Club foot as victory’s foundation

GREENWOOD LAKE. Leila Morris, 13, has succeeded in national and international rowing competitions while overcoming foot, leg and spine structural challenges.

| 06 Sep 2022 | 09:51

When Bridget Morris, of Greenwood Lake, had a sonogram to check on the twins she expected in October of 2008, her obstetrician warned her that one was likely to be born with a club foot and possibly Down syndrome. Did she want an abortion?

“I said no without even looking at my husband,” Morris recalled.

Then when she first saw her daughter, Morris said, “I knew right away she didn’t have Down syndrome.” As for the club foot, she asked the doctor, “It’s just the foot, right?”

If the structural issue was just club foot disease, the treatment would have primarily required casting at birth and would have soon resolved, Morris said. But after surgeries beginning when Leila was two months old, doctors found that she also had a tethered spinal cord. So when Leila was five, she had neurosurgery.

“I was lucky enough to have good healthcare and an unstoppable daughter,” said Morris. “Despite wearing a cast or brace 24 hours a day, Laila would swing from monkey bars as a toddler. I later introduced her to swimming and then, three years ago, rowing.”

Leila and her twin brother Robert, who recently moved to Greenwood Lake from Tuxedo Park, swam competitively, Leila’s stroke being the butterfly. But as Covid-19 restrictions closed in, Leila and Robert swam in outdoor pools in November and December. They soon tired of swimming in the cold.

That was when Morris thought about rowing.

“I had zero exposure to rowing,” she said. “I’m a Puerto Rican from the Bronx projects. But we’re adventurous.”

Morris and her husband Robert had met working in the New York Police Department, she in the 44th Precinct, around Yankee Stadium, he in the Highway Patrol.

“Leila had been happy swimming, but I knew rowing is an NCAA sport,” Morris said, referring to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Even though Leila was not the minimum age of 13 for competition, she was allowed to compete because she was a strong swimmer, Morris said. One official cautioned her that she could only compete as a novice once, but she insisted.

So last fall she competed as a single against 19- and 20-year-olds in the Head of the Schuylkill race in Philadelphia that brings competitors from around the world. She took fourth place.

“Competing as a single at 12 is unusual,” Morris said. “Now they test 12-year-olds,” since Leila’s success.

In June, Leila competed in a quad, with her brother Robert as coxswain in the USRowing Youth National Championships in Sarasota, Florida.

“It’s the group that feeds the Olympic team,” said Morris. “They came in ninth in the nation.”

Then on July 30, Leila won a gold medal as a single at the Overpeck Summer Sprints.

“Her team, Rockland Rowing, is hoping they get selected for the Head of Charles in Boston on October 21-23,” said Morris.
”This is a big international race, but teams are selected for participation on a lottery system. Then the next big one where she will definitely compete is Head of the Schuykill in Philadelphia on October 29-30. That attracts the best athletes as well.”

She notes that Leila triumphed despite visible remnants of her structural issues--an underdeveloped calf muscle, two obviously different sized feet and a slight gait imbalance. Her medical treatment continued until last year. Morris is proud of how far her daughter has gone on those feet and offered Laila’s tale to demonstrate unpredictable possibilities.

Laila triumphed despite visible remnants of her birth deformities--an underdeveloped calf muscle, two obviously different sized feet and a slight gait imbalance.