Home News “Broken Leg” Runner ...

“Broken Leg” Runner Manteo Mitchell Breaks Into A New Sport

By Karen Rosen | Dec. 14, 2020, 1:34 p.m. (ET)

Left: Manteo Mitchell competes at the Olympic Games London 2012 on Aug. 9, 2012 in London. Right: Manteo Mitchell poses for a photo in front of the USA Bobsled and Skeleton logo.

 

Before Manteo Mitchell took his first bobsled ride, everyone tried to tell him what to expect. But Mitchell, an Olympic track and field silver medalist, knew that to truly understand the sensation, he had to experience it for himself.

“It’s like being in a dryer and being a pair of tennis shoes,” Mitchell said. “Nothing but shoes, just blunk, blunk, blunk, blunk.”

Combine all of that tumbling through the turns with “the mix of nerves and jitters and the straight-up adrenaline rush before, during and after” and, he concluded, “I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

The trip down the Park City, Utah, track last Saturday was Mitchell’s official baptism into the sport during a USA Bobsled rookie camp. Nicole Vogt from the women’s national team was his pilot and they practiced their cadences the night before.

“I always go into situations preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best,” Mitchell said. “I knew going in there was a chance that we could wreck, but if I go in with the mindset of ‘Hey, this might happen,’ then I’ll be OK if it does happen.”

Spoken like a man who has faced the unexpected and prevailed.

At the Olympic Games London 2012, Mitchell was the lead-off runner for Team USA in the first round of the 4 x 400-meter relay. Just past the halfway point, his left fibula bone snapped and he felt his leg give way. Despite excruciating pain, Mitchell kept running on the broken leg.

When he passed the baton to a teammate, Mitchell kept America’s hopes alive. Because he didn’t quit – and even turned in a respectable split – Team USA tied the Bahamas for the fastest preliminary time in history.

Mitchell was sidelined while Team USA went on to take the silver in the final, but he also received a medal as a member of the team. President Barack Obama later singled him out for praise in a Team USA celebration ceremony at the White House.

Making A Final Push
Now Mitchell, 33, figures he can double his chances of making another Olympic team. He still wants to compete next year at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in the 400 meters and also has a shot at making the 4 x 400 relay or 4 x 400 mixed relay teams.

In addition, Mitchell has his eye on the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 as a brakeman or push athlete in bobsled.

“So, I did a new thing,” he wrote on Instagram in November from a rookie camp in Lake Placid.

“I kept it under wraps, and everybody found out on social media,” Mitchell said. “Then I started getting the calls and the texts like, ‘Are you serious?’”

He certainly is. It all started in July when Mitchell got a phone call out of the blue on his birthday from Aron McGuire, the CEO of USA Bobsled. McGuire, who used to work with USA Track and Field, told him, “I have a unique opportunity. You should try it out. It’s basically track and field on ice.”

Mitchell replied, “OK, I’ll try it out and see, but no promises.”

He was an ideal candidate for bobsled, which often recruits push athletes from other sports: He’s a thrill seeker who loves roller coasters. He grew up in North Carolina, so he’s not afraid of the cold. And he not only has the agility of a former football and basketball player, he was also willing to pack 20 pounds onto his 185-pound frame.

Mitchell was well aware that Lauryn Williams, his teammate on the 2012 Olympic team, went from her first bobsled ride to a Sochi 2014 Olympic silver medal in about six months. Williams, who also won a gold and a silver in track and field, is the first African American woman to medal in both Summer and Winter Games.

Lolo Jones, another 2012 teammate who has shuttled between hurdling and bobsled, said Mitchell can be “very, very successful. I think he’s really going to help one of the newer guy drivers out tremendously.”

If Mitchell reaches his goal, he would be only the sixth athlete to win an Olympic medal in the summer and winter Games. He would also be the first African American male to do it and “that just gives you a little extra extra oomph,” Mitchell said. “It’s just something that I’ve always had instilled in me: Always try to be the best that you can be, the best version of yourself.”

Fame Precedes Him
He said that during the Lake Placid rookie camp some of the other athletes told him they were among his fans.

“It was kind of weird,” Mitchell said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m cool having a conversation with you, but at the same time, we’re here competing for the same positions.’”

He has been working on his explosiveness since he’s more of a 200/400-meter runner than a pure sprinter. Mitchell won the national indoor championships at 300 meters in 2019.

“A bobsled athlete,” he said, “is basically like if a power lifter and a short sprinter had an elite baby.”

Mitchell has tackled his steep learning curve with enthusiasm and a bit of obsession. Before his first run, he studied the course as if I were a pilot, so he knew what was coming once he sat down in the sled.

