Para SwimmingNewsMorgan Stickney

Morgan Stickney Breaks Two World Records The First Time Swimming Her Favorite Event As An Amputee

by Lisa Costantini

Morgan Stickney poses with her gold medal after the women's 100-meter freestyle S7 finals at the 2023 Para Swimming World Championships on Aug. 6, 2023 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Getty Images)

Not many people get really good at something at a young age. It takes years of practice and hard work. Sports is no different.

But Morgan Stickney was already talented in the pool by the time she was a teenager — ranking in the top 20 in the nation in the mile swim at 14. She had her sights set on the Olympics, until an injury at 20 led to her left leg having to be amputated. When her second leg had to be surgically removed a year later, she vowed she would never swim again. 

Her promise didn’t last.

When the world shut down due to COVID-19 in 2020 — delaying the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 —Stickney took to the place that last made her happy: the water. “One of my doctors had me get into the pool at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and I fell in love with the sport all over again,” Stickney said.

It wasn’t long before she was swimming competitively again and had her sights set on Tokyo — her first international meet and first experience traveling outside the U.S. — where she went on to win two gold medals (400m free S8 and 4x100m relay).

With the mile not a Paralympic event, she finally got the chance to swim her favorite 1,500m free at the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships at the end of last year in Orlando, Florida.

The 26-year-old surprised herself by breaking the world record with her final time, as well as her split time — setting two new world records. This was her first time swimming the event in 10 years and the first-time swimming it without the use of her legs.

“Growing up, the mile was my favorite event,” Stickney shared after her victory. “I just love the pain. I love being able to get into a groove, feel that pain and see how far I can push my body.”

Especially now, Stickney said, after what she described as the most medically challenging year of her life.

“I'm going through so much medically and I really just learned to appreciate and find the good in every day — even if it's not particularly a good day,” she shared. “I wake up grateful to go to practice and push my body. There are so many days I'm sitting in the hospital just throwing up and I can't go workout like I want to, so I'm more in love with the sport today than I have ever been in my life.”

Not long after Tokyo, the Cary, N.C., native learned that the rare vascular disorder she had, which cut off the blood supply to her feet was progressing — affecting not only her limbs, but her entire body. Because of that, she spends upwards of 10 days in the hospital every 4-5 weeks.

“It’s pretty similar to chemo where it’s a lot on the body and it’s difficult to get out of bed or even walk down the hall,” Stickney said. “So, to go from that to right back to training every single month is difficult. It’s like starting over.”

Morgan O'Stickney competes during the women's 200-meter freestyle preliminaries at the Toyota U.S. Open on Dec. 1, 2023 in Greensboro, N.C. (Photo by Getty Images)

As a result of everything she’s gone through, the two-time gold medalist said she’s already learned so much about life — despite her young age.

“I think the biggest thing is nothing is impossible, and to believe in yourself more than anyone else believes in you,” she revealed. “I didn’t believe in myself fully when I went to Tokyo. I remember winning the 400-meter freestyle and so many people told me that I could do it, but I didn’t believe in myself until I was up on that podium.”

Stickney has enjoyed getting to share her story with the younger generation and encouraging them along the way. “When I was younger, I never thought that any of this would have been possible. So, to now share that story of if you dream big enough you can achieve those goals has been really cool,” she said.

Katie Ledecky — who has seven Olympic gold medals and 21 world championship golds — is one of the swimmers Stickney looked up to growing up. “Katie has always been an inspiration,” said Stickney about the athlete she has gotten to spend some time with on the pool deck. “It’s cool to go to able-bodied meets because you not only get to see the able-bodied athletes compete, but you get to represent the Paralympics and show them what we do and how hard we have to work to achieve our dreams.” 

Five-time Paralympic swimmer — whom she competed with on the relay in Tokyo — Jessica Long is another athlete who has done amazing things for the sport of swimming. “She has brought so much attention in a positive way,” Stickney said. “Everyone looks up to her!”

Should Stickney earn a spot on the team headed for Paris, she would be one of the veterans — even though a lot of the experiences will be new for her. Due to the amount of major surgeries she’s had in the last year, she’ll be competing in a different classification than she did in Tokyo.

It will also be her first time competing at a Paralympics with fans in the stands. 

“In Tokyo, it benefited me that there wasn’t really a crowd, because that would have made me even more nervous,” she shared. But this time, she’s looking forward to having the support of her family close by. 

“I have been through so much, and my family has been through so much and not being able to have them there was heartbreaking,” said Stickney. “But I plan on having some really special people come to Paris. I’m excited for them to be able to see me do what I love because without them I wouldn’t be here.”

Until then, she plans to take it one day at a time, because “I’ve learned in my life that anything can happen medically. But I’m just working hard every day and seeing where it will take me. It should be a lot of fun,” Stickney said. “I think if you’re having fun, then that’s where you see the results.”

Lisa Costantini has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than a decade, including for the International Olympic Committee. She is a freelance writer who has contributed to since 2011.