Morgan StickneyPara SwimmingNews

Life Keeps Throwing ‘Curve Balls,’ And Morgan Stickney Keeps Swinging For The Fences

by Karen Price

Morgan Stickney trains ahead of the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials – Swimming on June 16, 2021 in Minneapolis. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

As Morgan Stickney reflected back on her experience winning two gold medals in swimming at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, she could think of little that surprised her during the Games.

This, despite the fact that it was her first international meet ever, her first time leaving the United States and still less than two years removed from becoming a double amputee. Then she shared an observation of herself, which is true in every way, shape and form possible.

“In my life I’ve done a pretty good job with the curve balls thrown my way,” the Cary, North Carolina, native said. “You just have to adapt.”

Stickney, who just turned 27, has a vascular condition that she shares with just one other person in the United States. It’s so rare it doesn’t even have a name. Yet this disorder, which prevents sufficient blood supply from reaching her limbs, took her from being able-bodied to losing parts of both legs in the span of a year and a half.

It started when she was 14 and rated one of the top swimmers in the country in her age group in the mile. One day her left foot started to hurt, and the pain continued to worsen over time. She had surgery, then more surgery, and still the pain continued. She found herself on a steady stream of painkillers, and worried about addiction. After developing a massive infection, Stickney and her medical team made the decision to amputate her left leg below the knee in May 2018. She was just shy of her 21st birthday.

She was back in the pool in no time, and quickly made an impact in Para swimming, winning the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle events at the national championships before the year was over. But a month later, she took a step and her right foot broke. The same downward spiral she’d experienced with her left leg started over again in her right. An angiogram conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General showed no blood flow past her right calf, and Stickney had a second below-the-knee amputation in October 2019.

Still, she kept swimming. And winning. She made her Paralympic debut in Tokyo and won gold in the 400-meter freestyle S8 as well as the 4x100 medley 34 points.

“I didn’t truly believe in myself, that I could go out and do what I did, until I stood on the podium after winning the 400,” she said. “There’s a huge difference between racing and having other people believe in you, and racing when you actually believe in yourself. That was a big takeaway.”

Morgan Stickney competes during the women's 400-meter freestyle S7 final at the 2023 Para Swimming World Championships on Aug. 1, 2023 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Getty Images)

Stickney has continued to collect honors over the last three years, most recently winning world titles in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle. She currently holds four world records.

But Stickney has since lost even more of her legs to the disease. She was reclassified from an S8 to an S7 prior to last year’s world championships, signifying a greater loss of function. She’s spent a third of the last year in the hospital in Boston — spending nine days at a time unable to leave the hospital or sometimes even her room — getting treatment. There are still many unknowns when it comes to her medical condition.

“(The treatment is working) somewhat. It’s definitely not a cure,” she said. “It’s not a way for someone to live, spending nine days a month in the hospital. It’s just not a feasible option. But leading up to Paris we had to do what was going to be best for me, and ensure that I didn’t lose any more of me. That’s why we’ve been doing the treatment this way, because things were going really downhill with my limbs.”

Stickney has always been driven to set and reach her goals, and even with the medical challenges since Tokyo that remains true. Swimming and being able to continue to push her body through sport is something that helps get her through the hard days in the hospital, when she dreams about getting back in the pool. When she dreams about simply being able to get a breath of fresh air.

At this week’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials – Swimming in Minneapolis, Stickney will be competing in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle events, plus the 200-meter individual medley. Although she prefers to keep her specific goals for the Paralympics private, rest assured she has them. And she looks forward to competing once again on the sport’s biggest stage — this time in front of fans that will include her family and even some of the doctors and members of her medical team who plan to travel to the Paralympic Games Paris 2024.

“It would be so special (to return to the Paralympics),” she said. “It’s almost more special, in a sense, than the last time because of everything I’ve been going through. It’s just always such an amazing experience, and I could never say enough positive things about being able to represent my country. It was so special to go to Tokyo just after losing both my legs, and being faced with this awful thing in life and turning it into a positive. I feel like I’m trying to do that same thing with my situation now.”