By Maggie Cooney
“My legs. Where’d they go? Please help me. Please help me. My legs. Where’d they go? Please help.”
Sweating, breathing heavily, arm-to-arm with other components, waiting for the gun to go off, the runners focus on what they have to do to win. Each of the runners has her own struggles with running, perhaps shortness of breath or short strides. For Kayla Montgomery, those were the least of her problems. Every time she runs, her legs are fighting against herself.
On March 14, 2014, Kayla Montgomery is running a race at the New Balance Indoor Track Nationals. She runs the girls 5000 meters and is now one of the fastest distance runners in the country. Coach Patrick Cromwell looks on intently and yells for her in support. Montgomery did not get in the race by chance or some miracle, and her success story really begins where the race ends.
Growing up, Kayla Montgomery, the older of two, was known by her parents as a child who was very artistic, shy, and introverted. Since she was that way, her parents, Keith and Alicia Montgomery, tried to help her become more social by getting her involved in sports. She found enjoyment in playing soccer.
“I was very aggressive and would kind of get warnings from the refs occasionally, but I thought it was fun,” Montgomery says, almost laughing. Montgomery played on a select soccer team at the age of 14 when she noticed something was wrong. She had fallen in a soccer game, and when she went home that evening, she felt a tingling sensation in her toes. She told her mother that she could not feel her feet and there was this weird shock going on.
In October 2009, after few doctor visits and MRIs, the doctor called with the diagnosis—Multiple Sclerosis. “When I heard that Kayla had MS [Multiple Sclerosis], I honestly lost my breath. It literally made me sick to my own stomach,” Alicia Montgomery says. “It was not what I had pictured for my child.” Multiple Sclerosis is a disease where the body’s immune system attacks its own nerve cells. Overall, the brain’s communication with the body, mainly the spinal cord, is “short-circuited,” so parts of Montgomery’s body could not function normally. “I knew the effects of MS on people because I see it daily, working at the hospital,” Alicia says almost crying. “It involves tube feedings and wheelchairs, and I was scared for Kayla.”
Life became tough for Montgomery as she realized what this disease disables her from doing. “I just cried a lot, and I didn’t want anyone in my room,” Montgomery explains. “I was just mad. I couldn’t see why something like this would happen to me.” For 8 months, she had lost all feeling in her legs, but after lots of medication, some feeling began to return. Montgomery had to give up soccer—a contact sport—and instead turned to running. She knew that she had to find some way to get past her disease.
Montgomery went to a coach named Patrick Cromwell and told him her story and what she wanted to do. “She said I want to run and I want to run fast. She told me to not hold back,” Cromwell recalls. “I believed in her.” Montgomery was happy that she could find a suitable coach at her high school who was able to help her and not look elsewhere for talent.
She explains her conversation with Cromwell: “ I told him that I wasn’t really guaranteed the next couple years of running, and I wanted to make the most out of every day I could, so I wanted someone to make me be held accountable.” Montgomery did not consider herself a fast runner whatsoever. “The way I looked at it, Kayla was a varsity hopeful by her senior year, when I was training her in her freshman year.” Cromwell clarified, “I took my time with her, and I knew patience was key.” Montgomery trained almost every day and knew that she had the perfect coach to do it with. She defied every label given to her.
There are many disadvantages to running and having MS. While running, she loses feeling in her legs. “It starts in my toes and works its way up my legs,” Montgomery explains. “It just stays like that for the rest of the race.” Heat is a trigger that causes her symptoms to return temporarily, and they go away when she cools off after a race. As her body temperature rises, the feeling in her legs begins to deaden. “It’s a very strange feeling to know that your legs are moving, but not feel them,” Montgomery says.
When running to the finish line, Montgomery cannot come to a coordinated stop. Cromwell decided on what they would do—he would catch her. When she approaches the finish line, he holds out his arms for her to fall into since she cannot carry herself idly. Immediately, Cromwell brings her over to a clear area and puts ice bags on her back while others pour cold water on her legs so that she can regain feeling. “I try not to make a big scene, but I think I do anyway because people don’t understand what’s going on,” Montgomery says. “It’s almost like our trademark.”
During Montgomery’s high school career, she made the varsity team in her sophomore through senior year, was considered one of the fastest girls in North Carolina and the U.S., and competed in the New Balance Indoor Track Nationals along with many other highly noted races. Montgomery tells others that her success is due to her parents’ support, her coach’s belief in her, and even some people’s negative comments. “They have pushed, and still do push me, to push myself harder, and to train better,” she says.
Now getting past what others have said to be impossible, Montgomery is still running today. She graduated high school and is a college athlete at Lipscomb University in Tennessee. She is considered one of the greatest runners in the country and is seen as an inspiration to all runners and athletes.
“Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis is only part of my life, but running is my passion. My disease does not define who I am, and I know my hard work has paid off.”
Watch ESPN’s documentary on Kayla Montgomery!