Feb. 18, 2009
By Larry Watts
Don't anyone dare pinch Kelsey Morley. The Michigan State sophomore is living her dream and she doesn't want anyone to wake her up until she graduates in another couple of years.
"This is just unbelievable," the Elkhart, Ind. native says. "My dad (Chandler) went to school here and our family has been season ticket holders at football games for over 20 years. He would have tailgate parties with some of his fraternity brothers and they were watching me run around them when I was 4 or 5 years old."
Some of those same fraternity brothers are still watching little Kelsey run around. But now she's proudly wearing the green and white leotard of the Spartans gymnastics team. And she couldn't have been any prouder than when she put on an electrifying performance during a Valentine's Day meet with Florida.
After a solid performance on vault, where she scored 9.675, the 5-foot-4 Morley hit a personal-best of 9.775 on the uneven bars, which she says is her weakest event. She fed off that high to set a Michigan State record of 9.975 on her specialty, the balance beam.
"I had a teeny, tiny wobble on one series," she says of her deduction. "I guess I fooled one judge, but the other one caught it. I deserved the 9.975."
But her big night wasn't over. She promptly hit a personal high of 9.800 on floor exercise, closing out her performance with an all-around score of 39.225, also a career best and a team best for the Spartans this season.
Morley says she couldn't have picked a better night for her breakout performance. Amid the crowd in Jenison Field House was a Morley support group totaling over 35 members.
"My family, friends, some of my dad's fraternity brothers and former club teammates were really loud and holding signs," she says. "It was really incredible to have all those people along with my teammates and coaches cheering me on like they did. Moments like those are why you do this sport in the first place."
The biggest problem that night was finding a place to eat in East Lansing, since it was Valentine's Day. They settled for a local sandwich shop, where they put together enough tables to seat 20 people.
Having a father who graduated from Michigan State and an older sister (Blair) as a senior nursing student at the same school seemed to make a perfect destination for Kelsey. But there was a brief moment when she thought she would be headed to Western Michigan.
"I was really close to going to Western, but I lost the scholarship at the last minute," she says. "So I decided to come to Michigan State as a walk-on. I had already been here so many times, so it felt just like home."
Morley even remembers attending Michigan State gymnastics meets in her younger years. She was one of those little girls trying to attain autographs from her favorite Spartan gymnasts following the meet and she now finds herself on the other side of the mat.
"It's a dream come true being a Spartan gymnast," she says. "It's such a wonderful feeling seeing these girls looking up to you."
Morley says her club coach, Lorraine Hernandez, at Gymagics in Elkhart was a big inspiration in making her college decision. Morley had been a Level 10 state and regional champion on balance beam in 2007 and national champion in all-around, beam and vault in 2006.
"Although this (Michigan State) wasn't the most economical choice for me going in, Lorraine told me to just follow my dreams and go where I wanted to go," she says.
If there was any intimidation at being a walk-on, it was quickly erased by her new teammates and coaching staff.
"I struggled a little and was actually scared of some of my skills because I didn't want to mess up in front of my new teammates," she says. "But my new teammates really embraced me and helped me through those struggles. This team is so close and it's such an honor to be part of it."
Morley immediately made the Spartan rotation on balance beam and floor exercise, and after a few meets she started competing in vault.
"I knew I could compete on beam, but I didn't know if I could crack the lineup," she says. "My expectations were pretty low coming into the year, so every week was new and exceeded what I ever dreamt of.
"Competing in that first meet was such an adrenaline rush, I actually cried the day before the meet and the day of the meet. I couldn't believe this was all happening to me and I had all sorts of emotions running through me. All of my dreams were coming true and just to be out there with this team was incredible. I think I scored 9.675 on beam. That 9.975 sure sounds a lot better now."
Morley wound up being named the most improved gymnast for the Spartans. She scored firsts on balance beam in three of her 14 meets. She tied for second on beam in the Big Ten Championships and matched a season high of 9.800 while taking second on beam at the NCAA West Regional. She missed advancing to the NCAA Championships by .025.
With a goal of improving her uneven bars routine so she could compete for the Spartans as an all-arounder, Morley elected to remain in East Lansing over the summer so she could work out with her coaches and other team members.
"I had never experienced a conditioning program like the one at Michigan State," she says. "Those sprints -- running until you can't any more and breathing so hard, it hurt! I had never experienced that before.
"I think I can out-sprint the football players now. Let's line them up. I might have a little issue with (Javon) Ringer, but I think I can take the rest."
Just before the start of the first semester this year, Morley was pulled into the coaches' office.
"They sat me down and I didn't know what to expect, maybe I was in trouble for something," she says. "But then they told me I was being put on scholarship; I never expected that. I just cried because that meant so much to my family."
And all that hard work on uneven bars paid off by the fourth meet, when Morley took her place as an all-arounder at Ohio State.
"I was absolutely ecstatic when they told me," she says. "I couldn't have done it without all the support I have received from my teammates."
Those teammates sure come in handy for some special sessions back in the dorm, where Morley lives with the other four Spartan sophomores.
"We look up dances on YouTube from "So You Think You Can Dance" and try to replicate them," she says with a laugh. "We also have karaoke and rap parties. I'm not a good rapper, but it's fun to do. I can't even hold my own in the dancing. Those other girls are amazing and it's hysterical when anyone walks into our room and sees us dancing to that computer screen."
But when it comes to balance beam, there are some Olympians who wish they could be as steady as Morley on the four-inch wide board.
"Beam is all mental, anyone can do it," she says. "It's by far the easiest event because you don't have to do three flips or twists like you do on floor. You just have to breathe, relax and stay straight. If you do that, you've got it."
Yet, even someone who scores a 9.975 isn't satisfied.
"It's not a perfect 10," she says. "One day I'm going to get that perfect 10. It's never been done at State."