After accident, Morris ready to return to competition

Tom Morris, a strength and conditioning coach for IU's men's soccer team, oversees a post-practice stretch in 2013. (Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times)
Tom Morris, a strength and conditioning coach for IU’s men’s soccer team, oversees a post-practice stretch in 2013. (Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times)
It was May 17, 2014, the two-year anniversary of the accident that changed his life.

But this day was not about Tom Morris. It was about a 7-year-old girl and the fulfillment of a request.

Zoe Gray had only recently learned how to ride her bike, and it was a cool bike, painted silver and green. You know who else had a cool bike? Tom Morris.

Morris’ bike was different, of course. It was a hand cycle, which Morris, Indiana’s strength and conditioning coach for men’s soccer and women’s basketball, had barely learned to use after his mountain biking accident two years earlier left him paralyzed and without the use of both legs.

Zoe knew and looked up to Morris through his relationship with her father, Jeremy, IU’s associate athletic director for strategic communications and fan experience, and when Zoe learned that he, too, had a new bike, she asked to go for a ride.

Morris obliged.

“We all went out to Clear Creek Trail, and it was awesome,” Morris said. “It took me forever and the little kids were kicking my butt. I couldn’t come close to keeping up with them, but that’s how it started. … She wanted to go for a ride and now, here we are.”

Indeed, four years removed from his accident, Morris is ready to return to competition and compete in his first triathlon since his paralysis.

This weekend, at the Maytag Ironman Steelhead 70.3 in Benton Harbor, Mich., he’ll have the chance to do so. It’s the first major competition Morris has entered since his mountain biking accident in 2012. He’ll handcycle 56 miles through the course, while friend Jason Dierking, the assistant director of Olympic sports performance at Louisville, swims 1.2 miles and his wife, Christa, runs the final 13.1 miles.

Prior to the mountain biking accident that fractured his C-6 vertebrae, Morris was an avid adventure racer and triathlete. A year into his recovery, one of Morris’ stated goals was to compete in a triathlon again. Although he cannot walk and future mobility outside of his wheelchair is questionable, Morris continues on a daily path toward independence.

Sunday’s race is another checkpoint in Morris’ redemption.

“Just thinking about it tears me up,” said Christa, who works as an academic advisor for IU’s football team. “Not for any reason, because I know he can do it. It’s just that life is back. I feel like it’s another aspect of our life that’s back.”

Morris’ devotion to the hand cycle began on that sunny, spring afternoon in 2014, which just happened to come two years to the day of the accident.

The bunch of them — Tom and Christa Morris, Jeremy and his wife Abby, and their two children, Zoe and Jonah — were set for a five-mile bike ride through Clear Creek Trail on Bloomington’s south side.

Zoe zipped along while Morris struggled, but by the end of their course, Morris wanted more. He saw a steep hill and wanted to test himself, forcing his way up the incline.

The rest of the group pushed ahead, and at least a couple times, Jeremy and Christa circled back to make sure he could do it.

“It was hard,” Jeremy said. “We went back down and had to go the entire distance back to where we had all parked our cars and Tom was definitely slow and struggling. You could tell he was doing the workout grunt on his way back.”

But this was only the beginning for Morris and his return to biking.

Slowly, he overcame the awkwardness of the bike and learned the turning mechanisms. He later secured a grant that helped him purchase another bike and the training progressed.

He rides different routes around Bloomington, aiming to hit between 20-50 miles per day. Often, he’ll leave his office on the ground floor of Memorial Stadium’s North End Zone complex and bike through a 30-mile loop in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest.

“My wife would tell you, she’s scared to death when I’m out riding, but what ends up happening is you just keep getting more and more confidence in yourself,” Morris said. “Every time I leave, I call her and make sure I tell her exactly which route I’m on and when I should be back.”

Morris and his wife train together, too, and he also has others at IU, like fellow strength coach Chris Virtue and the Grays, who are willing to tag along.

“It’s amazing to see how far Tom has come in that short amount of time,” Jeremy said. “Watching him cycle and being lapped by a 7-year-old to now going 25 miles an hour is an amazing transformation.”

It is progress that Morris admits was not possible merely on his own.

Not long after his accident, a GoFundMe page called “Tom’s Team” was started to help the Morris’ pay for medical bills and rehabilitation expenses. Altogether, an outpouring of support helped generate $26,360 in donations.

Today, Morris wants to pay it forward.

With the help of KentuckyOne Health and the Frazier Rehab Institute, where he rehabbed immediately after the accident, Morris is keeping “Tom’s Team” alive. He’s aiming to raise $70,300 — a nod to the total miles covered in the Ironman race — to assist others who have suffered spinal cord injuries and help them return to an active lifestyle.

“I can’t wrap my head around the support that I have,” Morris said. “From all the local businesses, to my colleagues, to the university, to everybody. The support to not only get back to work, but to thrive, to do public speaking, there’s always something that people are trying to use to help me move forward. For me, I want to try and pay that back to them, however that may be. When you have the community behind you, you have no choice but to be strong.”

In the meantime, Morris has held a vision for this weekend’s race. He completed the Ironman Steelhead 70.3 in 2010 and knows the course.

He also knows, by the time it’s over, this weekend will represent another step toward normalcy.

Another big dream realized.

“When we’re all done, I’ll crack a beer open and sit there on the beaches of Michigan,” Morris said. “It’s gonna be a really special time.”