By Sara Welch | Staff Writer
Holding her position, she waits for a signal to start.
She pushes one leg forward and then the other, maintaining a steady pace.
Racing against every second that accumulates as alternate feet hit the ground, she breezes by one competitor after another.
She reaches the finish line -- slowing, stopping and falling.
Kayla Montgomery's journey to the finish line can be explained in progressions similar to other runners; however, the fashion in which she completes every run is unique to her. Following every race her legs crumble beneath her as soon as she stops running. As she strides out to a brisk pace, her legs become numb and as a result, they will only support her while she is in motion.
Like many runners, Montgomery is racing against a clock, but in her case it doesn't stop once she's reached her target distance. Three years ago, after falling during a soccer game, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). An MRI revealed six lesions on her brain and spine that today cause the numbness in her legs. While many of her symptoms have benefited or disappeared because of medication, as long as she is able, she will probably always finish races the way she does now. For Montgomery, another run may not always be a guarantee.
"Of course nobody is going to run forever, that's for sure," Kayla's grandfather Wendell Montgomery said. "We try to take it a day at a time and enjoy it. We like to watch her. She's going to Lipscomb University in Nashville. Lord willing, if our health (his and his wife's) stays good, we'd like to attend some meets down there too."
Wendell and his wife Louise have travelled half a dozen times from their home in Diamond, Ohio, to Winston-Salem, N.C., and surrounding cities where Kayla competes for Mount Tabor High School in cross country, indoor track and track. Wendell and his wife aren't deterred by the eight-hour drive or Kayla's unpleasant finishes because like so many others, they have been inspired by her determination.
"If you're going to go out and run 50 miles a week and do the things she does, you have to be hard working and set high goals. She's very goal oriented and expects a lot from herself," Wendell said.
Both of Kayla's parents, Keith and Alysia Montgomery, graduated from Southeast High School.
Kayla attended Tappen Elementary School in Ravenna until fourth grade when her family relocated to North Carolina and left all of their extended family behind.
While her paternal grandparents have been fortunate enough to see her run against the odds, her maternal grandparents have also journeyed to her races.
Debbie and Dik Lawrence have made the trip to five races with the farthest in Raleigh, N.C. -- a 10-hour drive.
"She takes my breath away," Debbie said with a sigh. "It's just amazing and scary and very emotional to watch her run. Watching her collapse at the end, it's just really scary, but Kayla has more determination and gumption than probably any of the kids I know. I don't think she even thinks about it. She concentrates on the job she has to do and getting it done."
Despite the additional obstacles Kayla has to face, all of her doctors have told her that exercise is beneficial and can only help her in the long run. No one has informed her that excessive running could be troublesome, according to her mother. Kayla is as passionate about running today, despite the difficulties, as she was when she fell in love with it in seventh grade.
"After being diagnosed, running became a little more important to me because I'm not really guaranteed to be able to run forever," Kayla said. "I just make the most of it and try to do my best every day."
Running under her circumstances and living day to day with MS has become routine and while it's still challenging, it's not as much of a struggle for her as it once was. The meticulous nature of the sport has actually helped Kayla deal with her condition more seamlessly than she might have otherwise.
"The running lifestyle really helped after I was diagnosed to kind of keep up with the idea of structured living and maintaining a healthy lifestyle as much as I can," she said.
Since Kayla was diagnosed, she has not only lived with and accepted her condition, but proven it's possible to excel with MS. Last fall she won the Class 4A individual state championship with a time of 17:29.12 and recorded North Carolina's top 5K performance of the season with a time of 17:22 at November's Foot Locker South Regional championships -- the fastest time in the history of the event by a non-qualifying female athlete.
Furthermore, she has kept a 4.64 weighted grade-point average.
"I'm incredibly proud of her because she could have completely gone to the woe is me," Alysia said. "She's never had that doubt in her mind. She knew she was going to do something amazing with this and it makes me so proud of her. She hasn't taken that negative route. She's gone above and beyond to make sure that it's been a positive experience and not a negative thing in her life. She wasn't going to let it define her by any stretch of the imagination. She's going to make her life what she wants it to be and I'm incredibly proud of her."
Kayla has been recognized for her accomplishments by the New York Times, USA Today, ESPN, Runner's World, The Today Show and she was also name the Gatorade Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year. While her individual accolades continue to pile up -- and as the national spotlight has focused on her -- the most important thing to her is to continue to raise awareness about MS.
"My primary goal is to try to raise awareness because that's the only way we're going to be able to potentially find a cure in the future," she said. "At first, it was really surprising. I didn't expect that many people to be interested in my story, but it's also really exciting to be able to help raise awareness for MS and to inspire others who might not feel like they can't continue doing the things they love anymore. It's exciting in a way and a little overwhelming too."
She's been told by everyone from family members to people she's never met that her story has inspired them to do more with what they've been given.
"I think it's wonderful, especially because Kayla is a very shy girl," Lawrence said. "The fact that she's put herself in the spotlight is really something else. That's not her. She's very humble. She's the first one to give praise for someone else -- not seek it for herself. She's the wind beneath my wings. I think she always strives to do her very best in every aspect of everything she does. The fact that she is trying to help others, especially youth, is amazing. A lot of people think of MS as an adult's disease and it's not. The fact she's getting that awareness out means a lot."
Before the end of her high school career, along with juggling her mission to change the perception of MS, Kayla would like to improve her record of 10:42 in the two mile and break five minutes in the mile.
"I race against other opponents, but my main goals are to just keep improving and get new personal records," Kayla said. "I'm always kind of racing against myself."
Although her legs may not have the ability to support her across the distances they now carry her, she's made it clear she's not afraid to keep pushing herself and to stand for something more while she's able.