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The reality of the past few weeks still hasn’t quite sunk in for Morgan Stickney.
She’s now a two-time gold medalist.
It’s a dream she first set her sights on at the age of 14, when she was ranked in the top 20 in the country in the mile. It’s a dream she continued to foster and hold onto over the ensuing decade, despite the interference of daunting medical challenges that ultimately resulted in the amputations of her legs below the knee. It’s a dream she pushed for when she heard that the COVID-19 pandemic had forced the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, which she’d expected to miss out on, for a year.
Even though she was still relearning how to walk and swim in early 2020, recovering from her second amputation in two years, she was determined to be ready for Tokyo — to seize her dream.
And she did.
The 24-year-old swimmer from Bedford, New Hampshire, won gold last month in the individual 400-meter freestyle S8, surging past her teammate Jessica Long, a 23-time Paralympic medalist, in the final stretch of the race. She then went on to anchor a stunning leg of the 4×100 medley relay, helping Team USA claim gold.
Now that she’s back in the United States, Stickney is already looking toward her next dream as the feelings of her achievements continue to settle and sink in.
She told Boston.com that she was nervous going into the race against Long, but she was determined to race her own race and not focus on her competitors. She was also excited — she knew she was faster than the last official time she’d posted for the event.
“I’d been working really hard, and my times in practice just showed that I’d be a lot faster,” Stickney said.
But in the first 200 meters of the event, she realized she wasn’t swimming like she was in a race. Long, in the lane beside her, was far ahead in the lead.
“I was like, ‘What the heck are you doing? You need to speed it up!’” Stickney said. “So that’s when I started kicking it in. Then that last 50, I saw she wasn’t too far ahead of me, so I did my flip turn and I didn’t breathe towards her at all the last 50 meters. So I kind of just put my head down and went.”
Photos captured Stickney’s expression as she realized she’d won the race.
“I didn’t know that I was going to win that,” she said. “So it was such a shock to me when I hit the wall first, and it was just so exciting. It wasn’t the time that I wanted, but to come back home with a gold was just absolutely amazing. I’m very, very proud and thankful that I was able to do that.”
The race came just a few days after another race of Stickney’s — the 4×100 freestyle relay — that had a more disappointing result. Team USA came in first in the race but was ultimately disqualified for an early takeoff.
The 24-year-old said it was like going from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, which was difficult to handle just two days before her individual race.
“At the end of the day I’m really proud of how I handled it, and I was able to put that behind me,” she said.
In her third race, the 4×100 medley relay, Team USA was in fourth place when Stickney went into the pool.
Once again, she focused on swimming her own race.
With about 25 meters left in her race, she said she saw some splashing near her.
“That’s all I really saw, and I was just like, ‘Oh not today, I want this gold,’” Stickney said. “So I really just put my head down and that was even surprising to win that. But it’s just so special when you’re part of a relay because it’s not just you — it’s all of you that get that. So it really is an honor to be on the relay.”
The swimmer said she still doesn’t have the words to describe the feelings she felt standing on the top of the podium, seeing the American flag raised for those wins.
“It’s such an honor that I was able to do that for our country, and it really just shows that you can overcome any obstacle,” she said. “I’ve gone through so much in the past five to 10 years, and just to be able to overcome that and make it onto the other side, I think it really proves how strong-willed human beings really can be. Things can knock us down, but we’re stronger than that and we can always get back up again.”
After each of her races, she received texts from her surgeon, Dr. Matthew Carty.
“It just meant a lot that he reached out to me … he was really able to see the love I have for the sport,” Stickney said. “And he knows the journey that I’ve been on, first hand. He had to do my amputation, so for him to be able to see me overcome everything I did, I think was a really cool thing.”
Stickney was 15 years old when an injury to her left foot began what would be years of pain and surgeries that kept her from swimming, with an infection ultimately resulting in the amputation of the leg below the knee in May 2018.
She returned to the pool to train, eyes set on the 2020 Paralympics.
But in early 2019 another injury, this time to her right foot, resulted in the discovery of a rare vascular disorder that caused the blood vessels in her leg to shrink and contract, cutting off the blood supply to her foot. The condition forced her second amputation in October 2019.
Carty, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital, performed both surgeries, using an experimental procedure he developed in collaboration with MIT called the Ewing amputation, which aims to give the patient more functional sense and feeling by recreating the pairing between the brain and the body’s muscles that are severed during a typical amputation. Stickney was the first patient to undergo the procedure bilaterally.
It was a huge disappointment for Stickney that her parents and Carty were not allowed to watch her compete in Tokyo.
But she said she’s made her doctor promise he’ll be there watching her in 2024, in Paris.
She’s already been back in the pool, training in North Carolina to get ready for the World Para Swimming Championships in June. But she will have to take some time off in the coming weeks for another surgery. Her rare vascular disease has continued to restrict blood flow to her bones, shortening them, and causing the hardware in the bone to fall out since March.
“We kind of just kept putting off the surgery,” Stickney said. “And I just sucked up the pain and everything so that I could go to Tokyo and live out my dream.”
The New Hampshire native said she expects she’ll have to be out of the water for about two weeks and will have to use a wheelchair for about four to six weeks.
Then she’ll be back to pursuing her next huge goal — getting ready for Paris 2024 and working toward breaking the world record in the 400-meter freestyle.
“We have these different milestones in between like Worlds and stuff, but I think the big focus is going to be on Paris,” Stickney said. “And hopefully I’ll be peaking at that point, and that’s really going to be my games. This was my first games, and I won two. And not that it wasn’t incredible — I came home with two gold medals — but I’d like to be able to do even more in Paris.”
One of the thoughts that raced through her mind after she won gold in her individual race last month was that no one should be afraid to “dream big.”
It’s a lesson she hopes other young athletes will take away from her own journey.
“I threw these dreams out there that I wanted to get a gold medal about a year before the Olympic games,” she said. “If I told anyone those goals besides my immediate family, they probably would have laughed at me and said, ‘That’s a nice dream Morgan, but move on, that’s not going to happen.’ So I would just say never be afraid to dream big. Because if you work hard enough at something, you can achieve those goals.”
So she knows she just needs to heal up after her surgery and go after her dream. Again.
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