You would think there’s nothing more an Olympic gymnast dreams about than taking her place on the winner’s stand, bathed in the adoration of her nation and wearing a gold medal around her neck. But sometimes there are greater heights to soar to -- and greater prizes to claim -- than Olympic glory.
That’s why, even as we all breathlessly cheered the triumphs of our “Fab Five” Olympic gymnasts this past week, my most enthusiastic hurrahs went to another young woman -- one who never made it to London (or Beijing, for that matter), but who remains an all-time champion.
Morgan Rathke of Illinois was tearing up the gym in 2005. At 13 years of age, she’d been training in gymnastics for more than a decade, along the way collecting ten national titles and dreams of Olympic gold.
But then came the dizzy spells, and the headaches, and the vomiting -- and, to her parents’ horror, the most dreaded diagnosis of all: medulloblastoma, the most common form of deadly brain tumor that a child can develop. Overnight, Morgan’s battle to compete at the Olympics games gave way to a more sobering assignment: the fight for her life.
Morgan’s story reminds me once again of why children continue to inspire me. From the army of energetic boys and girls who embraced -- and gave life to -- Free to Be You and Me forty years ago, to the courageous kids who have brought strength and wisdom to our current anti-bullying campaign, I am constantly in awe of the bottomless spirit and single-minded survival skills that are the hallmarks of children. And hers is quite a story.
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Morgan Rathke always dreamed of one day competing in the Olympics. By the time she was thirteen years old Morgan had already been training in the gym for a decade; everyday dreaming of one day taking the medal stand at the Olympics.
By 2005 Morgan was well on her way towards Olympic gold, having won ten national titles along the way.
Always dedicated to becoming the best, here Morgan is learning to master a double full. In the practice gym, she and her teammates use the foam pit to learn harder skills.
But then came the dizzy spells, and the headaches, and the vomiting -- and, to her parents' horror, the most dreaded diagnosis of all: Morgan had developed a deadly brain tumor the size of a tennis ball. Overnight, Morgan's battle to compete at the Olympics games gave way to a more sobering assignment: the fight for her life.
The night after Morgan's surgery, her mother, Pam, was flipping through the TV channels in her daughter's hospital room when she stopped on a commercial for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. As Robin Williams sat with a healthy young boy who had been diagnosed with the same cancer Morgan had, Pam knew St. Jude's was where her daughter needed to be.
At St. Jude's Morgan went through more than a month of radiation therapy, high-dose chemotherapy and an infusion of her own bone marrow cells to aid in her body's recovery. As part of her physical therapy following the treatments, Morgan met with a gymnastics coach 4 times a week. Here, she works with a physical therapist at St. Jude's to strengthen her muscles.
Morgan was headed into the seventh grade when she was diagnosed, and had to continue her school work from St. Jude's. However, the intensity of her treatments had weakened her memory, if just temporarily. Here, she studies with her tutor in a classroom at St. Jude's.
After a successful round of chemotherapy and radiation, Morgan went through a bone marrow transplant. She learned that this procedure left her cancer free when she visited St. Jude for a check-up six months later with her mom Pam, her greatest cheerleader.
Morgan couldn't wait to return to gymnastics. As soon as she finished her treatments at St. Jude, she was off to Flip Fest Gymnastics Camp in Tennessee. Though she had to work hard to regain the skills it had taken years to master, she was determined to keep on practicing the sport she loves. Here, she is pictured at camp with former Olympians John Macready, John Roethlisberger and her coach Russ Berndt.
Former Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller surprised Morgan at Rising Stars Academy Gymnastics. The meeting was arranged by The Today Show when Morgan spoke in the St. Jude Thanks and Giving campaign.
Though tests confirmed that Morgan was cancer-free, her battle wasn't over. In order to ensure that her cancer hadn't returned, she was required to attend regular check-ups at St. Jude.
Morgan's gymnastics coach, Russ Berndt, has stuck by her side through thick and thin. Russ began coaching Morgan when she was only four years old and was present throughout her battle with cancer. He's a very special guy.
Morgan's fighting spirit helped her through her illness, and continues to thrive now that she is cancer-free. She has begun to study nursing and hopes to return to St. Jude one day to help kids going through the hardships she endured. Here, she is pictured with her mom and her sister Kristin at St. Jude's Survivor Day in Memphis in October 2009.
You would never know that Morgan has been through so much just by looking at her - she looks like a regular teenager! Here, she poses for her Homecoming dance in 2010.
