BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Lauren Morgan didn’t know she’d be representing the United States in the World Games until three days before the international sporting competition began. She didn’t have the normal opportunity for planning or for preparation. 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 get the job done. 

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

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

Morgan’s success goes beyond the water, too. She’s a daughter and sister: a member of a family that’s been committed to the sport for decades. She’s a criminal justice scholar, studying what she considers the far-too-large intersection of the foster care and juvenile justice systems. And Morgan is a feminist: a leader standing up and speaking out for women in a sport she said is dominated by men.

Getting to the World Games

When Morgan found out she’d be competing in the World Games – three days out – she began to panic. 

“I hadn’t prepared,” she said. “I had three days to go. So I kind of overskiied.” 

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

Before she left for Alabama, though, Morgan said she was able to get in a good day of training that she felt would set her up for success. Still, she knew winning at the World Games wasn’t inevitable. 

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

Going for the Gold

The World Games wasn’t the first time Morgan had been to Alabama. During her time at Florida Southern College, Morgan competed in water ski competitions hosted at the University of Alabama. Her sister even attended Alabama.

“It was a lot of fun there,” Morgan said. “I’ve been to a football game.”

But now, Morgan was headed to Alabama for a different competition – the World Games 2022 – the first time Morgan had ever participated in the Olympic-run event.

Morgan said that during preliminary rounds of competition, conditions at Oak Mountain State Park were less than ideal. A significant tailwind was causing the skiers issues. 

“So I was a little nervous,” Morgan said. “I hadn’t jumped in that big of a tailwind in a while.”

Morgan was able to secure her seed in the finals, though, and use her remaining passes to hone her timing for the finals. 

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’d come close to the gold. She nearly did, but it would take a second jump to secure her place at the top of the podium.

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

As Morgan came ashore after her win, the crowd at Oak Mountain State Park cheered her on. Children approached her, posing by her side for photos. Morgan smiled, speaking to everyone who’d come up to wish her congratulations. 

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

The kids, she said, were a highlight of the day.

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

Becoming Dr. Morgan

In the wake of the World Games, gold medalist Morgan said she has no time to tread water. Next week, Morgan, a criminal justice scholar, moves to the dissertation stage of her Ph.D. 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 she said she began pursuing her interest in victimology both as a senior and during her time as a master’s student at Seattle University. 

It was there, in Seattle, where Morgan worked at an emergency residential facility for at-risk youth. The facility could temporarily house minors, typically teens, for 15 days before they’d be forced to find them somewhere else to go. During her time at the facility, Morgan began to more intimately understand the difficult complexities at play in these children’s lives.

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

The girl had been placed in an overcrowded group home in the foster care system, Morgan said. The teen would run away from the facility and be placed in juvenile detention as a result. Once released, she’d be placed, once again, in a foster care setting, or sometimes in an emergency facility like the one where she met Morgan. 

“I just really thought ‘there’s something wrong here,’” Morgan said of the teen’s situation. “She’s just cycling through these systems without any long-term stability.”

Morgan doesn’t know where the girl is today, but she wishes she did. The teen’s experiences, she said, motivate her to learn more deeply about how systems like foster care and juvenile detention can impact children for a lifetime.

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

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

Breaking 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 water skiing community. 

That year, the U.S. Center for SafeSport concluded that Nate Smith, a top male waterskiier, had engaged in a pattern of inappropriate relationships and behavior, including having sex with an underage athlete and physically and emotionally abusing an adult athlete.

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

“I am ashamed of being 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 will do just about anything to highlight the world records, medals, and victories but is silent when times aren’t in favor.”

Morgan said she hoped that 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. After that decision was announced, Smith released a statement admitting to “poor choices” involving his adult girlfriend but denying other allegations. 

“As to the remainder of the allegations of conduct violating the law, they are just not true,” Smith’s statement said. “They are, to be very clear, not true.”

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

Morgan said that Smith’s three-month suspension wasn’t 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 the sport and to little girls who are the sport’s future, Morgan said. 

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

Sending the right message

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

Lauren Morgan exits the water at Oak Mountain State Park after securing a gold medal for the US in the women’s water ski jump. (Photo courtesy: Lee Hedgepeth)

The girl’s mom approached Morgan, too. 

“My daughter wants to go home and learn how 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 is a champion, and I can be, too.