What can you do in the face of a terrible diagnosis, which condemns you to life in a wheelchair? What can you choose besides despair or resignation? Kayla chose to run.
Kayla is the eldest of two children of the Montgomery family, a regular family of Americans in North Carolina. Because she was extremely shy when she was little, her parents encouraged her to join a sports team. They were amazed when Kayla chose football, which she really liked. Her mother, Alysia, says that football was the last thing they would have thought would fit her, since she was so small and skinny.
In 2010, Kayla was 14 years old and was part of the school’s football team. One day after a match, she felt tingling in her spine and soles. Next she could no longer feel her legs, so her parents rushed her to the doctor. The diagnosis was devastating: multiple sclerosis. Alysia was a nurse and had seen many times how the disease, caused by immune cells attacking the central nervous system, manifested. Some patients lose muscle control completely and can’t even swallow, so they have to be intubated.
For eight months, Kayla could not feel her feet at all, which were cold and had turned bluish in colour. Fortunately, the medication that manages to reduce the intensity of the disease’s symptoms has restored her mobility. Since she was no longer allowed to play football, she thought that running would be her way of defying the disease. The problem was that when her muscles warmed up following the effort, she could no longer feel her legs. In a strange way, which she can’t explain, she managed to run even under these circumstances.
Kayla looked for someone to train her and was rejected several times, until Patrick Cromwell accepted. The coach’s motivation was not her running, which was slow and below average, but the determination he saw in her. Running over 60 miles a week, Kayla learned to keep her pace up even when she could no longer feel her feet. With Patrick’s help, she eventually managed to be first in the high school women’s athletics team. Then she began training with the boys’ team. Competitions followed, where her results were extraordinary.
Impressive in Kayla’s races are the finishes, which leave the spectators speechless. At the finish line, Patrick is always waiting, his arms outstretched, ready to catch her when she collapses, because her insensitive muscles won’t allow her to stop on her own. Her agony at the end of each race is a powerful testimony of her daily struggles. She knows that the disease could replace her next race with the wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop her from continuing to run.
At the beginning of 2014, in her last year of high school, Kayla qualified for the state championship final, for the 5,000 metre race, her favourite. Only 100 metres into the race, ironically, she tripped and fell. The rest of the field were far away by the time she got up and resumed the race. What followed, however, attracted everyone’s admiration and brought her international recognition: she made up for the lost time, and, in the final lap she took the lead. The end of the race found Kayla as usual: placing first and in the arms of her coach.