By Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
STANFORD, Calif. -
Stanford women's gymnastics coach Kristen Smyth will always remember Ashley Morgan's collegiate debut in a dual meet at the University of Georgia in 2010. Competing against the five-time defending NCAA champions in front of 9,000 fans, the young freshman put on a show.
She averaged 9.83 over three events, the highest score for anyone participating in more than one event, and nailed a clutch routine in the final event, the balance beam.
"I knew she had star quality," said Smyth.
Now a senior tri-captain, Morgan will conclude her Pac-12 career on Saturday in the conference championships in Corvallis, Ore. Then, it's on to the NCAA Regionals.
"It goes by in the blink of an eye," said the product design major from Danville, Calif. "I was told as a freshman: `Take your time, it's going to go by fast.' And I was like, `No it's not.' I've kind of forced myself to take time and sit somewhere for a couple minutes - even if it's just five minutes a day - to look around and soak in everything."
The steady Morgan has enjoyed a stellar career at Stanford. As a freshman, she competed in the NCAA Super Six team finals on the vault, beam and floor. She scored 9.875 on the beam, eighth-best overall.
She continued to refine her skills as a sophomore. Her 9.914 average score on floor exercise was the highest in the nation. Morgan won nine consecutive meets in the floor, all at 9.90 or above, and set personal bests in all four events during the season. She captured the Pac-10 floor exercise title and was first-team all-conference.
Last year, Morgan earned second-team All-American honors on floor, successfully defended her Pac-12 title, and was named first-team all-conference on floor and uneven bars. Morgan was a member of the Cardinal NCAA Super Six vault roster that scored 49.550, the second-highest vault score in school history and propelled the team to fourth place.
This year, Morgan has claimed five all-around titles. She had a memorable performance against Arizona State, winning the floor exercise and all-around title with a score of 39.550.
"She has just blossomed and gotten better each year," Smyth said. "She's very passionate about the sport, and that's what makes her so great. She's grown as a leader and is very cool and calm under pressure."
Morgan comes by it naturally. Her father, Joe, played 22 years in the major leagues, most at second base for the Cincinnati Reds, and is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Joe and his wife Theresa have attended almost every meet.
"Everything she has accomplished has been all Ashley," said her proud dad. "She's such a perfectionist. The one thing we tell her before meets is just make sure you have fun; it's not a job. That's how I was on the baseball field. It seems to me she doesn't feel the pressure."
Joe and Theresa admit meets can be nerve-racking.
"I always get nervous," she said. "But honestly, I get nervous from a safety standpoint. Of course you want them to do well, but I get nervous for all of them. It's a scary sport."
Joe is easy to spot. He always wears headphones and usually listens to jazz to focus on the meet.
"I'm there in my own little world watching her," he said. "Over the years I've gotten less nervous because she has performed so well."
Ashley's twin sister, Kelly, played soccer at USC. As you might expect, the family is tight.
"When we left for school, it was the first time we had been on our own," said Ashley. "We had never been separated for more than a week at different camps. As hard as it was, it brought us a lot closer. We're very different people, but we've also been able to settle into our college experiences separately."
While the twins never saw their father play baseball, they grew up listening to him on television when he announced Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN with Jon Miller. "It was just normal to have the game on in the house," Ashley said.
Joe, a 10-time all-star and Emmy Award-winning analyst, doesn't talk about his accomplishments. He does a nationally-syndicated two-hour radio show on ESPN on Saturday mornings called "Conversations with Joe Morgan," but hasn't discussed his playing days with his daughters. One day, he plans to sit down with them and watch old videos.
"As I've gotten older and fully started to understand what he's done - not just with his baseball career, but professionally - the more and more I'm amazed," said Ashley. "A lot of things I'll find out from other people or I'll Google it. Obviously, he's a hero in my eyes."
Ashley took up gymnastics at age 6, mainly because the first time she walked into a kindergym class and saw girls doing flips, she fell in love with it. Theresa knew even sooner.
"I just remember being in a park and she was probably 3 and she was climbing up a structure," she said. "I didn't think it was that unusual, but a couple of the moms commented they couldn't believe she could climb up the pole so far by herself at such a young age."
Morgan advanced quickly in the sport and was soon approached about attending an advanced camp in Texas, where future Olympians trained. Her parents politely declined.
"With athletics, we never pushed either one of our daughters because at any given time there could be a serious injury and once there's any injury, what do they have to fall back on," said Theresa.
They also wanted their daughters to lead balanced lives.
"Obviously, we missed a lot of family vacations with her being an athlete at that level," Theresa said. "But also, I never wanted her to miss the prom or some sleepovers. She couldn't do those on a normal level like her sister did, but at least she was able to take advantage of some of those. I think that's one of the reasons why she's always been very outgoing, very social and very comfortable and not awkward."
Ashley is grateful for her parents' early guidance.
"I was always very supportive about that decision," said Ashley. "I wanted to have a normal life of gymnastics and still go to school full-time and be a normal student." At age 9, Morgan attended a gymnastics camp at Stanford and knew it was where she wanted to attend college.
"It's probably more than I could have imagined," she said of her Stanford experience. "When you're that young, it's just a big name. I felt at home here. I just immediately had that comfort feeling, being able to experience not just the athletic life but the academic life as well."
Class sizes are small and professors are very open to working with students one-on-one.
"I've been really lucky to get to know a lot of people in my class," said Morgan. "Last year I took a product design class and it was the first time I got to actually build things and see my drawings come to life by using my hands to do it."
Morgan hopes to use her hands and legs to help Stanford win a Pac-12 championship and challenge for a national title. The Cardinal team is ranked No. 11 and Morgan is ranked No. 22 nationally on floor and No. 23 all-around. The team is young and talented, and she wants to make the most of her final opportunities in the sport.
"This year is really, really special to me," Morgan said. "Not just because it's my last year, but kind of the team connection. We're fully capable of doing it."