When Morgan became strong enough to participate in athletics, she didn't hesitate to jump back in. When she wasn't flipping and tumbling at gymnastics, Morgan ran on the track team during her senior year of high school.
Despite all of the obstacles she was forced to overcome, Morgan hasn't given up on gymnastics. Here, she is pictured competing in the home Meet Crossroads Classic in 2011.
Morgan won't be competing in the Olympics because cancer took her away from years of training, but she's sticking to the sport and using her passion to teach young gymnasts.
Sometimes, Morgan still feels sad that she won't be an Olympic athlete, but her experiences have led her to pursue a new dream. She now hopes to become St. Jude's first "gymnast-nurse" and encourages the Olympic dreams of up-and-coming gymnasts through teaching.
After her diagnosis, Morgan was rushed to her local hospital, where the tumor was removed by a seasoned neurosurgeon who, by coincidence, had been in the family’s hometown that week. But even with the tumor gone, the Rathke family faced an uphill fight. Brain cancer is an insidiously stubborn disease; and, in all likelihood, the young gymnast had not seen the last of it. Indeed, Morgan’s doctors told her parents, Pam and David, that their daughter needed immediate follow-up treatment at a different hospital that specialized in catastrophic childhood diseases.
And then something startling happened -- an unexpected event that, according to Pam, must have been a sign from God. While holding vigil in her daughter’s hospital room the night of her surgery -- still awake at 4 A.M., channeling-surfing on the TV -- Pam landed on a commercial for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, featuring Robin Williams and a young boy Morgan’s age who had survived the very same type of brain tumor. When Williams asked the little boy what his future plans were, the child said simply, “to be in the seventh grade.” That was the grade Morgan was headed into.
“I had never seen the commercial before,” Pam recalls, “but I just knew that was where we were supposed to be.”
After calls to her doctor and a flurry of planning, Morgan walked through the doors of St. Jude one week later. A month-and-a-half of radiation therapy to her head and spine immediately began, followed by a high-dose chemotherapy regimen and an infusion of her own bone marrow cells to aid in her body’s recovery from the brutal treatments.
But just like any Olympic competitor, Morgan refused to let the flame of her perseverance flicker for even a moment. Yes, her treatments had knocked her to the mat momentarily -- weakening her muscles, compromising her balance -- but she got right back up on her feet and continued to go for gold. In fact, in addition to the standard physical and occupational therapy that followed her treatments, Morgan met with her gymnastics coach four times a week, if only to get her body -- and her heart -- back in the game.
The durability of her spirit was infectious. Even her supervising doctor confessed that he looked forward to seeing Morgan doing cartwheels down the hospital hallway some day.
“Training for the Olympics and fighting a deadly disease require a lot of the same things,” Morgan told me earlier this week by telephone. “You need to work hard. You need to maintain that fighting spirit. You need to never give up. And you can’t get down on yourself when you’re having a rough day. Just watch those gymnasts when they’re on the balance beam,” she added with her trademark enthusiasm. “They don’t get distracted by the cheering from the stands. They don’t worry about their nerves. They put all of that aside and focus on what they have to do. In many ways, winning a gold medal and surviving a disease are the same kind of accomplishment.”
Although Morgan’s fight for her life was nothing short of triumphant -- and today, at 19, she remains cancer-free -- the experience exacted a price from her. In the years following her surgery and treatment, she lost those crucial skills, and certainly the years of training, that would have enabled her to compete at an Olympic level. But true to the fire inside her, she was able to redirect that passion into a new and healthy life. She continues work out in the gym regularly -- tumbling, floor exercise and balance beam are her favorites -- and has taken up waterskiing as her newest athletic challenge. She has also begun coaching budding gymnasts, some as young as five years old, instilling in them their own Olympic dreams.
But most impressively, Morgan has begun studying nursing, so that she may one day return to St. Jude and coach other sick children through the same ordeal that she’d endured. She also might teach the kids a few tumbles along the way, becoming the hospital’s first “gymnast-nurse.” That would be fun, she says.
“Yes, I’ll admit,” Morgan told me at the end of our call, “sometimes I get a little sad watching the Olympics, thinking that, at one time, I might have been there on those mats competing. But I have so much to look forward to. The nurses and doctors at St. Jude really inspired me during my stay there. They taught me a whole new kind of winning.”
I’m sure you’ll agree that Morgan Rathke not only handily qualifies as an “Amazing Kid,” but also remains a first-class champion -- and, forever, worthy of the gold. --Marlo, MarloThomas.com
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