Every year the Jackson Citizen Patriot selects a winner for the John O’Connell Award, given to a high school senior athlete who demonstrates determination and perseverance in overcoming hardship to excel. This year’s winner is Morgan Taylor, track and field pole vaulter from Grass Lake.
JACKSON, MI — Jennifer Taylor stood atop the bleachers at Hanover-Horton High School. The coach for the Grass Lake girls track and field team was overlooking several events at once.
While sprinters ran by in front of her, Taylor’s attention turned to her left, behind the stands. There, her daughter, Morgan, was getting set to pole vault.
While Morgan Taylor was a former conference and regional champion in the event, winning on this day wasn’t the sure thing the way it often is for senior track stars at small dual meets.
The Taylors learned the hard way that nothing was a sure thing.
From her perch high in the stands, Jennifer Taylor watched her daughter’s running approach, her pole finding its place in the box and Morgan shooting into the air.
Morgan Taylor flying through the air was nothing new.
The recent graduate of Grass Lake High School had been jumping, tumbling and rolling her entire life.
From the time she was 2 years old, Morgan was an avid gymnast. Working out for 20 hours a week, she competed in countless competitions, attaining the level of Level 7 gymnast, with above 10 being nationally elite.
But the thousands of flips, falls and dismounts began taking their toll on her body. Throughout her sophomore year of high school, Taylor gritted her teeth and willed herself through gymnastics competitions and then through track and field season.
She won Cascades Conference, Selby Invitational and Division 3 regional championships on her way to qualifying for the state meet and being named to the Citizen Patriot Dream Team.
But the pain had become too much.
“As a gymnast you have a lot of pain, but a lot of it doesn’t actually mean anything,” Taylor said. “But there were days where it hurt so bad I was doubled over on my hands and knees and I couldn’t breathe. I knew something was wrong.”
Taylor and her parents visited the campus of Michigan State University to see sports medicine physician Larry Nassar, who has provided care for U.S. Olympic gymnasts for more than 20 years.
There, the Taylors discovered the cause of the pain Morgan had been feeling for a year.
Morgan had been competing with fractures in her L1 and L2 vertebrae, located at about level with the bottom of the ribcage.
“I thought I’d be able to come back, no problem,” Taylor said. “I thought it’d be just a few months. People recover from broken backs all the time in the gymnastics world. I thought I’d be OK.”
Despite warnings regarding the rarity of the injury — Nassar had only seen one other similar case — and the projected recovery time of at least six months plus rehabilitation, Taylor wasn’t ready to give up her gymnastics career. But the road to recovery was a long and arduous one.
A painful realization
For six months, Taylor wore a back brace and worked her way through rehabilitation. Finally, in February of her junior year, she was given the green light to gently work her way back into gymnastics.
But it wasn’t long before it became apparent that her back was not going to cooperate.
“It was OK at first, but then it started hurting,” Taylor said. “We went back and kept going back and back (to the doctor) until we decided it wasn’t going to stop hurting. I just had to be done.”
A month after her comeback started, Taylor’s gymnastics career was over. That’s when Taylor discovered how large a part of her life she had lost.
“If you play basketball, you may have stared in seventh grade. But I started (gymnastics) when I was 2,” she said. “All my best friends were there. It was, literally, where I grew up. To not be able to have that, I went in and visited a few times, but it just wasn’t the same. I felt left out of my team. I couldn’t do what I had always done. It was all I knew.”
Taylor slipped into a deep depression, though she largely kept it to herself.
She returned to the track to resume her pole vaulting late in her junior year — an athlete’s most important year to attract possible college recruiters — but Taylor was a shadow of the champion she had been only a year before. At meets she could perform only one vault, often without any warm-up, before the pain would become too much. Unable to reach the heights she once attained, her depression grew.
The extent of that depression became understood when she went in for a physical.
Like most gymnasts, Taylor is small, standing 5-feet tall and weighing 100 pounds. So when she weighed less than 90 pounds at her physical, she, her family and doctors realized she was clinically depressed.
Because the cause of Taylor’s depression was situational, as opposed to genetic, she was not prescribed medication but did receive counseling from a sports psychologist at Eastern Michigan University.
