Cunningham overcomes crash, breaks out for women’s cross-country

After suffering a broken neck and a shattered skull in the summer of 2015, senior Megan Cunningham has become a key runner for Mizzou women’s cross-country in 2017.

Photo by Jeff Curry Courtesy of Mizzou Athletics

Megan Cunningham was sleeping in the back seat of the truck while her parents were driving.

The redshirt senior runner had finished her sophomore track season at Missouri two months earlier and was riding with her father while her mother was driving. The family was on its annual road trip to visit Cunningham’s grandparents in Wyoming.

Suddenly, Cunningham woke up in the backseat and felt both the truck and the camper attached to it sway.

Cunningham then looked outside her mom’s window at the camper.

After the camper began swaying, Cunningham’s mom lost control of the truck, and it turned over and rolled off of the highway.

“I saw the camper outside of my mom’s window,” Cunningham said. “The next thing I know we were going perpendicular to the road. Then we rolled five times and then I remember waking up and remember not being able to see anything.”

After the crash, Cunningham remember her vision being pitch-black. She swayed in and out of consciousness until she woke up in the ICU.

There, Cunningham's vision was still pitch-black.

She couldn’t see the blood all over her body, she couldn’t see that she had suffered a broken neck in four places and she couldn’t see the stitches the doctors were giving her.

“I had no idea what was going on,” Cunningham said. “I was so disoriented. I remember how one of the doctors said they would give me stitches. Then I started freaking out because I’m afraid of needles. I couldn't see where I was bleeding or what was happening. I remember how they said they would cut off my clothes and remember freaking out about what I was wearing,”

The crash left Cunningham with a neck broken in four places, a shattered skull and bleeding inside her brain that made a return to cross-country unlikely, or at least a long way away.

Cunningham’s journey to regain her running ability included a long stint of rehabilitation. Her rehab forced her to miss the 2015 and 2016 cross-country seasons as she worked her way toward rejoining the team.

“I took the attitude of starting over,” Cunningham said. “I wanted to be able to run again. I would push myself to go a little bit further every day. It was a slow day-by-day process. I knew it was gonna take time for me to be able to run again, for me to ever run a mile again. The thought of being able to run again and do what I love to do motivated me to take it slow and to take it one step at a time.”

Going through rehab while also coping with her family’s injuries was a hard process for Cunningham. Cunningham suffered injuries similar to her father’s, who is now a quadriplegic.

Cunningham said her father helped her stay positive throughout rehab and continues to help her keep positive today.

“He keeps a positive attitude and has a smile every day,” Cunningham said. “He helps me keep a smile on my face in my life and be positive with everything around me.”

Cunningham still deals with effects from her injuries. When she returned to practice, she experienced dizziness and headaches, and these symptoms continue today.

“The hardest part was getting dizzy from my headaches,” Cunningham said. “My vision will go black, and I won’t be able to see anything at all. I have to be able to accept, if that’s the only thing. I’m lucky to be back doing what I love at Mizzou. I’m trying to learn how to cope with it better.”

To help with rehab, Cunningham got up at 6:30 in the morning and walked around the track to join her teammates during practice.

“It was really hard,” Cunningham said. “I wanted to feel a part of the team, so I came to practice every single day and would walk. I wanted to stay as part of the team as I could. I used the team as a crutch and a way of distracting what was going on at home. Staying at practice helped keep my mind off of everything.”

After a long process of walking and eventually running on her own, Cunningham was finally able to rejoin her teammates for a run.

“I smiled the whole time,” Cunningham said. “We only ran 2 miles, but it was such a great experience. Being able to participate with someone was a great feeling.”

Cunningham was able to return to compete in the 2017 indoor and outdoor track seasons. Head coach Marc Burns was glad to see all of Cunningham’s effort rewarded once she returned to the track.

“It was incredible for her to get back on the track because it was a long process,” Burns said. “A really rewarding feeling for her. She was smart in her recovery. She had a lot of emotional healing. That’s really hard on anybody.”

Burns also gave the team doctors credit for aiding Cunningham’s development. The sports medicine department communicated daily with Burns and Cunningham to assist in the rehab process.

“A lot of credit needs to go to the sports medicine and team doctors,” Burns said. “They made sure her long-term health was the primary concern. Now to see her at an elite level is pretty incredible.”

Cunningham finished her comeback track season with a personal record of 16:48.48 in the 5K at last season’s Drake Relays. That time was over a minute faster than her 5K time of 17:49.86 at the Tom Botts Invitational in 2015, Cunningham’s last race before she suffered her injuries in July 2015.

Cunningham entered this year’s cross-country season completely unsure about how she would perform. Because she hadn’t raced since the 2014 cross-country season, Cunningham felt like she had a fresh start with the sport.

“I came into the season with no expectation of where I was gonna be,” Cunningham said. “I thought I was starting over with the sport again. It was nice going into the meet not knowing what to expect. I’m very excited to be back.”

Cunningham started the season with a sixth-place finish at the JK Gold Classic and then broke out with a seventh-place finish at the Cowboy Jamboree by finishing with a personal record of 21:07.1 in the 6K. Cunningham solidified her place as the Tigers’ No. 2 runner when she finished 62nd at the Pre-National Invitational with another personal record of 20:50.9.

Cunningham’s breakout has revived the Tigers’ postseason hopes after the team was decimated by injuries early in the season.

“It’s made a huge difference,” Burns said. “We saw it start to happen at the end of the spring in track. She put in work over the summer and took everything to another level. She is at a substantial difference from last spring.”

The Tigers lost redshirt senior Kaitlyn Fischer, a former All-SEC and All-Midwest Region selection, earlier this season to a stress fracture. Missouri was also without senior and returning All-American Jamie Kempfer for most of the season. Kempfer made her debut at Friday’s SEC championship but is still recovering from a hip injury.

Burns saw signs of Cunningham’s breakout at the end of the 2017 track season and is impressed with the way she has become a key runner for the Tigers.

“Her coming back has been a pretty inspirational story,” Burns said. “She has stepped into that position we need filled. Jamie hasn’t gotten back to the way she was. It’s given us hope to put things together in two weeks and make it to the NCAA meet.”

Entering the Midwest Regional, the Tigers are counting on Cunningham as a top-three option, along with Kempfer and senior Karissa Schweizer, in the Tigers’ quest to qualify for a national championship berth two years straight. Cunningham hopes to carry out that responsibility.

“I want to place as highly as I can to help the team out,” Cunningham said. “I want to be All-Region. I want to help my team make it back to nationals and I want to help the team and be as competitive as it can be.”

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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