ARUN RATH, HOST:
When the starting gun sounds at Mount Tabor High School track meets, senior Kayla Montgomery from Winston-Salem takes off. She is fast. The 18-year-old runner sets records, wins state titles, and next week, she's headed to nationals in New York. Of course, there are lots of talented young athletes out there. So why are we talking about Kayla? Because she has multiple sclerosis or MS, a disease that causes nerve damage and interference in communication between her brain, spinal cord and legs.
But she's kept running despite the fact that once she gets going, her legs go totally numb. Kayla has been training with her coach, Patrick Cromwell, since she first started high school. When she was 14-years-old, she fell during a soccer game. Pretty routine, he thought. But as Kayla told me, soon after, she noticed something else.
KAYLA MONTGOMERY: When I fell, I fell on my tailbone, so they originally thought that I had a pinched nerve. And I started to notice a lack of feeling in my legs and a weird tingling sensation in my spine.
PATRICK CROMWELL: She first complained of the tingling. You know, she says this is what happens when I run. And they said, well, you know, we all lose a little feeling in our legs during a race. This is just part of the sport and you're going to have to get used it.
You know, she said, no, I'm numb all day. You know, I can't feel my legs walking to class in the hallways. That's when, you know, I said, OK, this is different. And her doctor visits began.
MONTGOMERY: And then we got a lot of tests done, and they started to narrow it down.
CROMWELL: When she hit me with the news of, I've been diagnosed with MS, she was so calm about it. And I honestly just became sick to my stomach. And, you know, at first, I didn't know if she'd ever even be on our team again.
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MONTGOMERY: I knew that my family was pretty upset about the diagnosis, and I really felt like I needed to be strong for them, keep a tough face on and not let them know that I was scared too. So I was really determined to carry on with my normal life. And later, that determination kind of grew into more than just trying to be seen as normal and to try and overcome this disease.
CROMWELL: She didn't even give me a chance to respond, honestly. She said, I want to run, I want to run fast, and I don't want you to hold back. This was more than just running fast. This was a journey and trying to keep Kayla one step ahead of MS.
MONTGOMERY: When the race first starts, I feel everything. I can feel my legs moving and I can feel the start of pain. And after reaching the first mile marker, I've started to lose most feeling in my legs. The momentum is kind of what keeps my legs moving. And once I stop, they just kind of fall off from underneath me.
CROMWELL: We need to employ the Catch Kayla Committee and with one lap to go, I run across the track and then just get ready to catch her. Doug Binder of dyestat.com, the premier national high school running site, he described it as, you know, she's a plane coming in without landing gear. And we catch her just to protect her, honestly. We don't want her to brace for a fall and, you know, break an arm or a collarbone or something. So that's where the catch is important.
MONTGOMERY: I actually fell at last year's cross country state meet and kind of just laid there for a second and didn't really feel like getting up. But another competitor passed me, and there was a baseball fence close by, so I grabbed onto that and pulled myself back up and slowly started to run faster again.
It was a pretty big deal. It was the first time I'd ever fallen and gotten back up from a race without being able to feel my legs. So it was a great lesson to learn.
CROMWELL: She's exceptionally disciplined. If I say it's a 45-minute run, she'll do an extra 10 seconds around the tree at the end to make it 45 minutes. But she's qualified for the national championships next Friday in New York City. She's ranked currently 21st in the country in the 3,200 meters. She's at an elite level for high school running for sure.
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MONTGOMERY: For a few years, I was terrified that I might not be able to run tomorrow or the next day. And I kind of decided that that wasn't really helping me and I wasn't happy living like that. So I stopped focusing on the what ifs and just focusing on what I'm able to do now and making sure that I make the most of that and take the gift of mobility and just kind of use it to the greatest advantage I can.
RATH: Kayla Montgomery. She's a senior at Mount Tabor High School. On Friday, Kayla will run the 5,000 meters at the National Indoor Track Championships in New York. Her coach, Patrick Cromwell, will be at the finish line to catch her.
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