A roaring beat echoed throughout Carmichael Arena, eliciting shrieks from a cluster of elementary-school girls in the crowd. The youngsters started dancing along with Morgan Lane, smiles stretched across their faces. When she hit her final pose, their squealing drowned out the applause from other onlookers.
“We love you Morgan,” they screamed during the award ceremony. She turned around and flashed a big smile to the three girls who called her name. When the meet came to a close, a couple of journalists headed in Morgan’s direction to interview the North Carolina gymnastics star, who will lead her team to Raleigh in the EAGL Championships on Saturday at 2 p.m.
“Can you just excuse me a for a few minutes?” she told the journalists before bounding over to her little fan group. The three young gymnasts were elated, their smiles only widening as they listened to their role model.
“I’m going to come back in a couple years,” Morgan told them. “I’m going to be the one standing there, and you’re going to be the one standing here signing the poster for me."
This is no longer about her. Yes, her competitive nature desires the accolades she's racked up — like the first team All-EAGL honors she earned this season and the first-team All-Tournament honors she earned on the bars, balance beam, floor and all-around last year. Who wouldn’t? But that wasn't why she worked so hard. Each flip, each leap, each step was for something more.
‘Make the time’
There was Morgan, in the plant again. She was always found climbing onto something, her energy never depleting. The only solution for her parents was to enroll her in Mommy and Me gymnastics classes.
“Both of her sisters did gymnastics, so it made sense to also put her in the classes,” said her mom, Cindy Mason. “She absolutely loved it and became very passionate.”
Despite not having a nearby gym to call home, Morgan's parents drove her to wherever practices were. Her mom even offered to make a 90-minute round trip to a better gym so her daughter could grow as a gymnast. Morgan didn't take the offer — she couldn't do that to her parents — but her mother's selflessness earned Morgan's respect.
“I know now that I’m older that she would do everything and anything possible to put me in the best position to succeed,” she said.
Though UNC was three states away from her hometown of Columbus, Ind., Morgan's parents — both Duke graduates — were supportive of their daughter’s decision to come to North Carolina. But it took a little convincing for her father, John Lane.
“I tease my dad all the time ... I would make sure for Christmases and birthdays to always buy him something UNC as a little joke ...” Morgan said.
“My dad’s reasoning for letting me go here was that Duke doesn’t have a gymnastics team.”
Although she's over 600 miles away from her entire family, Morgan’s parents are always right beside her. Whether it’s advice on a big decision or late-night homework help, Cindy and John would do anything for their youngest child — even drive nine hours just to see their daughter compete.
“Now if I call her up saying ‘Mom, I need this,’ she’ll say ‘Okay, I’m on it,’” Morgan said. “My parents make the time to come to pretty much every single one of our meets. It’s a big time commitment.”
‘Mo is a legend’
Five years, five coaches. Then four gyms, but none were home. That’s how Morgan’s gymnastics career started out after Mommy and Me classes. Once Morgan's parents found a steady coach, the gym went bankrupt, displacing the team. Most of Morgan’s friends quit the team and joined the school’s teams.
Her friends, gone. Her gym, gone. Her drive, slowly fading. She was alone.
As the lone Level 10 competitor of the team, Morgan found it hard to stay motivated, to grow and get better. But she didn’t quit like those around her had. She held on.
She wanted to mentor the girls.
“Seeing her interact with younger gymnasts just warms your heart,” Cindy said. “She was a role model.”
This leadership role came with a cost. While her friends were making memories, Morgan was either studying or practicing. Having a cousin nine months older helped Morgan find a friend group, but it wasn’t the same. She stuck with club gymnastics, her eyes set on the collegiate level.
It didn’t go as planned.
“When I started looking at colleges, a lot of the colleges were like, 'No we don’t have any spots left, you can’t be on our team,'” Morgan said. “That was very frustrating.”
She didn’t give up. She knew her place was out there somewhere, but she didn’t know that it would be her parents’ rival school.
“It was the best fit for her,” Cindy said. “The coaches were supportive, and it felt like home.”
After walking onto the North Carolina team, Morgan didn’t expect to compete. But she surprised head coach Derek Galvin. Everyone knew she had a great foundation, thanks to her former coach Gary Stam, but Galvin expected it would take time for her to adapt to the environment.
They were wrong.
“By November of her freshman year, I realized she was really special,” Galvin said. “Up to that point, I knew she was an exceptional student, a talented athlete. But as a competitive gymnast, it wasn’t until November that we realized, ‘OK, this young lady is going to do some cool stuff.’”
Her team instantly became a support system for Morgan, almost to the same extent as she was for them. UNC was a home away from home, a second family, the group she wanted to make proud when she competed. And as she grew athletically and adjusted to her new home, her leadership started to shine through — just like it had in high school with her young team.
“She was destined to do whatever she set her mind to,” Stam said. “The younger girls in the gym really looked up to her for that, constantly following her around. Mo is a legend here.”
‘Audience of one’
Beep, beep, beep.
The scent of java fills the room as a faint noise echoes, signaling to the early riser that her day had begun. Morgan fills her cup with the warm coffee before sitting down, her Bible open in front of her. She dives into the Word, beginning her daily quiet time with the Lord.
From a young age, Morgan remembers going to the Methodist church. As time went on, her heart was no longer in it, and her attendance dropped as gymnastics took the household by storm. Weekends were for competing somewhere across the country — there wasn't time for church.
“We would go every now and then," Morgan said, "but it wasn’t a huge thing.”
High school hit, and as gymnastics dominated Morgan's life, she found holes in other places. She knew she needed a change. So she started going to church every Sunday, sometimes alone if her family was busy. But her faith still hadn't taken hold of her life.
“It was still life things and church off to the side,” Morgan said.
That changed when she came to UNC. Morgan joined Athletes In Action (AIA), a sports ministry on campus, and went to a Summit Church satellite service with some of her teammates.
“Being a part of AIA taught me that I’m competing for an audience of one,” Morgan said. “Ultimately, it’s helped me to realize that I am not a gymnast. I am, but that’s not what defines me.”
“It makes stepping out onto the competition floor so much easier, realizing that I can fall all over the place, but I am still a daughter of Christ, and he’s going to love me no matter what.”
It’s no longer about Morgan, and maybe it never was. When she looks up into the stands at the EAGL Championship on Saturday, the smile will be because of her family cheering her on, her team dancing behind her, a coach that saw the light within her, a God who loves her no matter if she falls.
And the little girls shouting her name.
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