Morgan Stickney competes in the Women 400 Meter Freestyle at the TYR Pro Swim Series on Jan. 16, 2021 in Richmond, Va.
People talk about life being full of twists and turns.
Morgan Stickney can say that, too, but hers have spun her like a ride at an amusement park, minus the fun.
After having gone from able-bodied to amputee to double amputee in a matter of years, however, Stickney is finally on the other side. In less than two weeks, she’ll be competing at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming in Minneapolis with a chance to go to Tokyo later this summer.
It’s a much different position than she was in at this time last year.
“A little over a year ago I couldn’t even walk,” said Stickney, 23. “I was just sitting in a wheelchair without legs. We have all these videos and pictures of me at Spaulding (Rehabilitation Network in Boston) learning how to walk as a bilateral amputee and it’s pretty incredible to see how far I’ve come in a year.”
Stickney was practically raised in a pool. Her mother taught swim lessons, so she was in the water well before her earliest memories were formed. The competitive piece didn’t come until she was a little older, she said, after she’d won her first medal in gymnastics and decided it was time for a new challenge.
By 14 she was one of the top swimmers in the country in her age group in the mile. Then one morning she was walking to practice when suddenly her left foot started to hurt. She thought maybe she stepped on something. It was much, much worse.
The pain wouldn’t stop. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. It went on for years. There were too many surgeries, too many prescriptions for painkillers and no improvement. The cycle continued for six years until Stickney developed a massive infection. She decided on below-the-knee amputation in May 2018 at the age of 20.
Her surgeon wanted her to continue swimming, so within weeks, Stickney was back in the pool.
“The very first time I swam I was trying to kick like I normally kick and my leg felt like a log,” she said. “It wasn’t propelling me whatsoever. Once I adjusted, it was fine, but at the beginning it was frustrating trying to work through things and understand how to move your body in the water because I wasn’t born that way.”
Feeling ready to compete again, Stickney and her family researched Paralympic swimming. By December she won the 100-and 400-meter freestyle events at the national championships and was a resident at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“Things were going well,” she said. “Things were looking up. A month later, after training, I walked three steps and my right foot just fractured. We didn’t know why.”
With the same downward spiral of pain starting in her right foot, Stickney left the Training Center and moved home, which was then Bedford, New Hampshire. She saw doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General, who did an angiogram. It showed there was no blood flow past her right calf.
“They’d actually never seen what I had in anyone before,” she said. “It was never seen in the U.S. before, and the Brigham team is currently researching it, so there’s not really an official diagnosis. Typically when people ask I’ll say it’s vascular necrosis, or the death of the bones.”
In October 2019, Stickney had her right leg amputated below the knee. She assumed that her swimming career was over.
But as she recovered, she started doing little exercises at home. She started to think about swimming again. Stickney returned to the pool in February 2020, but at that point there was no reason to think the Paralympics wouldn’t take place six months later. She figured she’d start training again, but for 2024. The postponement changed that timetable dramatically.
Stickney’s now living in North Carolina and training with swim coach John Payne. He’s never coached swimmers with disabilities before, she said, but it’s a good fit. He doesn’t treat her any differently than he treats his able-bodied swimmers, and she appreciates that. Stickney doesn’t want to be babied.
She’ll be competing in the 50- and 400-meter freestyle events in Minneapolis. She’s only competed in the 400-meter three times since becoming a bilateral amputee, she said, so she’s trying to not put pressure on herself. The most important thing is to have fun with it, especially given how far she’s come in such a short amount of time.
“If I’m having a hard day, I love looking back on it thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I couldn’t even walk up a ramp a year ago and now I’m doing my thing,’” Stickney said. “It’s cool to see, especially because I feel like people in the para community have been the way they are for a long time. I’m so new, so to be able to swim with them is so amazing.”