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Closing the Gap Between Fitness and Disability

During assembly on Monday, February 3, Dr. Kerri Morgan, an elite wheelchair athlete and assistant professor in occupational therapy and neurology at Washington University School of Medicine, spoke about her research on improving the ability of people with lower-limb mobility impairments to participate in the widest possible range of activities. In the second half of her talk, Dr. Morgan described her experiences as an athlete. In 2009, she was the first woman to be selected to represent the US National Wheelchair Rugby team. She has competed in three Paralympic Games on the US Track and Field team that included Beijing in 2008, London in 2012, and Rio in 2016. She has won four Paralympic medals and 10 World Championship medals in distances ranging from 100m to 800m. Dr. Morgan was introduced by Martha Keeley (STEM Facilitator) and Sophia Crowley '20. 

As a baby, Dr. Morgan developed transverse spinal myelitis, which caused inflammation in her spinal cord. The damage left her with limited strength, sensation, balance and mobility from the chest down, but because that happened at such a young age, that's her norm. In college, she wasn't entirely sure what she wanted to do, but she did know she wanted to help people. At Texas Christian A&M University, she studied psychology and business. Because she'd had so many excellent occupational therapists who helped her maximize her physical abilities and health, she decided to get a master's degree in occupational therapy at Washington University in St. Louis. After practicing as a therapist, she realized there were improvements that could be made in the practice of occupational therapy — which is why she went back to get her doctorate in movement science, so she could use it in research and apply it to her field. 

Researcher and elite wheelchair athlete Dr. Kerri Morgan speaks during assembly.

She learned a lot about the physical mechanics of the body and the neuroscience behind movement, and has applied that in her research, which focuses on two things. The first is looking at how people with disabilities use their wheelchairs, and then developing recommendations on how, for instance, they can change their range of motion to avoid repetitive strain injuries. She's also working to develop ways for people with disabilities to get more exercise and improve their health. Nearly half of adults with disabilities get no aerobic exercise, and are 50 percent more likely to report at least one chronic disease, including diabetes, cancer, stroke and heart disease, than active adults with disabilities. In her lab, she uses a number of technologies, among them a suite of 14 video motion cameras, which are similar to those used in creating movies and video games. Using reflective markers affixed to her study subject, cameras capture the subject's range of motion. In film, this information is used to build an animated character in CGI based on an actor's movements. In Dr. Morgan's lab, those movements generate a lot of detailed data that can be analyzed to figure out how people use their upper extremities when using their wheelchairs, and how it's affecting joints and muscles. She also gathers data outside the lab in people's own environments using GoPro cameras and wearable motion trackers, which provide 2D data (from the camera) and motion data (from the tracker). Her lab also uses a custom-built "treadmill" with rollers especially for wheelchairs. 

Dr. Morgan also talked about her experiences as an athlete with a disability. She explained the difference between the Olympics (the world's most elite athletes), the Special Olympics (games for those with disabilities, focused on participation rather than competition) and the Paralympics (the world's most elite athletes with a disability). She explained the "para" refers to "parallel" — not paralysis or paraplegic. Athletes in the Paralympics are grouped according to physical function, so that the competition is fair. By example, she spoke about competing on the swim team in high school: though she was a good swimmer, she always came in last, because she was competing against students who had different physical abilities. Her first sport was wheelchair rugby. She explained that every wheelchair sport requires a different chair, just as each sport requires different shoes. Rugby chairs are sort of like "gladiator machines" with shields in the front to protect players as they bang into each other on the court. Racing, which was the sport she took up on the off-season to train for rugby, requires a totally different chair: light and aerodynamic. 

There are only 500 wheelchair rugby players in the United States. While it's a co-ed sport, only a handful of players, maybe 10, are women. Dr. Morgan was one of the first women players to enter the sport on a competitive level. She made the U.S. team as the first woman player. In 2008, her dream was to join the Paralympic team for wheelchair rugby. She didn't make it, but the track team called her. After traveling to Beijing to compete as a member of the Paralympic track team (in front of a crowd of 100,000+ people!), she realized that what she'd thought of merely as training was her true sport. She placed fifth and was determined to focus on training in track and win the gold. That happened in 2011 when she beat a Canadian athlete who had never lost a race — ever. Since then, she's taken home a silver medal at the Rio Games, and last fall in Dubai, she beat the reigning champion in the 100-meter dash and took home the gold. During the assembly, she played video footage of the race, noting that her start could have been stronger ("I'm not a good starter!") and admitted that the 100-meter is not one of her strongest events, though she managed to "get the job done" and win the race. She also talked about the technology of her chair, which features lightweight carbon-fiber wheels lifted straight from the competitive bicycling world. 

Finding racing changed her life — she's now able to channel all of her passion and competitive energy into her sport, and it inspires her in her day-to-day work as well. She's traveled the world, visited the White House, met the Obamas, and in Rio, was accidentally head-butted by the Vice President of Brazil as he leaned in to give her a hug. She finished her talk by giving a big thank-you to Burroughs: she trains on the school's track, as it's one of the only high-quality accessible tracks available to her. She was glad to be able to give a talk in assembly as a way of saying thank you to the school.