PARSIPPANY _ Nichole Morley was sitting on the floor warming up and "trying to touch her toes" on the first day of fencing practice when Gill St. Bernards coach Elyse Gurnowski inquired about details of medical issues.
It was then that Morley, a freshman new to the sport, made the big reveal.
"I have two rods in my back," Morley offered.
According to Morley, a Parsippany resident, Gurnowski considered it "not big news at all."
Morley, whose weapon is epee, has excelled in spite of the 15-inch titanium rods that run down both sides of her spine. The rods were inserted to correct idiopathic scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine. The curve of her spine pushed on her ribcage, compressing it, affecting one of Morley's lungs.
The scioliosis was diagnosed during a wellness checkup when Morley was 9 years old. She went to an orthopedic specialist and was fitted for a brace that needed to be worn 20 hours a day for four years.
"I hated it," Morley said of the brace, worn to keep the curve in her spine from worsening. "It was tiresome, tedious and it hurt. I was like 'OK, I'll wear it' and it became a part of me. I didn't understand what it was. I didn't let it bother me."
At 13, Morley underwent surgery at New York University Langone Medical Center. The procedure, which required doctors to drill into her spine, pull it straight and insert the rods, was risky. Morley's mother, Lillian, said her daughter could have been paralyzed or suffered brain damage if something went awry during the procedure.
The rods, which cost $140,000, have not impeded Morley on the strip. In her first season of competition, Morley, very quick to learn, took first in her weapon at the Montclair Freshman/Sophomore Invitational. She was sixth at the Prep B Championships. Last winter as a sophomore, she won eight of 10 bouts at the Santelli Tournament. Morley helped GSB to a third-place finish at the 2015 Prep B Championships.
An honor roll student, Morley has been named to the USA Fencing And Absolute Fencing Gear All-Academic First Team twice.
In letters of recommendation, Gurnowski had high praise for Morley, writing that she "had never met someone quite like Nichole." She mentioned her passion and dedication for her sport and her team and the fact she had become a team leader.
Despite a rigorous academic schedule, Morley sought out Gurnowski for "one on one time so she wouldn't be overworked." She managed everything well, never letting her classwork suffer because of fencing.
Morley's mother initially was hesitant to let Nichole try out for the team. She was concerned that a screw would pop or a rod would break.
"As a parent, you always worry about your child but, after having your child go through major spinal surgery, you tend to worry even more," Lillian Morley said. "After one of her first bouts, she had back pain. I almost told her I didn't want her fencing. Nichole is what I call an old soul. She has had trials and tribulations in her young life and has never let them get in the way of her aspirations.
"I am awe of her every single day and could not be more proud."
The younger Morley rarely thinks about the rods but did admit that her back hurts sometimes after practices and matches. Morley noted there are restrictions, like "how far I can go with my arms and how far I can stretch."
"My coach will ask me how my back is feeling," Morley said. "She has as much faith in me as the other kids. She tells me to just have fun."
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