Jamie Whitmore: Taking her comeback to the track

By Katie Branham | Nov. 20, 2013, 11:15 a.m. (ET)

While brushing her teeth or washing her hands, Jamie Whitmore is constantly reminded of the goals she set for herself. On her bathroom mirror, it reads, “Short term – learn to ride a track bike. Long term –Rio 2016.”

Photo of Jamie Whitmore
Cancer survivor Jamie Whitmore will take her skills from the trails to the track at the 2013 U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling National Championships

Whitmore is competing in the U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling National Championships that start on Nov. 22 in Carson, Calif., and the day before she competes she will learn how to ride a track bike.

“I have a hipster-fixie bike that I’ve been practicing on right now, but I will ride a track bike for the first time on Thursday,” Whitmore said. “The thing is, this whole year was a learning process for me anyway. I’m not expecting great things, but I have an amazing coach in Neal Henderson, and if anyone can give a one-day crash course in track cycling, he can do it.”

Whitmore hasn’t always competed in Paralympic sport, but she has always been an athlete. When she was five-years-old, Whitmore began swimming competitively, and by the time she was six, she dreamed of standing on the Olympic podium someday. After swimming it was softball and volleyball before she found her niche in track and field in eighth grade. She quickly found success as a distance runner and earned a scholarship to California State University, Northridge where she ran cross country and track.

After graduating in 1998 and spending the summer touring Europe, Whitmore decided she wanted to be a professional triathlete.  By 2001 she was racing mountain bikes professionally, and one year later she won her first Xterra off-road triathlon.

Whitmore went on to become the most successful female athlete in XTERRA history. With 37 wins, six national titles and one world title, Whitmore started her 2008 season looking to add another world title to her resume.

But Whitmore had a challenge waiting for her more difficult than winning a world title. In March of 2008, Whitmore learned that the source of the lingering pain in her leg was cancer – a spindle cell sarcoma that had wrapped around her sciatic nerve.

The next year was filled with more nights in a hospital bed than in her own bed. Whitmore went through five surgeries, radiation, autotransplantation to move her kidney and sepsis that left her fighting for her life. She lost the use of her lower left leg due to a condition known as drop foot and had to relearn how to walk. She was told that she would never run or ride a bike again, and they didn’t know if she would ever be able to have children.

Ever one to overcome the odds, Whitmore did just that as she and her husband Courtney Cardenas welcomed twin boys, Christian and Ryder, into their lives in January of 2010.

For someone who once dreamed of standing on an Olympic podium and had narrowed her focus to competing in mountain biking at the London 2012 Olympic Games, it was difficult to accept that her dream would never be able to happen as she once thought.

“It was really hard watching the Olympics in 2008. I was still pretty sick and wondering if I was going to pull this off, and be alive,” Whitmore said. “I was told I would never run again, so every time there was a running event, or triathlon, or mountain biking, it was very emotional to watch.”

But after learning of the Paralympic Games, she had a very different experience watching the 2012 Games.  

“I once again saw all of my friends in mountain biking, and it was bittersweet to see them make it,” Whitmore said. “But I had that desire and said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to Rio.’ From the Opening to the Closing ceremonies, it just kept lighting my fire. I knew that was it. I had to go to Rio.”

While Whitmore faced a lifetime of obstacles in the past several years, she takes it all in stride.

“There is actually a lot of good that comes out of this,” Whitmore said. “If I hadn’t encountered all that I have, I wouldn’t have this bigger platform to be able to spread awareness to Paralympics, to cancer and being a mom with a disability.

“People would always say, ‘Well you’re a professional athlete, so that’s why you can do that.’ But they can’t say that any more. Now I’m disabled, and I had cancer. It is a pretty powerful thing to be able to turn to someone and say, ‘You know what, you can do this. You can get off the couch, you can run that 5k, you can ride your bike. Because I got out of my hospital bed, I learned how to walk again, I walk with a limp, and I do it every single day.’”

In 2012, Whitmore won her first Paralympic national title on the roads as she claimed the C3 time trial race and two months later she finished the grueling Leadville 100 mile mountain bike race. At the 2013 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships, Whitmore won two gold medals in the road race and time trial.

While the odds may be against her this week as she learns how to ride a track bike and competes in the national championship the next day, Whitmore isn’t one to back down from a challenge.

“I figure in order to better my chances to be chosen to go to the 2016 Paralympic Games, I need to learn to ride the track. Everyone says it is fun, and I’m all about experiencing new things. I’ve probably tried more new things since I became disabled than I ever did before.”

Once she can cross this year’s goals off the mirror, Whitmore already knows what goals are going up for 2014.

“Win nationals. Win worlds.”

Watch Whitmore compete at the U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling National Championships, Nov. 22-Nov.24, via a live webcast at UniversalSports.com. Tickets are also on sale now at VeloSportsCenter.com/LAGP.