A Coach's Fight: Christy Morgan's decade-long search for answers

Published: Nov. 2, 2016 at 10:29 PM EDT
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On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, days before James Madison is set to begin the postseason, Christy Morgan blows her whistle and her players begin their drills.

"Talk! Talk!," Morgan commands. The field erupts in various voices, each player communicating on every pass.

"Having her out here, you would never know that anything was ever wrong or that she went through those experiences," junior midfielder McKenzie Ridgely said. "She's so passionate about this moment and this team."

The Dukes are two wins away from returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. A Colonial Athletic Association championship would secure Morgan's first trip to the NCAAs since 1999.

Much has changed since then. That year, the former Olympian stepped away from the sidelines and began a battle against an unknown enemy.

"I had doctors saying, 'Maybe, you're getting depressed,'" Morgan recalled. "Well, when your body is your tool and you're used to having high energy and that defines you, of course you get a little bit depressed. But it was not depression."

Morgan remembers not being able to go for a mile run or riding a bike for fun because she would get so exhausted.

"What's interesting is my players don't really know the story because I was embarrassed," Morgan said.

To understand Morgan's story --one that took her away from Harrisonburg-- you have to go back to 1998, four years after leading JMU to a national championship in field hockey.

"It was a crazy illness where my whole body was weak," Morgan said. "I'd finish a game and I'd exhaust myself and I couldn't remember the names of the parents of my kids."

"Sometimes I even got a little bit lost driving home, so I knew there was something really wrong."

The problem was that no one could figure out what was wrong. Morgan went to multiple doctors in Harrisonburg and traveled to the University of Virginia and offices in Washington, D.C. to find answers. But when she found none, she made the toughest decision of her life.

"When I got even sicker and sicker in 1999, I knew that it was not best for my student athletes for me to be their leader. I knew I head to leave and let somebody else take over," Morgan said.

"It was really hard," Morgan said. "We were consistently in the top ten; We had the frame of mind that would lead us to the Final Four every single year."

Morgan left JMU after nine seasons. Then, after encountering the same health problems after taking a coaching job at Davidson the following year, she decided to leave collegiate coaching altogether. Her body was getting weaker, with no solution in sight.

"I didn't think I was going to live. I was so weak," Morgan said. "I would wake up in the morning after not sleeping and have to just lay in bed. I had nothing that I could give to the world and that's the hardest thing as somebody who wants to make a difference in the world."

It took a decade for Morgan to finally figure out what was wrong with her health.

"I finally found a doctor that did the right test and said I was off the chart with Celiac disease and simple thing: just stop eating gluten," Morgan said.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten creates inflammation which damages the small intestine, causing further medical complications. Gluten is found in many products such as wheat and pasta. While there are gluten-free versions widely available in grocery stores, the Celiac Disease Foundation estimates more than two and a half million people are under-diagnosed.

And for a decade, Morgan was part of that statistic.

"I think to know that there was a real thing and this real thing could really be resolved was an amazing feeling because I knew I would get better and I knew I could live my passion again which was coaching at the college level," Morgan said.

Morgan returned to the sidelines in 2011, joining the staff at Wake Forest. Then in 2014, she returned to James Madison.

"I needed to come home, and when this position opened, I knew 100 percent that I would fight like heck to get it back," Morgan said.

Three seasons later, at the age of 53, Morgan is feeling better than ever before.

"I feel like I play every play. I feel like my talk can influence the play. I feel like I can make an impact every second and I think that's why I love what I do," Morgan said.

Junior forward Melanie Kusakavitch gets emotional talking about the passion exhibited by her head coach.

"Having a coach like her just completely changes an experience. She's always pushing us in every which way possible, forcing us to become comfortable with the uncomfortable," Kusakavitch said.

Morgan admits she still can't believe she's back at JMU after the journey she's been through with her health.

"It's different because you know when something is taken away from you, and then you get it back, there's an even greater appreciation," Morgan said.

"To be back here, I see it as a blessing. Every single day."