Meghan Hunter was on top of the world as she and her brother Morgan drove up Provo Canyon headed to Park City. One of the nation’s top young track stars, Meghan had just signed a letter of intent with BYU after making official recruiting visits to track powerhouses USC and Oregon. She was going to join her sister Kate on the BYU team, following in the footsteps of their father, Iain, who also had run for the school.

She and Morgan were en route to do volunteer work for a road race early on the morning of July 4, 2019. It was still dark as they came to a corner in the road and then out of nowhere a deer darted into the path of their Toyota Forerunner. Morgan veered to miss the deer and then wrestled to bring the car back under control as it yawed back and forth.

“I thought he was just messing around at first,” Meghan says. But then the car rolled over — and over and over and over. Four or five times. She instantly felt pain in her neck and every time the car made another roll she wished it would stop.

“You OK?” Morgan asked Meghan when the SUV finally came to rest on its side in a field.

“I think so,” she said. “My neck hurts, but I’m fine.”

All the glass was broken out of the vehicle. Morgan climbed out of the sunroof and then pulled his sister out the same way. After calling their parents to tell them what happened, they waited for their arrival on the scene. Meghan, whose neck was increasingly stiff and sore, walked around restlessly.

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She wanted to lie down, but she was uncomfortable and couldn’t bring herself to do it. Some passersby stopped at the scene. In the months ahead, Meghan would always be grateful for that. They realized Meghan’s injuries were more serious than she realized and called an ambulance. She was taken to a hospital in Park City. Doctors ordered scans of her neck and then told her the news: She had a broken neck.

“My brother came in the room and they told him — the look on his face, that was the hardest,” Meghan says. “He felt so bad, even though it wasn’t his fault.”

Meghan was airlifted to Provo.

•. •. •

Meghan Hunter already had had more than her share of setbacks between her many triumphs, but nothing of this magnitude. As a sophomore at Provo High, she was ranked third in the state in the 100 meters and first in both the 400 and 800, but she was unable to compete in the finals because of a pulled hamstring.

She rebounded as a junior by claiming four individual state championships in the 100, 200, 400 and 800. It was that kind of range that made her such a hot commodity in the recruiting game. That season she also set an all-classes state record in the 400 of 52.59, the eighth fastest time in the nation that year, and a time that has been bettered by only one in-state collegian (Utah State’s LaDonna Antoine in 1997, 51.48).

Months later Hunter tore the posterior cruciate ligament in her knee during a powder puff football game. Somehow she rebounded from that seven months later to win three more individual state titles. She was named Gatorade’s Athlete of the Year in 2018 and 2019 and posted times of 11.96 in the 100; 24.20 in the 200; 52.59 in the 400; and 2:09.26 in the 800. 

Hunter was reared in a family of runners. Iain was a fine 800-meter runner for BYU in the ’90s. His son Morgan was a good high school runner and John won a state championship in the 3,200 meters (he’s currently on the BYU farm team, one that is strong enough that it could compete against many university teams). Both of his daughters became national-class runners.

Kate was a two-time state cross-country champion at Provo High and won state championships on the track at 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters. At BYU she earned All-America honors with a sixth-place finish in the mile at the 2021 NCAA indoor championships. Then there was 5-foot-9 Meghan, two years younger and one inch taller than Kate. Meghan and Kate were enough to win a team state championship, capable of winning every race from 100 to 3,200 meters between them. They were excited about the prospect of reuniting on the team at BYU.

•. •. •

In the ER, doctors assessed Meghan’s injury and its repair for the family. The C-5 vertebrae was shattered. The vertebrae from C-3 to C-5 would be fused into one block of bone. The doctor, recalls Iain, was not concerned that there would be paralysis; he was more uncertain about whether the outcome would allow a normal life.

The family then turned the discussion: would she be able to run again? The doctor, unaware of Meghan’s running exploits, said it was possible, in a year or two, and then concluded by saying, “Well, it’s not like she’s going to run in the Olympics or anything.”

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“And of course we’re thinking, well actually, that’s one of the possibilities,” says Iain.

