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Class Is In Session

By Joanne C Gerstner | July 20, 2013, 8 p.m. (ET)

Kerry Morgan
Kerri Morgan, seen on the podium at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, balances an elite track career with higher education. 

Students already know the unwritten social rules when they’re working in the biomedical research lab of Dr. Cassie Mitchell at Georgia Tech. And the same goes for the students in a class taught by Prof. Kerri Morgan at Washington University in St. Louis.

Don’t even think of whining about how busy you are. And don’t complain that you don’t have enough time to get everything done.

Mitchell and Morgan, experts in biomedical science and occupational therapy respectively, are also elite Paralympic track & field athletes. That means both women are combining full-time and high-level academic and research careers with full-time and high-level international athletic competition.

So no matter how busy they might be as a researcher or student, it’s a practical given that busy lives of Morgan and Mitchell certainly will trump the argument.

The women will be taking some time away from their research to compete in the International Paralympics Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France. Both compete in the T51/52 classifications.  

Mitchell, will be competing in the 100, 200 and 800 meters, plus shot put and discus. Morgan qualified for the 100-, 200- and 800-meter races, which are next week.

“I get some people who ask me how I do this all, and I just tell them I am just crazy,” said Mitchell, a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering who finished fourth in the 100-, 200- and discus events in the London 2012 Paralympic Games. “Free time is something you will never hear me talk about, because my life really doesn't have much time to spare between my lab and training. But I am not complaining, I love having all of this in my life.

“I always feel like things are a bit out-of-kilter, as I am juggling everything day-to-day and working to find some balance. Some days I get it right, others I don’t.”

Mitchell set a world record in shot put (F52 class), throwing 6.14 meters last month at the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in San Antonio, Texas. She was a bit surprised that she so eclipsed the previous mark of 5.82 meters.

“That gives me so much confidence going into Lyon, I want to come back with the gold,” Mitchell, 32, said. “I’m really a competitive person at heart, and just getting to compete, do my best and try to represent my country is what makes it all worth it.”

Mitchell squeezes in workouts before and after work, dividing her efforts between the track and field. She likes the diversity of events, giving her a chance to change up her workouts. She has been a world champion in hand-cycling events, too.

An athlete her whole childhood, participating in everything from gymnastics to track, Mitchell suffered an allergic reaction following her high school graduation which triggered paralysis. She was diagnosed with Devics Neuromyelitis Optica.

At work, Mitchell is busy supervising a staff of 40 in her research lab. Her focus lies in neurological disease, with an aim at finding a cure and treatments for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS; commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). On top of being the boss, Mitchell works on finding grant funding for her work and does her own research.

It’s quite the load, both from the track into the lab, but Mitchell feels her students and lab assistants appreciate how she’s living her life.

“When I am in the lab, it’s ‘Dr. Mitchell’ this and ‘Dr. Mitchell’ that,” she said. “When I am competing, I send out emails to the lab about what’s going on, and those are from Cassie. It’s the two sides of me, and I know they are really supportive.”

Morgan completely relates to Mitchell’s high-paced life, as she, too, is working hard at school and on the track. She is in the home stretch of finishing her Ph.D. in occupational therapy, starting the hard work of writing her dissertation. She hopes to graduate in December 2014, and continue her career as a professor in occupational therapy at Washington University.

Morgan, who was diagnosed with transverse myelitis at a very young age, is a two-time Paralympian, coming away from the 2012 London Games with bronze medals in the 100- and 200- meters (T52 class). She doesn’t have the medals on display, admitting one of the bronze medals rests comfortably in her underwear drawer.

But every now and again, the medals come out for a little show-and-tell, during speaking engagements or for the curious.

“Would I recommend anybody try getting a Ph.D., working and competing in track at the same time … probably not, unless you really want to be tired all the time,” Morgan said with a laugh. “I don’t know how well I do it all. In hindsight, I never planned to have all of this happening at one time, but the Ph.D. opportunity just came when it did and I had to go for it. Life happens and getting chances like to go to London or get a Ph.D., you have to take advantage.”

Morgan, like Mitchell, is grateful that their universities understand and support their athletic endeavors. Morgan trains before school, sometimes at lunch, and after school. She’s moved away, for now, from teaching classes so she can have more time to train and work on her dissertation.

Morgan’s deepest athletic passion is rugby, and she was the first woman named to the U.S. Quad Rugby Team in 2009. But she has set aside national-level competition in favor of some off-season club play. These days, her life needs a great deal of time precision to make everything run efficiently.

“When I hit the track, there is no diddling around; I get out there, I do what I need to do,” Morgan, 39, said. “I find it funny when I go to training camps and get to work out with other athletes who have more time to spend on their training. They’re a lot more leisurely about things. I’m like, ‘I’m here, let’s go. No time to waste!’

“That’s pretty much my life right now, I’m trying to go fast on the track, and be as efficient as I can at school.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Joanne C. Gerstner is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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