JMU’s Christy Morgan finds life after so many nights of feeling like death

For 48 hours, she could run through brick walls. The next 18, it felt as if she’d been picked up and tossed into one by some unseen giant.

“I thought I was going to die,” was how James Madison field hockey coach Christy Morgan described it. “I thought I was going to fade away and die. The more I ate ‘well,’ or what I thought was eating well, the sicker I got.”

Her body was trying to tell her something, when it wasn’t screaming nonsense or playing yo-yo tricks with her noggin. For more than 17 years, Morgan has battled celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the intake of gluten — as in wheat, rye, barley — wreaks holy havoc on the intestines. Except it hasn’t been what you’d call a remotely fair fight. Until 2010, the Pennsylvania native had no idea what was going on, other than she was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

“I was so happy that there was an answer,” said Morgan, whose Dukes kick off their spring calendar this weekend with a trip to Pennsylvania for the Lancaster Cup. “Because after a while, when you’re so tired all the time, you think you’re crazy.”

She wasn’t. But the fine print on celiac is a little nuts: gluten can cause, as a best-case scenario, severe discomfort and chronic fatigue. At worst, it attacks the intestines to such a degree that it affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients properly. Left untreated, it can open the door to other autoimmune disorders such as Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, anemia and osteoporosis — or even lead to epilepsy or intestinal cancer. According to statistics, celiac is found in roughly 3 million Americans, or one out of every 100, including current and former NFL standouts such as Drew Brees and Cedric Benson.

“I learned that, gosh, there’s gluten in envelopes, if you lick the paste in envelopes,” Morgan said. “There’s gluten in lip gloss. There’s gluten in sunscreen. I would work camps all day long and wonder why I was so exhausted at the end of the day. I was lathering up with sunscreen that was full of gluten, full of wheat.”

March is National Nutrition Month, and Morgan wants her narrative — Olympian, championship college coach, early retiree, Hall of Famer, response team member, life coach, wellness coach, college coach again — to serve as an example of finding life after so many nights of feeling like death.

“There are so many people that have (shown) the symptoms,” Morgan said, “and then friends of friends I know that have gone through this experience, they call me. They have their parents that are going through this experience call me. It’s comforting to know that you can get to the other side. I’m on the other side.”

Celiac is often passed down through heredity, but Morgan said she didn’t know of any family history, nor did she experience any prior indicators growing up. As a player, she was a wizard with the stick, a key cog in three NCAA champion field hockey squads at Old Dominion (1982, ’83 and ’84). The forward was on the U.S. National Team from 1982-90 and the U.S. Olympic team in 1988. She’d scored four goals in the 1987 Pan-American Games to help the Stars & Stripes secure a silver medal.

Morgan turned up at JMU in 1991 and built a beast, being tapped as the 1993 Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year. Over nine seasons, the Dukes went to the NCAA tourney five times, winning a national crown in 1994.

After crushing career fastball after career fastball, a mountain-biking trip to Utah four years later threw her coaching path an unexpected curve. Morgan had contracted mono, “and it wasn’t diagnosed for a long time … that illness triggered the celiac,” she noted. “They say sometimes it can be triggered by a virus. Putting all the pieces together after the fact, that’s what they think happened.”

Eating hurt. One problem: Not eating hurt even more.

“I was just weak all the time and I lost a lot of weight and I would have brain fogs,” she said. “I was just so sick, I couldn’t think clearly. I just didn’t have the energy to give the kids what they deserved. And I went to so many doctors in Harrisonburg (Va.) and D.C. and Charlottesville (Va.) and no one could figure it out.”

Frustrated, she left JMU in 2000 to rest up and consider her options. The next year, Davidson called to gauge Morgan’s interest in their head job.

“I thought, ‘OK, I need to figure this out,’” she recalled. “So I started juicing everything and thought, ‘I’m just brilliant.’ I went to Davidson and started eating like an athlete again and got sick again.”

After just one season, her body still her own worst enemy, Morgan walked away again. Ostensibly for good.

“That gave me time to heal,” she said. “I gave up on doctors figuring this out. I figured I was going to slowly die or something.”

Preferring to fade out by a beach, Morgan moved to Florida and retrenched. In addition to running field hockey camps, she joined a crisis response team — “I was open to anything,” Morgan said — and became certified as both a life coach and a wellness coach. The passions were new, but the constant energy crashes were getting old.

“I kind of had to re-invent myself as a person,” Morgan said. “As an athlete, (the body) is your tool, and my body was just breaking down and not doing what I needed it to do, what I wanted it to do. I had to kind of re-invent myself and find ways to make a living, ways to make a difference. It was tough, but it taught me a lot.”

In 2010, the brain fog finally lifted. A friend of a friend suggested an alternative and a breakthrough came through holistic medicine. Morgan took a blood test that affirmed her trials as celiac. A slew of puzzle pieces fell into place.

“(Friends) are like, ‘Don’t you miss bread?’ Well, once you get used to it, you’re so happy that you feel well that your tastes change,” Morgan explained, “and you get that you’re going to have to sacrifice things to feel well.”

Morgan found herself feeling better by the day, well enough to resume full-time Division I coaching again. She joined Wake Forest as an associate head coach in 2010, and when her old job — the JMU job — opened in 2014, she pounced.

“It was very different in those (’90s) years,” Morgan said. “Those years, I did my job, I did my job well, (but) it was hard to push through and have the energy to give the kids what they needed. And now, I’m good. I feel great, I have great energy and they’re getting everything that I can give. And that’s a lot right now.”

Last fall, the Dukes wound up 14-6 and in the CAA title game; Morgan was again named the circuit’s Coach of the Year. She’s turned JMU into one of those incredible career second acts, a chestnut about the joys of coming home — the long way ’round.

“I love it,” Morgan chuckled. “I almost pinch myself driving to campus every day. I’ve got to say: It’s just a great place for me. I wish I didn’t have (celiac), but it’s all manageable. And to feel the way I feel now compared to how I felt, I feel blessed. I do.”

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