The Inspiring Teenage Track Star Who's Changing the Face of MS

Beth Greenfield, Shine Staff

Kayla Montgomery, 18, is one of the country’s fastest young distance runners. The North Carolina high school student trains 50 miles a week and just won a coveted state title. She also has multiple sclerosis.

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“When she was diagnosed [at 15], she said to me, ‘Coach, I don’t know how much time I have left, so I want to run fast — don’t hold back,’” Patrick Cromwell, Montgomery’s coach at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, tells the New York Times in a profile of the resilient teenager that was published Monday. “That’s when I said, ‘Wow, who are you?’”

Who Montgomery is, or was, is one of an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 children and adolescents in the country who are diagnosed with MS. But, as it turns out, she’s also part of a small subculture of high-performing athletes living with the disease—pushing herself to such limits when she runs that she ends each race by uncontrollably staggering and then collapsing into Cromwell's waiting arms.

“When a person with MS challenges themselves, it’s hard to predict what the effects will be,” Dr. Nicholas LaRocca, vice president of health care delivery policy research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, tells Yahoo Shine. “It affects people differently, and everybody has a slightly different mix of symptoms.” One of LaRocca’s patients, he recalls, had terrible memory problems—one of the many possible MS symptoms—but, “every weekend he would get on his bike and ride 95 miles.” Also in the category of determined athletes with MS: a California triathlete mom of four, Aurora Colello; body builder David Lyons, founder of the MS Fitness Challenge; mountain climber Lori Schneider, who has scaled all seven world summits; and Annette Fredskov, a Danish woman who ran 366 marathons in 365 days.

According to the findings of a large 2011 survey that LaRocca helped to develop, 75 percent of people diagnosed with MS responded by undertaking an exercise regiment — due, at least in part, to the fact that exercise therapy is now routinely recommended. It’s been found to improve strength, cardiovascular fitness and general wellbeing in those with the disease — which affects the central nervous system, disrupting the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and body.

The disease is unpredictable, has unknown causes, and can be disabling, according to the National MS Society, which is promoting MS Awareness Week March 3 to 9. And, while most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, MS can also occur in older adults, young children and adolescents — like Montgomery, who has, amazingly, turned it into an athletic inspiration.

“I guess I found the determination to keep pushing because I refused to allow MS to keep me from doing the things I loved,” she tells Yahoo Shine in a Facebook message. “I didn't want to be defined by having MS, so I continue to push and give it my all every day that I can… I know that with MS my mobility isn't necessarily guaranteed, so I've decided to take every day that I can run and make the most out of it.”

When Montgomery was first diagnosed with MS — after feeling numbness in her legs, and shocks running up her spine — she was one of the slowest runners on her team. But she gradually picked up speed in a major way, spurred on by determination and also, ironically, by what appears to be the athletic advantage of her disease: that it blocks nerve signals from her legs to her brain, causing numbness, and allowing her to move at steady speeds that would cause other runners pain.

“I think there’s a benefit to numbness,” Cromwell, Montgomery’s coach, says. “I don’t know anyone in their right mind, though, who would trade this; who would say, ‘Give me MS so I have a little bit of numbness after mile 2.’ But I think that’s when she gets her strength.”

Still, running so intensely also triggers weakness and instability, which is why any disruption, like stopping, makes her lose control — and why she ends every race by falling, usually into her waiting coach’s arms but sometimes flat onto the track. “Because Montgomery has played down her condition, few people understand her unusual racing finishes,” the Times story notes. “In the national indoor 5,000-meter championship last year, officials forgot to catch her and she fell on her face, lying prostrate on the track until someone carried her away. Announcers speculated that she had a seizure. Some assume she is fainting. Others, she said, have simply called her a wimp.”

But Montgomery puts up with the reactions rather than calling attention to her MS. “I didn’t want to be treated differently, and I didn’t want to be looked at differently,” she says.

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