“I closed my eyes,” Mitchell said, “and said, ‘OK, we’re going to drop here. I know there’s going to be more pressure here. I know that six and 12 are the devil, so I need to make sure that when I get out of that turn, no matter what, I hold my grip, I keep my butt back and my hips engaged, and I make sure that I breathe when I need to.’”

That evening, Mitchell said he watched the video showing him load into the sled behind Vogt “probably 150 times. I’m not even exaggerating that, because I’m a student of the sport already. I did see that the load was very, very nice, with a very good transition there.

“I didn’t kick Nicole like a few other people did.”

Mitchell said he has talked to a lot of drivers who are encouraging and optimistic about his chances to compete for Team USA. It is unlikely he would compete on the world cup circuit this season, since four-man team selection is taking place in Lake Placid while he is in Park City, but Mitchell said he hopes to qualify for the North American Cup circuit. The men’s teams will be named Dec. 15.

“It’s a great testament to the pilots and how much work they put in on and off the ice,” Mitchell said, “to be able to bring a guy in like me with little to no experience in the sport, but trying to learn fast and grasp all the concepts that will make me into one of the best brakemen Team USA has had.”

I always go into situations preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best.

Manteo Mitchell, Track & Field, Bobsled

Training With A Dual Purpose
Mitchell had not planned on running indoor track in 2021 even before he took up bobsled. “The good thing is all the training that I’m doing for bobsled,” he said, “is only setting me up to be more successful on the track.”

Mitchell contemplated retirement last year, but his son Khi, who was born just after the London Olympics, talked him out of it.

“He was like, ‘Daddy, I want to see you run. I want to see you go to the Olympics,” Mitchell said of his son, who just turned 8. “So, I said, “OK, let’s do it. I will do whatever I need to do to get to Tokyo and after that we’ll live life.’”

Or maybe Mitchell’s career will stretch another seven months through the Beijing 2022 Games, and possibly include another medal.

“I feel like that’s like a fairly tale ending for me to cap off my athletic career,” he said.

When Mitchell broke his leg back in 2012, he had no idea how much that injury would change the trajectory of his life.

He went back to Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, to heal. Yet every time Mitchell closed his eyes, he would see a vision of the race.

He thinks the broken fibula may have been a result of hitting his leg on some steps while he was running for a shuttle bus three days earlier.

In A Rush To Come Back
Doctors advised him against returning to the track too quickly, but Mitchell did it anyway. He came back during the 2013 season faster and stronger, placing seventh at the U.S. championships.

But although Mitchell felt he had recovered physically, the mental effects lingered.

“I would be in a training session,” he said. “and I would get to where I had the injury in London on the track, and I would feel it – just out of nowhere – just feel it. There would be days where I couldn’t focus or I couldn’t train.

“It was just overcoming that sense of urgency, and that sense of, “If I get right here my leg is going to snap again.’ Because that took a while to get over.”

At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track and Field, Mitchell was hampered by a minor injury caused by favoring his left leg too much.

He also was not prepared mentally. “I literally got out and just jogged it on in,” he said of his preliminary race. “I just wasn’t feeling it that year.”

Although his broken leg finally stopped haunting him in 2017, Mitchell has a tattoo of broken Olympic rings at the spot where his fibula snapped. The body art is a constant reminder of his determination.

He has since upgraded the tattoo by coloring the rings and adding a snow globe that looks like a stopwatch along with a cross and the words, ‘My Race, His Glory.” A tattoo on his arm says “Faith, Focus, Finish.”

Mitchell has parlayed that freak accident into a career as a popular motivational speaker who travels around the world. He speaks to groups ranging from Fortune 500 companies to elementary schools and did 50-100 a year before the pandemic. Now he does his speeches virtually.

“It’s just great to be an ambassador of goodwill and of never giving up,” he said.

Now Mitchell’s bobsled adventures give him new material to add to his speeches.

“Each day I’m learning more and more that it’s an art to this,” he said. “I love it.”

Maybe Mitchell will someday tell his audience that riding in a bobsled feels like tennis shoes bouncing around in a dryer, or perhaps he’ll experience something even more intense as his career progresses.

Jones said she warned Mitchell that Park City is “a cakewalk” compared Lake Placid, which is one of the toughest tracks in the world.

“It’s quite frightening,” Jones said, “while Park City is super easy. It’s a short track and he’s going to have a ball. He’s going to love the sport, then he’s going to come to Lake Placid and might get his world rocked.”

Related Athletes

head shot

Manteo Mitchell