JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Morgan Ray’s biggest change to his swimming routine came after the most disappointing close call of his career.
His near-miss — or near-hit as his coach likes to call it — in the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials last year set in motion one simple but effective change for the 19-year-old sophomore at UNF.
Have a bit more fun.
It took an agonizing miss at those trials — Ray was the first alternate for Team USA and missed out on going to the Paralympics in Tokyo last year — to help him thread a bit more fun into his program. The results from his adjusted outlook have translated into quicker times and a better chance at fulfilling his goals of qualifying for the Paralympics in Paris in 2024.
Next week, Ray departs for the Madeira 2022 World Para Swimming Championships in Portugal with a renewed focus, a bigger smile across his face and better times across the board in the pool. He’ll compete in his first event, the 200-free relay, on June 13, with events daily after that through the end of that week.
“Missing out on the official roster for the Tokyo team was definitely a disappointment. Being named the first alternate’s not something you want to hear,” Ray said. “But my coach and I got together through that summer and leading into my first year of college and we really just wanted me to have fun with swimming again.
“Because if you’re devoting all this time and effort into the sport, you might as well make it worth it. And that’s been the key thing that helped make me a better swimmer this last year. Just having fun and trying to simplify it as much as I can and just swim. Because at the end of the day, that’s all I want to do.”
Ray knew that’s what he wanted to do years ago.
Ray was diagnosed with achondroplasia — “the most common type of short-limbed dwarfism,” according to the Mayo Clinic — shortly after he was born. It slows down “the growth of bone in the cartilage of the growth plate,” according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. He said he grew normally until he was 6 and then plateaued.
It was around that timeframe that Ray said that Miranda Uhl, a family friend who also has achondroplasia, had returned from the Paralympics in Beijing with a gold medal in the 200 individual medley. Ray remembers the feeling when Uhl began to put the medal over his head. He was hooked by the time the medal was around his neck.
“As a six-year-old, you can imagine like, ‘oh my gosh, this thing is so heavy.’ Like, I want one of these,” Ray said. “Once I came here to Bolles, I really realized this is going to take some work. This is going to take a lot of dedication, a lot of early mornings, late nights. And I was motivated, definitely.”
Ray followed the lead of his older brother, Mason, into swimming. And he kept hold of that moment with Uhl as what he could accomplish if he made the commitment to the sport. He connected with the Bolles Sharks swimming program and set out on the mission of becoming a Paralympic swimmer in 2013.
Ray’s times have improved across the board since his performance at last year’s USA Swimming trials. At Ray’s last major event in April at the Para Swimming World Series, he made significant gains in all but one event. He was more than a full second faster in the 100 free, over 2 seconds quicker in the 100 breast and 5 seconds faster in the 400 free. And Ray shaved off more than half a second in the 50 fly. He medaled twice at the World Series. His coach, Cameron Bendetson, said his biggest coaching advice to Ray going into the world event this month is simple.
“I mean, the biggest message is just swim,” Bendetson said. “You’re on a bigger stage. There’s more people. The pressure could be perceived as being higher, but that’s kind of in your own head as an athlete, especially as an athlete in swimming, where you’re on your own. So really, the message is just do what you do every day and you’ll be fine.”
In all, Ray holds six American records in para swimming. He said that years of practicing, grinding and even losing have steeled his resolve.
“I like to tell people ‘don’t be afraid to work in silence.’ Because as I said, since I was swimming against able-bodied swimmers growing up, I kind of was the last guy to the wall and everything,” Ray said. “So, putting in as much work as you can and not being recognized for a long time really built a lot of character. … Whatever sport it may be, in the locker room, behind the blocks. knowing full well how much you’ve put in to get to that point, it goes a long way.”