Kerri Morgan poses for camera at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai.
Kerri Morgan, a wheelchair racer from St. Louis, Missouri, is a three-time Paralympian with four Paralympic medals. She’s won 15 world championship medals, including three golds. And after coming away with gold in the 100-meter at the 2019 world championship, she was seeded first in the world in that event.
So why isn’t she going to Tokyo?
“This is a tough one for me,” Morgan said.
After winning gold in 2019, the path to what Morgan hoped would be her first Paralympic gold medal at her last Games seemed clear. But just a month after the championships, the International Paralympic Committee made an announcement: All T52 events would be cut from the 2020 Paralympic Games, leaving Morgan with no track events in Tokyo.
It was a disappointment, to be sure. But Morgan doesn’t want this to be how her athletics story ends. For one thing, she’s taken up cycling. And she’s becoming a staunch advocate for athletes just like her, hoping to add events back and raise the visibility of the sport. She also hopes to educate people who don’t know that wheelchair athletics is an option.
Morgan knows that those people are out there, because she was once one of them.
“I grew up with a disability since the age of 1,” said Morgan, 46, “and when I grew up, there weren't a lot of adaptive sports happening at that time.”
Instead, she found other ways to stay active, including by joining the school swim team. But at the end of the day, swimming “didn’t fulfill my need for competition,” she said. It wasn’t until her early 20s that she would find something that would — wheelchair rugby.
“I went and tried it out and I loved it,” Morgan said.
After a friend approached her with an opportunity to join a team in St. Louis, Morgan started playing recreationally, realizing that the sport kept her fit and helped her stay social. What started out as a hobby soon turned into something bigger.
“The more I played and the more we traveled and the more I was around it, it sort of opened up this world to me that I didn’t even know existed, this world of people with disabilities really truly being athletes,” she said. “When I saw that, I just wanted to be a part of that.”
Morgan decided to become an elite athlete in wheelchair rugby. She even took up wheelchair racing to stay fit all year round.
“It would help me with things like working on my hand speed,” she said.
Little did she know, her side sport would soon become the focus of her athletics career. Morgan was invited to be the first woman ever to try out for the U.S. National Wheelchair Rugby team in 2008. But she didn’t make the team.
“I think that this is kind of one of those instances where one door closes, sometimes another one opens where you don’t expect it,” she said.
That door led to wheelchair racing. Morgan had only raced in a few meets in 2007, so she was surprised to hear that her times would qualify her to try out for the 2008 U.S. Para Track and Field team. Still, “I ended up making the team,” she said.
Morgan traveled to Beijing, coming in fifth in her events. Her competitive focus quickly switched to racing, and she used her Beijing results to fuel her.
“I ended up fifth place in both events, but I knew that I could do better than that,” she said. “I think that’s what’s kept me going, is just continually trying to get better.”
She continued going to competitions, getting better and better each year. At the world championships in 2011, she struck gold in the 800-meter race.
But if Morgan wanted to replicate her 2011 success in the London Paralympic Games, she would need to adapt.
“I’m really not a sprinter by nature,” she said. “I’m probably naturally an 800-meter person, maybe a 1500-meter person, but they don’t always offer those races in my classification … whatever they offer, you kind of have to become that.”
For the women’s T52 classification, only the 100 and 200 were offered in 2008, and the same would be true for 2012 and 2016. Morgan had to work on improving her push off the starting block — and it paid off.
“I ended up with two bronze medals in London, in the 100 meters and the 200 meters,” she said. “Then in Rio, I got a bronze in the 400 and a silver in the 100.”
She followed up with a gold in the 100-meter dash at the 2019 world championships. Morgan looked forward, hoping to make the Tokyo Paralympic Games her swan song and win her first Paralympic gold.
“I was pretty jazzed about getting ready for Tokyo, and that Tokyo was probably going to be my last Paralympic Games, and I was in a really good position,” she said. “I don’t have a gold in a Paralympic Games ... I really thought that would be a nice way to go out and retire.”
Then, that door closed, too. In December, the IPC eliminated Morgan’s only event, the 100-meter dash, citing a too-small field.
“So I don’t have any events in Tokyo,” Morgan said.
Morgan started cycling, and hasn’t ruled out shifting all her efforts there. But she knows that it’s a hard road ahead.
“This is just a really hard thing for me because as a person who already transitioned from one sport to another, I know what it takes,” she said. “Whether I go full competition on it or not, I’m honestly undecided about it … I might be a retired athlete, I don’t know yet.”
Morgan has a full life outside of wheelchair racing — on top of her full-time career in occupational therapy, where she promotes physical activity and exercise for adults with disabilities, she is married and has two twin boys. And after her retirement, she wants to try competing in triathlons.
But with her original plan no longer feasible, “I feel incomplete,” she said.
That’s why she’s advocating to get more people involved in wheelchair sports, working with local groups that work to create opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in sports. Otherwise, she fears, her event may lose momentum. Without people competing, how will others know it’s an option?
The future is uncertain, but Morgan still has hopes that her events could be added back for the Paris Games. Even if she can’t compete herself, though, “I just want to make that journey easier for other people,” she said. “There are just lots of things that need to be done.”