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Manteo Mitchell's Big Break

By Karen Rosen | May 06, 2013, 5 p.m. (ET)

Manteo Mitchell competes during the men's 4 x 400m relay
heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games on Aug. 9, 2012.

Manteo Mitchell’s tattoo of the Olympic rings is unlike any other athlete’s.

“All the rings are broken, but they’re still together,” Mitchell said, “kind of like I was broken, but I wasn’t taken down and I kept it together.”

The tattoo marks the exact spot where Mitchell’s left leg broke while he was running in the London 2012 Olympic Games. As the leadoff leg for Team USA in the first round of the 4 x 400-meter relay, Mitchell had run only 200 meters when his fibula snapped.

Embodying his personal motto of “Faith, Focus, Finish,” he completed the lap.

Nine months later, Mitchell is “stronger and faster” now than he was last year at this point.

“Everyone thinks it’s a comeback, but I call it a come up,” said Mitchell, who recently competed in two meets in Japan and will race May 18 in Puerto Rico. “I’m not really coming back from anything. I’m just rising to the occasion again.”

His occasion could not have happened on a bigger stage. If Mitchell had stopped when he felt his leg break, the United States would have been eliminated from the 4 x 400 relay. Running on adrenaline through the pain and with an altered stride — “I just focused on lifting my knees” — Mitchell posted a 46.1-second split, not bad for someone even without a broken leg.

“I had to channel my attention and my focus on getting back to the finish line, knowing that there were three guys that were waiting for me and a whole country depending on me,” Mitchell said.

Team USA went on to place second in the final behind the Bahamas, and Mitchell received a silver medal for his part running in the early round.

The 25-year-old from Shelby, N.C., also struck gold through his perseverance. Mitchell jokes that his misfortune actually became his “big break.” He is in demand as a motivational speaker, fielding four to five offers a week. Since the Olympic Games in London, he has visited 36 schools and made at least 50 speeches, but has had to cut down now that he is back in season.

“It’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Mitchell said. “I’ve always wanted to inspire a generation, and ironically, that was the Olympic theme in London.”

There’s even a photo of Mitchell right at the moment he broke his leg with “Inspire a generation” on a banner behind him.

“I didn’t expect to receive fame in such a fashion,” said Mitchell, who believes the break was set up by an incident three days earlier when he hit his leg on some steps while running for a shuttle bus. “I’m just very fortunate to be in a position that not only I can run, I can inspire people with my message.”

U.S. Olympic sprinter Manteo Mitchell (C) is applauded by his
teammates as President Barack Obama praised his ability to finish a
race with a broken leg during a ceremony to welcome members of
the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams to the White House Sept.
14, 2012 in Washington, DC.

His never-give-up spirit caught the attention not only of the nation, but also its president.

When Team USA went to the White House in September, President Barack Obama singled out Mitchell in his remarks.

“That was probably the highlight of my career,” Mitchell said.

“And then there’s Manteo Mitchell,” Obama said. “Where is he? Now, this has to be one of my favorite stories of the whole Olympics.”

“It caught me off guard, honestly,” Mitchell said. “He said, ‘Where is Manteo?’ and I said, ‘What? Did he say my name?’ Then Sanya Richards-Ross was standing right beside me and she was like, ‘Oh, he’s right here.’ The story goes on and he talks about me, and I got a little weak.”

First Lady Michelle Obama made sure that she and the President posed for a photo with Mitchell.

And then it was back to Cullowhee, N.C., and rehabilitation with coach Danny Williamson at his alma mater, Western Carolina. Mitchell, who may eventually pursue a job as an athletic director, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sport management and marketing in 2009 and received his master’s degree in physical education when he returned home from London.

Out for 16 weeks because of the break, Mitchell worked diligently in the weight room and on the track to get back in shape, “knowing that I have to compete two times as hard as everyone because they’re going to have the edge on me because they didn’t get injured,” he said.

After running in some smaller meets this spring, he competed for the first time since the Olympic Games with USA on his chest at the Penn Relays in late April.

“It makes you feel good that I’m strong enough and fast enough now to even be able to represent my country again,” he said, “and that they actually depend on me and believe in me.”

Mitchell posted an official split of 44.8 seconds.

He allowed that when he first returned to training, he would “tense up around 200 meters because of everything that happened in London.”

But the Penn Relays “boosted my confidence a lot just knowing that I was able to finish the lap without any hurt, or harm or danger,” Mitchell said. “I have always had the physical part, but now I have the mental part of it down.

“I think I’m pretty much over it now.”

However, Mitchell had a scary moment when a man opened a bathroom door and hit his leg after he placed third in a 400-meter race in Japan on May 3 with a season-best time of 46-flat. He tweeted, “Having minor aches and pain in leg. Near where it was broken. Time to see a doc.”

He had it looked at, and the doctor said his leg was fine, Mitchell said. Now is “slowly yet surely working my way back into ‘race shape.’ ” On May 5, in the Seiko Golden Grand Prix in Tokyo, he placed sixth in the 200 with a time of 20.97 seconds.

Manteo Mitchell and Gustavo Cuesta of Dominican Republic
compete during the Men's 4 x 400m Relay Round 1 heats at the
London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 9,
2012 in London, England.

Mitchell said he is looking forward to productive training time upon his return to North Carolina this week.

Since London, Mitchell also became a father, and son, Khi Avery, is now 6 months old. Mitchell said he gave him a simple name that is easy to pronounce “because people always mess my name up. He looks just like me and people said, ‘You should have named him the second, or junior.’ I said, ‘No, I want him to have his own identity, I don’t want him to have to live in my shoes.’”

A tattoo on Mitchell’s arm with his son’s name is surrounded by clouds “because the sky is going to be the limit for him.”

And on that same arm is Mitchell’s tattoo of “Faith, Finish, Focus,” a motto he came up with two years ago, never dreaming he would put it into action because of broken leg at the Olympic Games.

“As long as you have faith in yourself, you’re able to focus on the primary task at hand,” Mitchell said, “and in doing so you’ll be able to finish anything that you start. That’s my message to everyone.”

Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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Manteo Mitchell