because her condition is degenerative and has not abated with the amputations. In competitions, her legs get bruised and bloodied and break open from kicking off the walls on flip turns, and her starts off the block are so painful on her stumps that she can only practice two a day.
“My starts are terrible,” she said. “If I swim against Jessica Long, she gets a whole body length ahead of me.”
Another issue is that Stickney’s amputated leg bones are continuing to shrink, sometimes shedding some of the screws left behind from her amputations. As the bones contract, small screws are released inside her legs. Her surgeon, Matthew Carty, the director of lower extremity reconstruction at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, would have taken them out in March, but with the Paralympics approaching, he and Stickney agreed to wait until after she returns from Tokyo next month.
In the meantime, her training regimen must remain limited, and when she is not swimming she has been spending virtually all of her time in a wheelchair. In an early August training session, Stickney’s legs turned purple after the blood flow was restricted, so she had to take an extra dose of her medication. But even with all the limitations, Stickney has powered through training sessions alongside able-bodied swimmers as she inches closer to 4:40.33.
“Their jaws drop at some of the things that she is able to do,” Payne said of the able-bodied swimmers who train in the pool with Stickney. “They are hurting and suffering and she is right there with them, and in some cases beating them. We all get to learn from that. There is more to you than meets the eye.”
While the 400 is her priority, Stickney also will compete in the 100 meters at the Paralympics, and perhaps a relay.
But because of coronavirus restrictions at the Games, none of those closest to her — her parents; Payne; and even Carty, the doctor who had promised before the pandemic that he would travel to Japan if Morgan made it — are allowed to join her there. Instead, they will watch from afar on television — like hundreds of other families — secure in the knowledge that they may get another chance to watch her in person in three years.
“When I’m done with this, I’m training for Paris 2024,” Stickney said. “And I’ll have even bigger goals and dreams than I do now.”