Heather Morgan, who uses a wheelchair due to an undiagnosed muscular condition, knows the “euphoric” feeling of crossing the finish line after a gruelling triathlon.
With help from her husband, Trevor, she experienced it firsthand at the Barrie Triathlon on Aug. 12.
She wants other people with accessibility issues to feel that same sense of accomplishment.
Morgan is raising money to purchase a wheelchair specially designed for triathlons, which could then be shared through an organization called My Team Triumph.
“The race is only one little part of it,” she told BarrieToday during an interview at her home. “It’s also the training and going out in the middle of winter, with all of the ice and snow. It’s not just the accomplishment of crossing the line; it’s the accomplishment of showing up, having done all of those things.”
At the Barrie Triathlon, the Morgans used their special chair, which allows Trevor to push it during the run and tow it during the bike portion. Her husband, who is a veteran triathlete, pulls her in a dinghy for the swim.
“He provides the power and I provide the motivation,” she said with a big smile.
The racing chairs aren’t cheap, however, carrying a $13,000 price tag, but Morgan said My Team Triumph receives a charitable discount, which brings the cost down to $8,000.
“That’s still a huge amount of money for a family that has to deal with accessible transportation, ramps in their houses and lifts, and all of the medical supplies that aren’t covered (by OHIP),” she said.
Morgan says it’s all about community.
“One of the things that keeps us going is community and that’s why we want to give back,” she said. “It’s the only thing that’s gotten us through. There’s just no way to do this by ourselves.
“There’s nothing that replaces community, because those are your cheerleaders in life. Everybody needs the opportunity to have a community come around them and have a cheerleading squad,” said Morgan, adding she hopes the racing chair is just the start of something bigger and better.
Morgan, who turned 39 recently, suffers from a severe muscle weakness. In the past, she was able to manage it for a week or two, but that all changed.
In October 2016, Morgan said she was volunteering with a local organization by cleaning out a home to prepare it for a new resident. The next day, she couldn’t get out of bed.
“The way it happened, it was pretty sudden,” said Morgan, who moved to Barrie with her husband a decade ago from Mississauga. “It’s rough. I’m a parent of two teenagers. You’re used to running around and doing errands, you’re used to working, you’re used to washing dishes and cooking meals.
“Everything fell apart.”
From there, things steadily worsened.
“The rest of my body just quit one day,” she said. “We finally started visiting the ERs until someone would take me seriously.”
Tests came back normal, but she suspects it’s genetic, as there’s a family history with similar symptoms, although nothing to the degree in which Morgan has been afflicted.
“They’ve known something was wrong since I was a little kid,” she said. “I got much, much worse in the last couple of years, ended up in a wheelchair and in bed. We’re slowly trying to figure out what to do next while we wait for a diagnosis.”
As a child, it was very hard on her.
“As a kid with a disability that’s not well understood and that isn’t properly diagnosed, sports for me were always something I was left out of,” she said. “I was sidelined. I was benched at recess. I was benched in gym class.
“Sports was never exciting for me, because why would it be exciting if you can’t be part of them? So this is really where the passion comes from, to be able to raise money for other kids and adults to be able to participate.”
By being able to get out and take part, Morgan says it has helped her psychological and physical well-being to a “phenomenal” extent.
“There’s something in us as human beings that’s designed to move at a running or biking pace,” she said. “The same things that make you feel healthier if you go for a run also make me feel healthier going for a run; even if my heart rate never goes up and even though I’m not using my muscles, I still get some of that physiological improvement.
“There’s something about how our brains are wired that we need to move at that speed,” Morgan added. “I don’t understand it, but I experience it every single time.”
Morgan said there are only a few hundred people in all of North America who take part in accessible racing, but she hopes to change that by “showing up and making some noise.”
Despite major advancements in para-sports, Morgan said more needs to be done, particularly in areas where a person can’t self-propel.
“In Canada, there’s still very little accessibility for those with severe disabilities,” she said. “ParaSport in Ontario and in Canada is fabulous, but for those who fall outside of that scope, there’s very limited options.”
To help in her quest to buy a special racing chair, visit www.gofundme.com/accessible-racing-poweredbyloveca. You can also read her blog at www.poweredbylove.ca. For more information on My Team Triumph Canada, visit www.mttcanada.org.