Jamie Whitmore, once an able-bodied cycling champion, is now a top hopeful for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
When Jamie Whitmore is told she can’t do something, that just adds more fuel to her fire.
Her reaction is: “I’ll show you I can.”
Whitmore has shown the world she’s a competitor in every meaning of the word.
In her heyday as a professional mountain biker, she tallied 37 wins on the XTERRA off-road triathlon circuit, including six national titles and one world championship. Whitmore had Olympic aspirations before a rare form of cancer set her back in 2008, but now she is back in full form competing in para-cycling.
At the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico, in early April, Whitmore — who is known as a long course, endurance racer — won the C3 500-meter time trial as a member of Team USA.
Whitmore didn’t just win the event, she set a new world record with a time of 42.955 seconds. Whitmore surprised herself in placing first since it was only the third time she had ever competed on a track.
“That was truly a surprise,” said Neal Henderson, who has been Whitmore’s trainer since 2006. “I did not expect her to be winning the 500 meters. We prepared for her to do better than she was at nationals, and she made just a massive improvement. That just shows that she’s capable of doing a lot more sometimes than those of us that know her well think she can do. Sometimes people like Jamie exceed reasonable expectations and do unreasonable things, and it’s just a pleasure to see that.”
One day after winning the 500-meter race, Whitmore had similar success in the C3 3-kilometer pursuit. In the qualifying round in the morning, Whitmore briefly was the world-record holder, but it was trumped by Germany’s Denise Schindler.
“At that point, I was just hoping to make it to finals because then I knew that would be my shot to do even better,” Whitmore said. “The afternoon came and I rode hard.”
In the final, she broke another world record with a time of 4:07.487. Whitmore felt really good about attaining the record and being crowned world champion.
“It’s one of those things where every time something successful happens in my life, I remember where I was either when I woke up from my first surgery and just the process it took to even get back on a bike, and I just go back to the really hard times in life,” Whitmore said. “When good times happen, you just really realize the journey that I’ve been on.”
It’s been quite the journey the last six years for Whitmore. The resident of Somerset, California, was diagnosed with a cancerous nerve sheath tumor. Only 3 percent of all nerve tumors are ever cancerous.
Whitmore underwent her first surgery at the end of March 2008, when doctors discovered the nerves in her left leg were already dead. She wouldn’t have feeling again in that leg. Whitmore was told she’d be lucky to have the ability to ride a stationary bike.
The doctors thought the cancer had vanished, but by mid-July, Whitmore was back in the hospital for a second surgery. Two weeks later, she was in and out of the hospital for the next five months trying to battle infections and complications.
All the while attempting to fight off cancer, Whitmore’s thoughts always led back to her professional racing career.
“It was a lot to process, but the realization of even going back to being pro, it was in my mind at the very beginning,” Whitmore said. “When I first found out I was disabled, I was saying things like, ‘I’m still going to come back and I’m still going to race pro, at least in mountain biking.’ But very quickly when we found the cancer had come back, all of that just didn’t matter anymore. It was just, ‘I want to live. I want to live. How do I beat this?’”
Whitmore beat it, and by October 2006 she was cancer free. The disease is now what drives Whitmore in every aspect of her life.
“Cancer is one of those: you either make it or you don’t. There’s no in between with cancer. You survive or you die,” Whitmore said. “It’s that reality that it can happen just like that, and it just drives me to keep living life to its fullest, because I very easily could have been on the other spectrum and not been here. I really try to take nothing for granted. It’s kind of like that second opportunity that you get in life. You really look at everything from a different perspective.”
Whitmore is getting back to where she was six years earlier despite being inactive from racing for three years.
“She is a competitor,” Henderson said. “She is absolutely one of those who trains very well. She’s very professional, but when it comes to the race, she can execute so well. She just has that racing instinct you just can’t teach to someone.”
Whitmore just returned home from UCI World Cup in Castiglione Della Pescaia, Italy. She continued her winning ways, placing first in the C3 Road Race (1:44.11) and runner-up in the C3 Time Trial (24:29).
There are still plenty of areas in para-cycling where Whitmore can improve.
“Especially with track cycling that’s she still very new to, because it’s only been six or seven months that she’s been doing that,” Henderson said. “Sometimes track cycling takes years to really dial it in.”
Whitmore is learning about strategy and how to work with having one strong leg while the other one is disabled. She always keeps everything in perspective.
“As good as it is right now, I know the best still yet to come,” Whitmore said.
Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who has covered Green Bay Packers games for a number of media outlets for the past seven seasons. He has been a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc., since 2012.