By Trey Williams
Science Hill senior cross country runner Ashley Doyle likes to outrun her worries. But one began staying with her stride for stride, threatening to overtake her triumphant spirit.
Doyle didn’t know if she’d ever run again on June 2 when she had spinal fusion surgery for scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that had been increasingly debilitating since detection in middle school.
“I was completely terrified at the thought of surgery,” Doyle said. “I knew the chances of being paralyzed or dying were very low but there was still a chance. Besides that, I was just scared I would be very limited in mobility after surgery and never get back to where I was in running.”
The alternative was more foreboding. The curvature was steadily progressing and beginning to put pressure on her lungs. And along with serious long-term issues, scoliosis made being a teen all the more awkward.
“Especially in the beginning, I was self-conscious about my scoliosis,” Doyle said. “I had just started getting good at running and I had a lot of friends that I thought didn’t have any problems while I felt disabled. Even before you could notice it physically I was very upset knowing something was wrong with me and only getting worse.
“Once you could start noticing it, I would only wear clothes that were baggy. Some of my friends would joke around with me about it or talk about how weird it looked and I would just joke about it too to try and act like it didn’t bother me.”
Running quickly became an escape. Doyle soon craved the runner’s high.
“Running makes me forget everything that’s going wrong,” she said. “It always gives me something to look forward to and put my whole self into. I can’t even describe how addicted you get to running once you start.”
The pusher, if you will, was her sixth-grade health teacher, David Nutter, who suggested she take up cross country.
“I didn’t even know what that was at the time,” Doyle said, “but I decided to try it out.”
Doyle, who will sign with King University on Nov. 11, didn’t exactly hit the ground running.
“My first year running in middle school I didn’t even make the track team,” Doyle said. “But the next year I was varsity. I didn’t ever believe I’d have a chance at running in college until the end of my freshman year.”
Nutter, now the boys cross country coach at Science Hill, has watched Doyle develop since middle school.
“It does not surprise me at all on how she’s handled the obstacle of dealing with the emotional roller-coaster ride that comes with dealing with scoliosis,” Nutter said. “There are so many obstacles and setbacks she has been faced with. It’s how she’s learned to overcome those obstacles of fear, doubt, pain, disbelief and all the other emotions that start to sink in a teenager’s mind when dealing with this medical issue (that’s impressive). As one of her coaches, I feel like she has used a lot of what she’s learned through the sport of cross country and applied it to her daily life.
“The many prayers we’ve had, the many trips to New York, doctors’ appointments, the physical therapy, the pain of trying to help the issue without surgery, body image, sleepless nights and the tears. All this said, she accepted the fact that she would have to go under the knife in surgery.”
Science Hill girls cross country coach Evan Meeuwenberg has drawn inspiration from Doyle.
“When she first told me she would be able to run two weeks after surgery I was a little skeptical,” Meeuwenberg said. “Sure enough, she was back attempting to run the very second she could. Some would call her crazy, but I’ve been able to witness her incredible character through this process and wasn’t the first bit surprised when she was running two weeks after surgery.”
Doyle was quick to credit Meeuwenberg and Nutter, as well as Meeuwenberg’s husband Nathan, who will coach Doyle at King.
“Coach Nathan has made a huge impact on me as an athlete and a person,” Doyle said. “He has helped me to understand the science of running and encourages me in every aspect. I’ll always remember him yelling out things to me during my race and being so excited for every accomplishment I made. I couldn’t be more grateful to have had him as a coach at Science Hill and in the future at King University.”
Nutter wasn’t surprised to see Doyle run all the way to the college level.
“When she gave up dance to focus on her ability to run,” Nutter said, “I knew she had fallen in love with running and was willing to put a lot of stock into the sport. When this took place, I felt as though she might have a future with running in college due to the mental determination, passion and love for the sport.
“Where she was before with surgery on the calendar was a scary thing for everyone. Now, you can find a ‘Signing Day’ to become a student athlete in college on her calendar. I get emotional just talking about it. She’s given hope for so many student-athletes in the ‘Topper Nation.”
Science Hill junior Trinny Duncan, who finished fourth at the Big 11 Conference meet on Thursday at Steele Creek Park, was impressed with how Doyle treated others when fate was mistreating her.
“Ashley has always been so kindhearted and considerate of others and that has stayed consistent throughout everything she’s been through,” Duncan said. “I have personally seen how brave and strong she is through her battle with scoliosis and her recovery from her scoliosis surgery. She is an inspiration to the whole team and never complains about the pain that she is struggling with.
“She is an amazing friend, teammate and travel buddy. I can’t wait to see where she goes in the future and I know that she will continue to be an inspiration to everyone she meets.”
Adversity is relative, a fact Doyle was made better aware of during her stay at the Shriners Hospital in Greenville, South Carolina.
“Even though my procedure was traumatic, it could be so much worse,” she said. “I am forever blessed to have had the amazing staff at Shriners perform my surgery and my heart goes out to all the children that have it worse than me that have to be in that hospital so often. I have such a deeper value for running and just life in general now.”
Running won’t ever be taken for granted.
“The surgery definitely decreased my flexibility,” Doyle said. “I can no longer bend my back. It was not as drastic as I believed it would be, though. I can still bend over through my hips and the bottom three vertebrae that are not fused.
“My form for running has completely changed as well. It was very weird coming back to running because I felt like I had forgotten how to run. Everything from my stride to how I moved my arms was different. I saw a physical therapist in Johnson City who gave my some exercises to help get my form to normal.”
Still, Doyle finished 16th in the conference this year after finishing 15th last year. She hopes to finish All-Region on Thursday at Daniel Boone, but will rejoice in achievement either way.
“I knew this season would not go as well as I hoped because I did not have a strong summer base,” Doyle said. “I could not run very fast or very much mileage while recovering. I am back to normal training now, but I don’t expect to be up to my normal times again until next year. … I would usually be upset about the times I’ve run this season and the fact I haven’t PR’d, but I’ve just been overcome with joy to be able to race after such a major surgery.”
Ultra-successful Daniel Boone coach Len Jeffers noted Doyle’s impressive grit. Boone assistant Ray Jones is also a fan.
“A lot of my teammates and some of my friends have told me how inspired they were by my whole journey,” Doyle said. “The Boone coach, Ray, has been a big fan of mine since my surgery. He comes to see me before and after we race and always tells me how awesome I am. He is super-encouraging.
“My coaches at Science Hill have been so supportive and understanding through the process as well. I can’t thank them enough for all they have done for me since surgery from coming to visit me to tweaking training specific to me to organizing a surprise parade at my house.
“My whole family and all of my friends show endless support. Some of the older teammates I had that already graduated like Katy (Neubert), Kate (Flynn), Destiny (Haller) and Ray (Richardson) all pushed me to be my best and helped me through the hardest times. All of my current teammates, especially Trinny and Gillian (Holt), help me through every run and are there for me through my best and worst.”
For the majority of her teenage life, Doyle preferred to blend in. Not that she’d relish it now, but she’d no longer be afforded the luxury.
“Her teammates really look up to her for advice, guidance and as a friend,” Nutter said. “Her legacy will live on into the future. She adds so much to the team by sharing her love of the sport. Now that she has verbally committed with King University, it gives others hope for a future as a collegiate athlete. They see the obstacles she’s overcome, and they instill the phrase of “I can” in themselves.
“Here she is standing at the finish line of scoliosis. She’s finishing her senior year, smiling bigger than she ever has before. Every time she crosses the finish line in a race, as one of her coaches, it has a deeper meaning inside me to be able to see her cross the finish line.”