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A Unique Runner

Despite Tourette's syndrome, Morgan is one of Canyon's best

November 25, 2002|John Ortega | Times Staff Writer

As they are before just about every big race, the high school runners competing in the Division I boys' race of the Southern Section cross-country championships are a bundle of nerves and excitement.

Some shake their arms and legs, perhaps in a nervous habit, perhaps trying to loosen up. Some take long, slow, deep breaths. Others seem deep in thought as they absently chew on their fingernails.

Ryan Morgan, a top runner from Canyon Country Canyon High, which has one of the best teams in the state, is among them. The senior looks calm, but his mind is in a full sprint even though his legs haven't started the race.

Because of illness, he and several teammates are at less than 100% for Saturday's race and he knows he needs a top effort to help his team advance to the state championships in Fresno in another week.

His goal had been to break the 15-minute barrier in what would be his last trip over Mt. San Antonio College's 2.91-mile course as a high school runner. But now those thoughts, which would have made him edgy enough, have taken a backseat to the needs of his team.

It is important for him to remain calm and keep his focus -- indeed, more important for him than any other runner in the race.

*

Flashback three years, to the early stages of what is the first Foothill League cross-country race of the 1999 season.

Morgan is racing alongside his teammates in the first 200 yards of the course at Griffith Park when he suddenly completes three consecutive 360-degree spins before continuing on.

Paul Broneer, Canyon's co-coach, recalls many spectators wondering what was happening. "They said, 'What's that guy doing? Is he showing off or what?' They didn't know about his condition."

Morgan has Tourette's syndrome, an inherited neurological condition characterized by repeated and involuntary body movements -- tics -- and uncontrollable vocal sounds.

He was a fifth grader when he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. The tics associated with Tourette's became prevalent about a year later.

"It started out as little things, like him making the sound of a bird chirping," his mother, Martha, said. "Then it developed into things like him doing a 360-degree spin or grabbing his leg and pulling it up toward him."

Dave DeLong, Canyon's other cross-country co-coach, recalls the tics being so violent that they would cause Morgan to yell and fall out of his chair during classes in his first year of high school.

The frequency of the tics only increased when Morgan got nervous or excited. In important competitions, he might do spins, or crouch to touch the ground behind him during a race.

But that was then, and this is now.

His tics, as he has grown older, are no longer as obvious. Now during a big race, they might show up every 200-300 yards in the form of a quick, skipping-like motion in his stride.

Other people, he knows, are disabled by Tourette's. As far as he is concerned, he is only inconvenienced.

"Tourette's doesn't bug me at all," Morgan said last week. "People always joked about it in my younger days, but it doesn't bother me now because everyone knows who I am and it gives me certain characteristics. Everyone says that if I didn't have it, I wouldn't be me."

It also isn't the only adversity he has had to overcome.

When he was very young, an injury restricted the flow of blood to an area near his left hip and caused the top of his thigh bone to die. In order to correct that, he wore a series of casts and leg braces.

Finally able to rid himself of the braces in fourth grade, he shortly thereafter was diagnosed with ADD. Two years after that, his father committed suicide.

That, Morgan said, was rock bottom.

"The last time I cried was the day my dad passed away," Morgan said. "Nothing can be as brutal as that."

*

A few minutes into Saturday's race, it's apparent that Morgan is running more conservatively than usual. Is that because he isn't feeling well, or because he is following directions?

He's in the top 20 or so in the 121-runner field, but his coaches have told him to hold back more than usual in order to conserve energy and not overdo it during the flat first mile of the race.

When Morgan ran 15 minutes 7 seconds to place fifth in the Southern Section Division I final over the same course last year, he passed the mile mark in a group of five that included Michael Poe of Etiwanda High.

Approaching the same point on Saturday, he has moved into the top dozen, only a few strides back of first-place Poe as the field begins its ascent up the switchbacks.

*

As a junior last year, Morgan was the No. 3 runner on a Canyon team ranked second nationally after winning Division I titles in the section and state championships.

Not bad for a guy who had never run on an organized level before high school.

Morgan became serious about running after his older brother, Drake, Canyon's school record-holder in the pole vault, suggested he go out for the cross-country team as a freshman.

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