Jamie Whitmore poses for a photo at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on Mar. 7, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.
The night before the cycling road race at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, Jamie Whitmore had a dream that she won the gold medal.
It was so real, so vivid, that she woke up as one often does from such dreams thinking for a moment that it had actually happened.
The race she won in her dreams couldn’t have played out much better than the race she won in real life later that day, however. After taking the lead, a cyclist from Germany and one from China passed Whitmore as they headed into the final stretch.
“I’m no sprinter, I don’t know when to sprint, so I was freaking out, but at the same time the finish line was getting closer and closer and I was running out of time,” said Whitmore, 43, from Somerset, California. “The girl from Germany pulls to the right, I go left, now we’re all next to each other. At the 500-meter sign I think, ‘When do I sprint?’ then I got to 200 meters and in my head I thought that must be it and I went for it. I narrowly edged them out and I still replay that moment in my head. I’m never going to have a moment like that again. Honestly it was the kind of thing you see on TV.”
Now preparing to return to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo and hopefully add to her two medals from Rio — she also won silver in track pursuit — Whitmore was recently the guest of honor at the third annual A Celebration of Heart Gala hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation. In addition to her busy schedule training, racing and being a mom to twin boys, she’s also a regular on the public speaking circuit and a source of inspiration to many.
It’s easy to see why.
For years, Whitmore dominated women’s mountain biking and the XTERRA tour of off-road triathlon competitions. Through the early into the late 2000s, her list of accomplishments included 37 XTERRA championship wins, more than any other man or woman at that time, six national titles and one world title.
Then in 2008, she was diagnosed with a rare type of bone cancer called spindle cell sarcoma. It was wrapped around her sciatic nerve, and the next two years were filled with surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy and infections. After a long, difficult battle, she finally beat the cancer, but also lost the use of her left leg below the knee.
By the time she got back on the bike three years later, after doctors told her that her competitive career was over, it was with a different body.
“There were two things that scared me,” she said. “The pressure to try to be as good as I was before but knowing things were different, and then just plain falling. I can’t clip my foot out (of the pedal) on its own anymore, I have to use my hand, so there was always this fear when I started and wasn’t as strong as I am now when I go mountain biking that if I start to go over, I’m going down. There’s no saving it.”
In 2012, about eight or nine months after returning to the bike, Whitmore competed in the Leadville 100, a grueling 100-mile race held in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado starting at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet and encompassing steep climbs.
“The scariest thing was just people getting off their bikes and starting to walk on the hills in front of me because that’s not an option for me,” she said. “I’m yelling to get out of the way because I can’t get off and walk. It involves me dragging my foot, then I can’t get back on the bike. It was one of the most stressful races ever.”
Whitmore heaps the praise on her national team coaches and teammates for helping her learn the ins and outs of life as a Para-cyclist. Even though everyone may have different disabilities, their advice on what worked for them and what didn’t, what helped others and things she might try were invaluable, Whitmore said, in the transition.
Now with Tokyo rapidly approaching, Whitmore said her main focus this time around is on the road. She finished the 2019 road world championships fifth in the time trial and seventh in the road race, and on the track she was fourth in the scratch race, sixth in the time trial and seventh in the pursuit. With more women competing now than ever before, she said, the competition gets stronger every year.
“When I started XTERRA there were only a handful of women and by the time I went out the number had tripled, and I’m seeing the same thing evolving in Para-cyling, which makes me excited,” she said. “I know I’m not getting younger, but I’m also not getting slower. The competition’s getting faster. I’m trying to put everything I can into going into Tokyo being super focused and mentally tough and hoping that on that day I put everything together and have the best race of my life. That’s all I can do.”
One thing Whitmore won’t do is quit.
When she speaks to crowds, she said, it always ends up being a little different but in general the message is the same.
“Life happens and we all have things that we have to overcome,” she said. “Quit is not in my vocabulary. My dad raised me to be that way and I’m raising my kids to be that way, and the world needs to be that way. It doesn’t matter if you finish last, in the middle, or first, everyone needs to get across that finish line.”