Kathy Ormsby, a record-setting distance runner from North Carolina State University whose life was one triumph after another, is paralyzed from the waist down and is not expected to walk again after she inexplicably jumped from a bridge Wednesday night during the NCAA championships in Indianapolis.
Ormsby, 21, jogged away from the stadium while in eighth place in the women's 10,000-meter race she was favored to win and jumped off a bridge two blocks away, suffering multiple spinal fractures. She left the race with 3,400 meters to go.
She was in serious condition yesterday, able to move only her arms, a spokesperson at Wishard Memorial Hospital said.
Lt. Doug Cox of the campus police at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, where the meet is being held, said Ormsby told one of the doctors at the hospital, "I jumped."
Cox added, "There's a railing at the bridge , and it's unlikely she could have fallen."
Police said they consider it a suicide attempt.
Friends know Ormsby as a perfectionist who would be up running at 5 a.m., leading a charmed, all-American life. Her ambition was to be a medical missionary. Her running was a mere diversion, friends thought.
Those who watched her grow up in Rockingham, N.C., expected her to win the NCAA championship, not run away from it. And they never thought this woman would try to end a life so full of promise.
"You get a Kathy Ormsby but once in a lifetime," said Ralph Robertson, the principal of Richmond N.C. Senior High School, where she graduated No. 1 in a class of 600, with an unprecedented 99 percent average.
"She was the classic over-achiever, doing nothing but the best," said Robertson. "Track just seemed to be a sidelight from her pre-med studies, we thought."
In 12 years of school in Rockingham, Ormsby never received one grade lower than an A. She set three state track records, never gloated in victory or sulked in defeat and always asked her coach if he wanted her to do anything more in practice before she left for the day.
Just before she graduated in 1983, the mayors of five communities in Richmond County (population 73,000) did something they had never done before: they declared a "day" in honor of a high school senior. Students were given Kathy Ormsby buttons to wear, listing her accomplishments. There was an assembly in her honor, and a proclamation for her to hang on the wall at home.
"We wanted to motivate the other kids," Robertson said.
Ormsby, who is 5 feet 5 and weighs 108 pounds, was embarrassed by the attention, said Pete Pittman, her high school track coach. "The nicest person you could want to meet," as one N.C. State teammate called her, Ormsby never said much. She never wanted applause.
"I'd congratulate her after a race and she would bow her head and say a quick 'Thanks,' " said Robertson. "She kept her mind on business at all times."
Dr. Peter Hall, Wishard's chief of neurosurgery, saw Ormsby yesterday and confirmed the worst, that she is not expected to walk again.
"She has accepted this very well and seems able to cope with it," he said at an afternoon news conference. "She is really a brave kid. Everybody who goes through this experiences depression, but so far, there has been no sign of that at all. She is very calm. She is in some pain, but not a great deal."
Hall said the paralysis was total from a point just below the navel. "She has no problems breathing. Given the distance (40 to 50 feet) of the fall, she is very lucky not to be a quadriplegic. She could easily have died from that injury."
Several people who knew Ormsby well in North Carolina said they never saw her cry. She never got angry, Pittman said, even when she finished a disappointing fifth in the state 3,200-meter race as a high school junior. (The next year, she won the event.)
"When she won, she never jumped around or clenched a fist or threw her hands over her head," said Pittman. "She would console the people she beat. To her, it was just another day at the office."
Or was it? Dr. John Roberts, her adviser in the department of zoology at N.C. State, said Ormsby's serious, quiet personality made it difficult to "read" her feelings, although he never suspected she had problems.
Dr. Jack Bacheler, a professor in the school's entomology department who finished ninth in the 1972 Olympic marathon and still coaches some Wolfpack runners, said he wondered if "runners tend to take an awful lot of pain without complaining about it."
Ormsby, a dean's list student who held the NCAA women's record in the 10,000 going into the event, won almost every race she ran. But she kept most of her thoughts to herself.
University of Wisconsin runner Stephanie Herbst, who won the race, said, "There's a lot of pressure on us. When you come this far, it's hard not to have any pressure ."
A teammate who wished to remain anonymous said Ormsby "always put pressure on herself when she went to meets. She had to be the best, and she had to do the best. If she didn't, she got upset with herself. But I never thought she'd try something like this."
After leaving the track Wednesday night, Ormsby jogged two blocks toward the New York Street bridge, where she jumped and fell 40-50 feet before hitting a flood plain near the White River, according to the police report. She was found by her coach, Rollie Geiger.
"She told her parents that she wasn't sure exactly what had happened," Hall said. "I'm not surprised, because she was unconscious at the scene. She will probably have significant lapses in her memory for some time."
Ormsby will need two operations, one to stabilize the spine and another to remove fragments from the spinal canal, Hall said. The surgery likely will be performed in North Carolina.
Hilda Butler is the secretary of First Baptist Church in Rockingham, where Ormsby, her older brother and her parents have gone to services for years. Butler also lives on their street.
"She pushed herself hard, always hard," Butler said. "When the other kids were sleeping in the morning, she would be out there jogging. We kept saying she needed to let loose, but she never, never did. She set tremendous goals for herself."
Butler sighed. "One day, I always felt I'd get to see her in the Olympics."