When the starting gun sounds at Mount Tabor High School track meets, senior Kayla Montgomery from Winston-Salem, N.C., takes off.
The 18-year-old runner sets records, wins state titles, and next week, she’s headed to nationals in New York.
But when Montgomery runs, her legs go totally numb. She has multiple sclerosis, a disease that causes nerve damage and interference in communication between her brain, spinal cord and legs.
When she was 14, she fell during a soccer game. Soon after, Montgomery says, she noticed something else: “a lack of feeling in my legs and a weird, tingling sensation in my spine.”
She told her coach, Patrick Cromwell, about the strange sensations in her legs. He first thought it was normal strain on her muscles, but then Montgomery told her coach she was numb all day.
Then, the doctor visits began. After months of tests, doctors finally diagnosed Montgomery with multiple sclerosis.
“She was so calm about it,” Cromwell says. “I honestly just became sick to my stomach and at first I didn’t know if she’d ever be on our team again.”
Montgomery was determined to keep running.
“She said, ‘I want to run. I want to run fast. And I don’t want you to hold back,’ ” Cromwell says. “This was more than just running fast, this was a journey in trying to keep Kayla one step ahead of MS.”
Montgomery has become one of the country’s fastest young distance runners. She’s ranked 21st in the nation after winning the North Carolina state title in the 3,200 meters in February.
“When the race first starts, I feel everything. I can feel my legs moving and I can feel the start of pain and after reaching the first mile marker, I’ve started to lose most feeling in my legs,” Montgomery says. “The momentum is kind of what keeps my legs moving and once I stop, they just kind of fall off from underneath me.”
Coach Cromwell waits at the finish line at every race to catch Kayla.
“With one lap to go, I run across the track and just get ready to catch her,” Cromwell says. “We catch her just to protect her. We don’t want her to brace for a fall and break an arm or collarbone or something.”
After her diagnosis, Montgomery feared the day she would no longer be able to run.
“For a few years, I was terrified that I might not be able to run tomorrow or the next day,” Montgomery says. “I kind of decided that that wasn’t really helping me and I wasn’t happy living like that. So I stopped focusing on the what-ifs, and [started] focusing on what I’m able to do now. Making sure that I make the most of that and take the gift of mobility and use it to the greatest advantage I can.”