Diljeet Taylor, the BYU track and cross-country coach, was with the family in the room and heard the doctor’s comment. When the family left the room to check on Morgan (he escaped without injury, it would turn out), Taylor returned to the doctor to tell him about Meghan’s burgeoning running career.

Later, the doctor watched videos online of Meghan in action. In the process, he also noticed — like many others before him — that Meghan had a quirky habit of bobbing her head side to side when she ran and that it tended to lean to the left side. Then he recalled that he had noticed something on her CT scan. The C-1 vertebrae — which supports the weight of the head — had an anomaly. It was not fully formed; where there should have been a complete full circle, there was a space on one side. The doctor said Meghan had either broken her neck at that spot when she was very young or it had never fully formed in the first place.

Provo High’s Meghan Hunter wins the 400 meters during the BYU Invitational in Provo on Saturday, May 4, 2019. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Maybe that’s why her head wobbles to one side,” he concluded. “That’s her body protecting itself.”

Shortly before putting Meghan under anesthesia to begin the surgery to repair her neck, the doctor said to her, “Fifty-two five, right?” He was referring to her state-record 400 time.

“He had done some research,” says Meghan. “That was comforting. I knew then that he cared about me.”

The surgery required 6 ½ hours. The shattered C-5 vertebrae was grinded into a powder and used as filler for the graft. The C-3 through C-5 vertebrae were fused and wrapped with a metal cage on which the bone could grow, like concrete around rebar. Meghan spent seven days in the hospital. She wore a neck brace 24/7 for several months and then she was weaned off it, 10 minutes at a time. For a year she wore one whenever she was in a car.

The surgeon told her she might be able to start running in a year or two. Other surgeons agreed. Six months later, on Jan. 1, the same surgeon cleared her to run on a treadmill in a pool. A few weeks later she was able to run a few laps on BYU’s indoor track. In April — nine months after the accident — she was cleared to do track workouts.

•. •. •

Taylor had planned all along to convert Hunter into an 800-meter runner in college, but, as fate would have it, the 2020 season was canceled by the pandemic. In 2021, Meghan competed in only a handful of meets because of mono — yet another setback — but in May she still managed to run an impressive 2:04.27 for 800 meters.

This winter she won the Mountain States Federation championship at 800 meters with a time of 2:04.08 — the sixth fastest indoor time ever at BYU, a school that has produced five NCAA champions and two runners-up at that distance. She also is gradually regaining the speed she used to set the Utah state prep 400-meter record, splitting a 53-second 400 on BYU’s distance medley relay.

“She has really had a miraculous comeback,” says Taylor. “We weren’t sure she’d ever run again. She has fought for every second she has gotten on the track. She has fought with an amazing amount of grit just to get back on the track. Her workouts are very promising. She will be one of the best runners in the NCAA, I have no doubt. She’s super gifted. She’s going to be one to watch over the next few years.”

“She is getting much better than she ever was in the 800 and getting close in the 400,” says Iain.

BYU is making a documentary about Hunter’s accident and comeback.

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“Her story is an amazing one of grit and determination,” says Ed Eyestone, the director of track and field at BYU. “She’s been through a traumatic experience. She came within a millimeter of (paralysis). Unfortunately, there’s still some trauma she’s dealing with. She’s had to be strong-willed.”

Hunter has experienced other symptoms besides a stiff neck from the violent accident. As she tells it, “I was fine at first. But a year ago, I started to experience PTSD. It’s a big part of my journey. I panicked when I was in a car. There are triggers, like driving in rain, driving through the canyon, traffic conditions. I’m still working on it. Sometimes I’m really anxious and sometimes I panic.”

Hunter of course is relieved to return to the sport she has embraced for years. Hunter’s neck remains sore, but she doesn’t notice it when she runs. “It doesn’t affect my running much,” she says. “It’s kind of a miracle. My range of motion was affected a little bit. Mostly what bothers me is sitting too long without a backrest or wearing a backpack too long or lifting heavy things.”

“We’re just so glad she’s alive,” says her father.