Researcher, feminist and gold medalist at the World Games

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Lauren Morgan didn’t know she would be representing the United States at the World Games until three days before the start of international athletic competition. She hasn’t had the normal opportunity to plan or prepare. But the world-class water skier was determined. A little panicked too, but determined nonetheless. She wanted to win and she knew she had the skills to do the job.

Lauren Morgan won gold for the United States in women’s water ski jumping at the 2022 World Games. (Photo by Lee Hedgepeth)

On Saturday, she won gold in the women’s water ski jumping, securing a win for herself and her country.

Morgan’s success also goes beyond the water. She is a daughter and a sister: a member of a family that has been involved in the sport for decades. She specializes in criminal justice and studies what she sees as the all-too-broad intersection of foster care and juvenile justice systems. And Morgan is a feminist: a leader who stands up and defends women in a sport that she believes is male-dominated.

Getting to the World Games

When Morgan learned that she would be competing at the World Games – in three days – she started to panic.

“I hadn’t prepared myself,” she said. “I had three days to go. So I skied a little too much.

Her knee was strained from overuse, she said. “So I didn’t feel too confident.”

Before leaving for Alabama, however, Morgan said she was able to participate in a good day of training that she believes will set her up for success. Still, she knew winning at the World Games was not inevitable.

“I knew the competition would be tough,” she said. “But I knew I had a shot to do really well.”

Aim for gold

The World Games wasn’t Morgan’s first time in Alabama. While at Florida Southern College, Morgan competed in waterskiing competitions held at the University of Alabama. His sister even went to Alabama.

“It was a lot of fun there,” Morgan said. “I attended a football match.

But now Morgan was heading to Alabama for a different competition — the 2022 World Games — Morgan’s first time competing in the Olympic event.

Morgan said in the preliminary rounds of competition, conditions at Oak Mountain State Park were less than ideal. A strong tailwind was causing problems for the skiers.

“So I was a little nervous,” Morgan said. “I haven’t jumped into such a big tailwind in a while.”

Morgan was able to secure his seed in the final, however, and use his remaining assists to perfect his timing for the final.

On Saturday, the day of the medal round, conditions at Oak Mountain State Park were perfect, Morgan said.

On her first jump she said that even in the air she thought she had come close to gold. She almost did, but it would take a second jump to secure a place on the top step of the podium.

She made the second jump – just over 173 feet – and she did just that, winning gold for the United States in women’s ski jumping.

As Morgan disembarked after his victory, the crowd at Oak Mountain State Park cheered him on. Children approached her, posing beside her for photos. Morgan smiled, addressing everyone who had come to wish him congratulations.

“It was probably the most photos and autographs I’ve ever done,” she said. “And that was really, really cool. I felt like I was actually a celebrity here – an athlete getting the exposure that I think I deserve.

The children, she says, were a highlight of the day.

“All the kids mentioned they wanted to start skiing,” she said. “It’s cool to hear that.”

Become Dr. Morgan

In the wake of the World Games, gold medalist Morgan said she didn’t have time to tread water. Next week, Morgan, a criminal justice scholar, is moving to the stage of her doctoral dissertation. program. Morgan’s research focuses on children who find themselves impacted by both the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

Morgan studied psychology as an undergraduate, but said she became interested in victimology both as a senior and during her time as a master’s student at the University. from Seattle.

It was there, in Seattle, where Morgan worked in an emergency residential facility for at-risk youth. The establishment could temporarily house minors, usually teenagers, for 15 days before they were forced to find them somewhere else to go. While at the facility, Morgan began to understand more intimately the difficult complexities at play in the lives of these children.

One of the girls at the Seattle facility stands out in Morgan’s memory: a 16-year-old who would return to the facility again and again.

The girl had been placed in an overcrowded group home in the foster care system, Morgan said. The teenager would run away from the establishment and would therefore be placed in juvenile detention. Once released, she would be placed, once again, in a foster home, or sometimes in an emergency center like the one where she met Morgan.

“I really thought ‘there’s something wrong here,'” Morgan said of the teenager’s situation. “It just roams these systems without any long-term stability.”

Morgan doesn’t know where the girl is today, but she would like to know. The teen’s experiences, she said, motivate her to learn more about how systems such as foster care and juvenile detention can impact children throughout life. of their life.

So-called “crusader youth” — those children involved in foster care and juvenile justice — are the focus of Morgan’s dissertation, which she is currently working to complete. She is expanding her research on Seattle and comparing the city’s systems to those in other parts of the country.

“It’s the systems I’m interested in,” Morgan said.

break the silence

Morgan is a leader in her sport in more ways than one.

In 2019, Morgan became one of the first women in her sport to speak publicly about what she called a culture of silence around sexual misconduct in the waterskiing community.

That year, the US Center for SafeSport concluded that Nate Smith, an elite water skier, had engaged in a pattern of inappropriate relationships and behaviors, including having sex with an underage athlete and abusing physically and emotionally of an adult athlete.

After the report’s release, Morgan publicly addressed the sexual victimization of women in the waterskiing community.

“I am ashamed to be associated with an entity that values ​​buoy count and distance over true character,” Morgan wrote at the time. “I am sad that the sport I love does just about anything to show off world records, medals and victories, but remains silent when times are not favourable.”

Morgan said she hoped her statement would encourage women who may have been victimized to feel empowered to tell their stories.

Nate Smith received a three-month suspension from the sport. Following the news of the decision, Smith released a statement admitting “bad choices” involving his adult girlfriend but denying other allegations.

“As for the rest of the allegations of conduct violating the law, they are simply not true,” Smith’s statement read. “They are, to be very clear, wrong.”

Smith has since returned to competition, even winning gold at the 2022 World Games.

Morgan said Smith’s three-month suspension was not enough.

“It was a slap on the wrist,” she said.

Allowing Smith to compete on the world stage sends the wrong message to women in sport and to little girls who are the future of sport, Morgan said.

“The bottom line is you can do anything if you’re world champion,” Morgan said. “You can get away with whatever you want. You’re the world record holder, so it’s fine. It doesn’t send the right message.

Send the right message

When Morgan came ashore Saturday at Oak Mountain State Park, a World Games gold medalist, a young girl approached her, shaking with excitement. Morgan grinned at him from ear to ear.

Lauren Morgan comes out of the water at Oak Mountain State Park after winning gold for the United States in the women’s water ski jump. (Courtesy of Lee Hedgepeth)

The girl’s mother also approached Morgan.

“My daughter wants to go home and learn to ski now,” she said.

That, Morgan said, is all she can ask for: that, through her example of athletic excellence and integrity of character, little girls learn an important lesson. She’s a champion, and I can be too.

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