“It’s hard to explain the life of a gymnast unless you live it,” Jennifer Taylor said. “It’s 20 hours a week in the gym, it’s your family and your discipline and it’s everything about you. To let that go because of an injury was so significant to her. It took finding the right therapist to help her let that go, to walk her through the grieving process.”
She also began to get back to normal in her pole vaulting.
Late in her junior season, with her back once again screaming in pain, Taylor’s father, Dave, implored his daughter to withdraw from the competition at a meet in Pittsford.
“I was crying and my dad said ‘You’re done. You’re done.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not done,’” she said. “I just grabbed my pole and jumped 9-6, and I won the meet.
“And then I was done.”
Not out of the woods
The end of the track season, and the victory in Pittsford, had given Taylor hope for her senior year. She saw herself finally breaking the school’s pole vault record of 10 feet — a feat she had been aiming for since her freshman year.
But her back wouldn’t let it be so simple.
Jennifer Taylor explained during the recovery process, the muscles on each side of Morgan’s injured vertebrae became immobilized, acting as natural splints. But as the injuries healed, Morgan’s brain only sent signals to one of the muscles to relax. The other muscle remained immobilized, resulting in painful spasms.
A full year after the discovery of the fractures, Taylor’s pain still made standing difficult.
Taylor’s parents took her in for what they thought was going to be three or four injections of Botox and steroids to relax the muscle. She ended up requiring anesthesia and 13 injections.
When the back spasms finally passed, Taylor resumed work on her pole vaulting, working with Up and Running Pole Vaulting club in Dexter. There, throughout the summer and winter indoor seasons, Taylor continued to work herself back to the level she enjoyed her sophomore season.
“She had to start from scratch,” said Jessica Crandall, Taylor’s track coach at Grass Lake through her junior season. “Once you put it down and walk away, it’s hard to get back in the swing of things. That’s a very mental event because you’re flying so high and, if everything isn’t right, you can crash and fall off your pole, crash off the pit. She had a lot of mental blocks to overcome.”
Taylor then asked her mother, who took over Grass Lake’s girls track head coaching duties this season as Crandall went on maternity leave, to look up conference and meet records for the pole vault.
Jennifer Taylor did as Morgan asked, but did so wondering if Morgan was setting herself up for failure.
“My biggest fear was with her leaving and going to college and she wouldn’t have the support system here that I could provide for her and her family could provide for her and her physicians here could provide for her,” Jennifer Taylor said. “She was going two hours away and wouldn’t have a channel for her energy, and would she slip back into that depression if the season didn’t work out for her?”
On May 1, high above that pole vaulting pit at Hanover-Horton High School, Jennifer Taylor watched Morgan fly into the air, swinging herself into a vertical position, extending and turning over the bar and down again into the soft landing of the pit.
Ten feet, 1 inch. Morgan Taylor had her school record.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “I knew I could do it, but I didn’t think it would actually happen. I jumped off the pit and just started crying and I hugged my dad, my mom came over and I hugged her.”
Jennifer Taylor ran down the steps of the bleachers and behind the stands to find her daughter.
“She came at me just crying and shaking. She got that monkey off her back and she was so excited and so proud,” Jennifer Taylor said. “I think that was the corner she needed to turn to feel successful again. She had that goal from the very beginning. I think that was the sweetest victory she had.”
But it wasn’t her only victory.
Morgan won the Cascades Conference championship by breaking her own record with a vault of 10-2. She won her event at the Selby Invitational before once again winning the regional championship and qualifying for the state meet.
“Breaking the school record was definitely better,” Taylor said. “I had won regionals before. I hadn’t had a school record.”
Planning to major in photojournalism in college, Taylor had already decided to attend Central Michigan University in the fall. She sent the track and field program an e-mail listing her pole vault accomplishments and asking how she could try out.
While she’s not on scholarship, the coaching staff blocked off her schedule to keep her from taking classes after 2 p.m. for practice, enrolled her in a class required for student-athletes and put her in a dorm with other track and field athletes.
“It’s real now,” Taylor said.
While the reality of competing at the college level is sinking in for Morgan, the reality of what she has overcome and achieved may never truly be real for her mother.
“It has been the most amazing thing for me as her mom, and then as her coach, to watch her determination. The sheer will to come back,” Jennifer Taylor said. “I don’t know if words can describe how amazed I am.”
By Rich McGowan