By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

CHARLOTTESVILLE — For 10 years, she was a serious gymnast. Morgane Gay practiced for hours and hours each day, usually at Hills Gymnastics in Gaithersburg, Md., a program whose alumni include Dominique Dawes and Courtney Kupets.

Gay was on track to earn a college scholarship for gymnastics. But then one day, burned out on the sport, she decided she’d had enough. Working with her Russian coaches “demoralized me,” Gay said this week, and so she walked away from gymnastics after her freshman year at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md.

Her parents weren’t thrilled with her decision, and they suggested she take up another sport. Gay remembered that as a young girl she’d excelled in the hurdles during field day at her school. She e-mailed the track coach at Whitman and expressed interest in becoming a varsity hurdler.

“And he said, ‘You can’t just do track. You have to do cross country, too,’ ” Gay recalled. “And then the first day I came to practice, we ran three miles.”

She smiled. “It was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”

But she soon learned to love distance running, and Gay is now a five-time All-American in track and cross country at UVa. She won the women’s mile at the ACC indoor meet in late February and she holds the school record in the women’s 1,500 meters — 4:14.38, set last week at Lannigan Field in the Virginia Challenge.

Gay stands 5-10, and “if you were to describe what a great middle-distance runner would look like, she’s it,” said Todd Morgan, head women’s cross country coach and an assistant track coach at UVa.

“She’s strong but she’s lean. She has good height, and a lot of her height is in her legs. And the other thing is, there’s plenty of tall people that don’t run well mechanically, so they don’t make the most of their body dimensions, but she’s tall and she’s efficient. She’s a technically sound runner, so she covers a lot of ground and uses her height well.”

Gay’s background in gymnastics doesn’t hurt.

“She’ll be up at the track just goofing off and doing these crazy handstands that a normal person can’t do,” Morgan said. “She has great body dexterity and strength. When you look at her, you see this long, lean girl, but she’s a lot stronger than you would think, and that just comes from doing [gymnastics] for years when she was a kid.”

Gay is likely to be invited to the Olympic Trials this summer, Morgan believes. Her immediate concerns, however, are graduation at UVa — Gay, a biology major, will walk the Lawn on Sunday — and next week’s NCAA East Preliminary Round in Jacksonville, Fla.

She’s one of 29 Cavaliers (18 men and 11 women) who’ll be competing in Jacksonville. The top 12 finishers in each event will advance to the NCAA outdoor championships, June 6 to 9 in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Olympic Trials begin June 21 in Eugene, Ore. Gay is a long shot to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 1,500, Morgan said, but she could end up in London anyway.

Her parents were born in France, and she has dual citizenship.

“That’s something that we’ve started looking into a little,” Morgan said of the possibility that Gay could compete for France at the Summer Olympics.

Gay said: “The goal is for me to keep improving and to keep getting stronger till the Trials, and see what happens.”

A native of Rockville, Md., Gay enrolled at UVa in August 2008, not only after Jason Vigilante was hired as director of track and field/cross country. Vigilante worked with the Cavaliers’ middle-distance runners, and Gay was named ACC freshman of the year for women’s outdoor track in 2009. She placed 10th in the 1,500 at the NCAA outdoor meet in 2009 and seventh in 2011.

In cross country last fall, Gay placed 22nd at the NCAA meet, earning another All-America honor. Less than a week later, however, she lost her coach when Vigilante abruptly resigned.

In late December, Virginia hired Bryan Fetzer to direct its track and cross country programs. Not until early January, however, did Morgan leave the University of Florida for UVa.

“The transition from cross country to indoor was really difficult this year,” Gay said, “just because everything was really unexpected. It was actually good that it happened when I went home for winter break, because when I came back it was just a fresh start. I really hesitant about getting a new coach, and scared.”

Her fears proved unfounded.

“Surprisingly, the transition was a lot easier than I thought,” Gay said. “I have loved Coach Morgan’s training. It’s been different, but it’s been working.”

Morgan is “very organized,” Gay said, “so every week he sends out a plan with what we’re going to do each day. The workouts are a lot different, too. Just the progression of everything. Coach Morgan is big on mileage. I started out with a base doing a lot more mileage than I ever did with Vig.”

Another difference: Vigilante had Gay do more speed work early in the season, she said. Morgan “hasn’t started speed stuff until recently,” Gay said. “That’s what’s encouraging about my times right now, that I haven’t done much speed stuff.”

Morgan said: “She’s set up right now ready to run well at the end, which is when it counts.”

If her workout regimen has changed, Gay said, “I think the reason that it hasn’t affected me that much is that I don’t question too much and I don’t pretend to know, I guess, a lot about training. I just do what I’m told. I trusted Vig a lot, and he steered me well, and Coach Morgan, I trust him, and he’s steered me well too.”

For his part, Morgan said, “I didn’t know what I was walking into. I came in with the attitude — and I let [the runners] know this — that I didn’t care what’s gone on before today. All I care about is today and tomorrow and the future.

“It’s been terrific. I’m a very positive person, but I wanted to come in with the perspective of, it could be a mess. You could be walking into a room where a bunch of people don’t want you there. But it’s been the 180-degree opposite, so that’s been awesome.”

In 2009-2010, Gay redshirted during the indoor and outdoor track, so she has a season of eligibility left in each sport. Whether she’ll return to UVa in 2012-13, though, is uncertain.

Gay has been accepted into a three-year doctoral program in physical therapy at George Washington University in D.C. But she can defer her enrollment into that program and take graduate classes at UVa in 2012-13 — and run track — if she so chooses. GW doesn’t have a track team.

Fetzer and Morgan, naturally, would love to have Gay back. She said she’ll decide in the next month or two.

“I guess it depends on how the end of the season goes,” Gay said. “I’ve sort of been delaying even thinking about it, just because I’ve been so focused on what I’m doing here right now. I just really have to sort things out and think about it.”