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Asthma only half the Storey

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Gym 08_09 UK_UtahSt Web 47.jpgIn a way it's ironic that Storey Morris can even perform when the spotlight shines down on her when one considers how potentially tragic the eyes of an audience can be on her.

In a sport for where every move, gesture and landing is critiqued, anxiety must be mastered. For Morris, a sophomore on the UK gymnastics team, conquering it could mean life or death.

Morris has battled asthma since being diagnosed with the inflammatory disorder at 2. As a child in Tyler, Texas, Morris dealt with frequent asthma attacks, both minor and serious, where an emergency inhaler was always in her pocket and a nebulizer, a breathing machine, was always close by.

"There were a couple of Fourth of Julys where I had an asthma attack and had to go into the car to get away from the smoke," Morris said. "My mom just kept giving me the emergency inhalers."

Before her teenage years, Morris would have to take frequent breaks during her routines and practice just to get her breath back. She's developed bronchitis from the disorder, she takes Advair twice a day to combat the asthma, and she was rushed to see a doctor last year as a freshman because of the change in environment from Texas to Kentucky.

That's why it's so remarkable that Morris is even able to perform in a sport where every move can be scrutinized. There's anxiety and there's pressure, and when stress levels go up, asthma symptoms can often go into overdrive.

And yet Morris has learned to control her asthma in her sophomore year. In addition to a nagging ankle injury that shortened a disappointing freshman season, Morris has returned to the floor this year as strong as she's ever been.

In helping UK to its first victory over LSU in more than two decades, a 3-1 record and a No. 12 national ranking, the highest mark since 1998, Morris has captured two event titles on the beam and bars and another second place on the beam in a tournament in Las Vegas last weekend.

Clearly anxiety, and more importantly her asthma, has not been a problem.

"You're always going to be nervous before a meet no matter how long you've been competing," Morris said. "It's never been too severe or anything, only a little jittery."

The coaching staff at UK believes Morris has been able to overcome the inflammatory disorder because of her mental toughness.

"She's very mentally strong," head coach Mo Mitchell said. "What we expect to do on the competition floor they've been doing all their lives. What changes? The mental aspect of it. If you're not mentally tough and you don't have it upstairs, it will manifest itself in competition."

Morris, with the aid of the coaching staff and trainers, has been careful in her handling of the asthma. Morris has developed a trust with the staff that if she needs to stop doing something, she doesn't need to ask.

"The amazing thing is I knew she had asthma all throughout club gymnastics but you really didn't notice it a lot because she took care of herself," said assistant coach Chuck Dickerson, who coached Morris at the club level at Texas East Gymnastics. "She would keep it to herself. If she had to go do breathing treatments she would do it on her own. She was very self-efficient with it. Some days we would have to watch how many turns she took on floor routines and stuff, but you don't notice it much. She doesn't let it hinder her one bit. Still doesn't."

Morris and the staff have been so diligent in their work and preparation that her condition has started to elude some of the team.

"To be honest with you, I forgot she had asthma," Mitchell said.

The fact that Morris has been able to battle back from asthma and injury - she's still only about "90 percent" of the way back from  ankle surgery and is only competing on the beam and bars while she recovers - has helped turn around a disappointing 2009 season for the Cats into a promising-filled 2010.

UK has already knocked off a top-20 opponent in LSU and hopes to topple No. 4 Florida, a school the Cats have beaten just once in program history, this weekend at Memorial Coliseum. The Cats have already met the 195.525 mark this season, a feat they conquered just twice last year.

GYM 08_09 UK_ARK 11.jpgThe difference?

"Without a shadow of a doubt, attitude and level of expectations," Mitchell said. "We told them at the end of last year we're going to make some minor changes that are going to make some major differences. As far as we're concerned, raising the level of expectations is a minor change that makes a major difference.

"They've embraced the fact that they're tired of losing. They've embraced the fact that this is what we need to do to get better."

But getting better and changing that level of expectations has a lot to do with landing a healthy Morris. A star-studded recruit out of Texas, one who was the 2005 U.S. Challenge National All-Around champion, Morris chose Kentucky over top-20 schools like Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Missouri.

Mitchell believes she has the potential to be an All-American in three different events.
"Storey's just a phenomenal person," Mitchell said. "She's a 4.0 student, gets it done in the classroom, makes good, sound decisions outside of the classroom, she's well balanced both spiritually, emotionally, academically, athletically. If I could clone a student-athlete, she would be the prototype."

Morris has been a huge activist in combating asthma as well. Back home, she's become the poster child for overcoming it.

Her doctor in Texas, Paul Sharpy, who was affected by the loss of one his patients to asthma, reached out to Morris to help with an asthma awareness campaign he was starting. Sharpy purchased a bus to visit low-income families in Tyler to help kids with asthma, show them how to control it and provide medicine.

Morris made an eye-catching impression.

"Yeah, I'm on the side of a bus," Morris said, blushing.

But Morris' contributions have made a huge impact. Just recently the 5-foot-2 gymnast reached out to a young aspiring gymnast in Texas who was thinking about quitting the sport because of asthma. Morris inspired her to stick with it.

"I did it to inspire other kids who are struggling with their asthma and give them encouragement in any way I can," Morris said.

Morris' success has not only embodied the battle against asthma, it's personified the belief in this year's gymnastics team.

"We believe more now," Dickerson said. "I've been telling them the two years I've been here, just keep believing and you're going to see the fruit of your labor."

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