Rachel Morrison has set club and discus world records since starting the sport last May.
Two months after she was laid off from her first job out of college, Rachel Morrison succumbed to the urging of friends and showed up at her first adaptive track and field meet.
The Farmington Hills, Michigan, native was an able-bodied athlete at Harrison High School, and had played some recreational wheelchair basketball and rugby after she was paralyzed in 2012 by a rare condition that damages the spinal cord called Transverse myelitis.
So Morrison, 27, figured she had nothing to lose by competing in the Thunder in The Valley Games in Saginaw, Michigan, last May.
“I was a little bit lost, but I was like, ‘Alright what is next? I’m not really sure,’” Morrison, who worked for a center that provides services to people with disabilities, recalled during a recent telephone interview. “I had flexibility to do what came up, that was the only way I’ve been able to do any of this.”
Morrison entered the women’s F51 club throw and discus in Saginaw — two disciplines she had never even tried before — because she didn’t have the right classification status for the 5-kilometer handcycle race.
“For the club I threw 16.8 meters, and for the discus a very underwhelming 2.26 meters,” Morrison said of her first throws. “They had to get out the medal tape (to measure the club throw), and apparently that was a good sign that it was a good throw.”
In fact, her first-ever club throw was good enough to capture the attention of U.S. Paralympians Scot Severn and Scott Winkler, who notified U.S. Paralympics national throws coach Erica Wheeler of what they saw in Saginaw.
Wheeler immediately invited Morrison to compete at the 2014 U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships at the College of San Mateo in California. Less than a month after the Saginaw meet, Morrison threw a world record 18.83 meters in the club — breaking a mark set 13 years earlier.
And to prove she wasn’t a mere flash in the pan, Morrison not only bettered her own world record in the club by tossing a 21.90 meters at a meet in Olomouc, Czech Republic, she also broke the discus F51 world record with a throw of 8.60 meters at the same meet.
“I wasn’t totally convinced (it wasn’t a fluke) because I was still a little bit stunned,” Morrison said of her performance in the Czech Republic. “But yeah, definitely after traveling with the team to the Czech Republic, it kind of hit me a little bit; even just being invited to go.
“I thought they were crazy to ask me to throw disc. I was like ‘You realize how underwhelming my throw was at Saginaw?'”
Nevertheless, those efforts prompted the International Paralympic Committee to recently put Morrison on its “Ones to Watch” list for the 2015 season — which inevitability puts her on track to compete for a spot at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.
Morrison credits her ability to quickly learn new skills to childhood and teenaged years filled with soccer, softball, track, swimming, gymnastics, figuring skating and marching band.
“You name it and I at least tried it,” she said, before adding, “I’ve been gifted with a really good kinesthetic sense of things, and I am very fortunate that the gift of physical ability that God gave me as a child was kind of rediscovered and relearned after my paralysis.”
That’s putting it modestly, considering the fact that Morrison only practiced the proper technique for the discus a day before breaking the world record in the Czech Republic.
“She has this amazing gift to understand the mechanics and make little corrections as she’s doing it,” said Wheeler, who threw javelin at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. “I think we have a great working relationship … I talk to her about why I do what I’m doing with technique and she can understand it, and as we’re training she’ll say, ‘What do you think about this or what if I change my grip like this?’
“We work together on figuring it out because we’re still in the process of making adjustments and fine tuning things.”
Wheeler also said now that Morrison is coming down from the high of her instant success there will inevitability be a drop off in her performance as she continues to learn the finer points of her new sport. But while Wheeler said that process is going to be “a little bit of a roller coaster,” she also said they have plenty of time to put Morrison in the position she needs to be to claim a podium position in Rio.
“Absolutely,” Wheeler said when asked if Morrison can medal in Rio. “What I found out is she responds really quickly to things. We are a year and half out (from Rio). That’s plenty of time.”
One thing that will really accelerate Morrison’s growth is her recent move to Washington, where she is training at the nonprofit organization ParaSport Spokane.
“It’s another stage in life,” Morrison said of her newfound sport. “Really, it’s a very exciting one and unusual one; unexpected. But with each stage I’m finding something I enjoy and excel at and taking that as far as I can take it.”