Jan 23, 2020

From Shattered Skull to Shattering Expectations

By Rita Giordano

Megan Cunningham was dozing off in the back seat of a truck driven by her mother, Denise, en route to a family camping trip in Wyoming in July 2015 when she heard her father suddenly shout “Slow down!” and saw their new camper swing, horrifyingly, around the side of the truck.

And then everything went black.

The rollover ultimately left Joe Cunningham, an elevator mechanic, paralyzed from the chest down. Megan Cunningham’s skull was fractured in more 20 places and her neck was broken in four. “Impressive” was the word the doctors used for her injuries.

In the Kansas hospital where Cunningham was taken after the crash, she insisted on letting her coaches at the University of Missouri-Columbia – where she had just finished her sophomore track and cross country season – know that she wanted to redshirt that fall. That was before she realized that she might never walk again, let alone run.

Brett Halter, Mizzou’s head coach of men’s and women’s track and field, and Mark Burns, her event coach, traveled to Kansas to visit Cunningham while she was still in the hospital.

“We’re walking out of there thinking, ‘If this kid makes it, is she going to have a normal life?’” Halter recalled.

Her doctors were leery about Cunningham even going back to school, but she insisted. And although she was forbidden from undertaking any physical activity that would raise her heart rate, by August she was showing up at cross country practice so that she could at least be with her team.

“In a crisis situation, you need your family, and her team was a family,” said Halter. “It was never about running. That was so far away from even our imaginations. It was about, ‘Let the kid stay connected to help her get through this thing and make sure she can finish her education.’”

Cunningham, now 24, had her own ideas.

For someone who initially joined the track team in elementary school just because it meant a day off from school, she had grown to love running. In high school, she did her part as a member of a state championship team.

So, the fall semester after the accident, she showed up at practices and walked. At first, even that was hard.

“I could hardly make it from the parking lot to the track, which was probably about 200 meters,” Cunningham said.

After a couple of months, she was cleared to start exercising, first on a stationary bike. After a while, she tried jogging. Then she started working with a trainer, who helped ease her back to running.

“I basically felt like a newborn deer,” Cunningham said. “It felt very unnatural. It was just very, very gradual.”

Since there was no protocol for coming back from injuries like hers, she learned to listen to her body, just feeling her way from one day to the next.

In February 2016, Cunningham ran in the Missouri Collegiate Challenge. Her time wasn’t even close to her best, but she finished. She remembers that she couldn’t stop smiling.

Halter said he began to get reports that Cunningham, who had been a capable runner but not the best, was looking pretty good.

“Probably one of the hidden blessings here is that she wasn’t the No. 1 kid, so she could kind of take her time,” the coach said. “Megan was able to stay steady and just try to focus on herself.”

She just got better and better. Then, in her senior year, just two years after that shaky first return run, Cunningham blasted through and won the SEC indoor championships at 5000 meters.

“It was just an absolute dominating effort,” Halter said.

A few months later, the runner who some feared might never walk again won a second SEC title, this time at 10,000 meters.

Her miraculous comeback earned her the prestigious national Honda Inspiration Award, given annually to a female NCAA athlete who has overcome extraordinary physical or emotional adversity. That was after she’d been honored at Mizzou with its courage award – which was renamed the Megan Cunningham Inspiration Award.

A high-achieving student as well, she was accepted into Eastern Virginia Medical School. But she wasn’t quite done yet with running. For the heck of it, she entered a 10K race near her new school and won. That caused a local stir. She started training again.

Then it came to her attention that the qualifying time for the Olympic Marathon Trials was 2:45. Maybe she could do it, she thought. In fall of 2019, she ran the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Her time was 2:41:15, easily beating the standard in her first attempt at the distance.

Cunningham’s parents have always been their only child’s biggest fans. In the early days after the accident, part of Megan’s motivation to push herself and not give up was her dad. Her drive and her determination to never, ever, give up has in turn inspired him again and again.

“It’s amazed me because, really, before the accident, she was running OK, she was like middle of the pack. But after she recovered from her accident, she got motivated to do the best she could and she just went up from there,” said Joe Cunningham, who has been able to see Megan race only once since the crash because travel is so difficult for him. “The sky’s the limit.”

His pony-tailed daughter has long been a striver. “She always took her studies really seriously. She always took her running real seriously.”  Whatever she might have lacked in natural ability, dad said, “she makes up for by her work ethic.”

 “She earned it,” said Joe Cunningham, 61, of his Comeback Kid. “She didn’t do it the easy way.”

For now, Cunningham is back home in Missouri, taking a leave from med school to prepare for the Trials in topography closer to the challenge of hilly Atlanta.

“I just want to use this opportunity to continue to grow and have the opportunity to race against the best women in the country,” Cunningham said. “Just being in the same event as them, having that opportunity is incredible. I want to be able to learn from them and, on that day, just put myself up in the mix and see what I can do.”

She says she’s not thinking about a spot on the Olympic team – at least not this time around. She’s leaving that door open for the future. 

Given what this odds-defying Missourian has managed so far, don’t bet against her.

Photos: Jeff Curry/University of Missouri Athletics; Courtesy of Megan Cunningham