Cassie Mitchell competes during the Women's Discus Throw F52 final at Olympic Stadium on day 7 of the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 at on Sept. 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Every Paralympic athlete’s story is one of adaptation, of making adjustments to achieve success despite great obstacles.
That’s certainly true for Cassie Mitchell, the two-time Paralympic medalist who has competed at an elite level in multiple sports.
“I’ve had to change sports so much,” she said.
Mitchell is a T51/F51 athlete who works as a professor in biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Since an autoimmune disorder left her paralyzed at 18, she’s had to adapt more than once, to the challenges her disease created as well as changes in the availability of the events she competes in. But throughout the years, Mitchell’s mathematical mind — along with her commitment to her personal motto, “Never, never, never give up” — has helped her meet those challenges head-on.
Having an eclectic sports career at an early age may have helped, as well. As a child growing up on a small farm in Oklahoma, Mitchell was prone to shifting between sports, competing in gymnastics and dance and earning four world championship titles in equestrian speed events. By 18, she was also competing in track and had a full athletic scholarship to run the 400 meter.
But then, something happened that put an end to her promising career. Shortly after graduating from high school, Mitchell developed a rare autoimmune disorder that left her paralyzed from the chest down. She lost her track scholarship, but was granted an academic scholarship at Oklahoma State University.
There, Mitchell faced the prospect of learning to use a wheelchair while also starting college, and lost hope of competing in sports again.
That’s when an opportunity came along, one that would give Mitchell the chance to adapt to her new circumstances. Mitchell was on campus at OSU — “Literally I had been in a chair only a few weeks before I went to school; I was still adjusting” — when one of the school’s wheelchair athletics coaches approached her.
“I think he happened to see me navigate over a landscaping obstacle or something and he asked me if I would be interested in wheelchair athletics,” she said. “I honestly hadn’t heard of it.”
By chance, Mitchell had enrolled at one of the few schools at the time that had a wheelchair program. And, for someone who had never heard of wheelchair sports, it turned out that Mitchell was awfully good at them — she became an All-American in wheelchair basketball during her time at Oklahoma State.
That’s when she hit her second big speed bump, and made the first of a series of shifts in her Para career.
“Unfortunately as my disease progressed … I had to keep changing sports.”
In 2005, she started losing hand and arm function, and switched to quad rugby, where she was a starter on her team. Then, realizing it would be difficult to train for a team sport alongside her full-time job as an engineer, she turned to Para-cycling, for which she designed her own chair. The switch paid off for Mitchell, who won three national championships in a row and two world titles.
Suddenly, the Paralympic Games London 2012 became a possibility — that is, until quad cycling was removed from the London program.
Mitchell didn’t give up, though. Instead, she turned back to her “roots” — track and field. It was already 2011, but with track, Mitchell was able to make her London dream a reality. She designed her own racing chair and used her engineering knowledge to break down her throws, improving them by isolating her strongest muscles. The work paid off.
“I went to my first track and field event in November 2011 and then I made the Paralympic team in track and field in 2012,” she said.
Not only did she make the team, but she had an impressive performance in London, placing fourth in throwing and racing events. Plus, finishing just short of the podium motivated her to look forward to Rio 2016. At the same time, Mitchell’s opportunities were becoming thinner and thinner. Racing events were dropped from her classification in Rio, so she dropped those events and specialized in discus and club throw, an event specifically for quad athletes.
Mitchell was now exclusively a throwing athlete, and four months before the Paralympic Games in Rio, she was ready to make her second U.S. team. But then, something else went wrong. In the months leading up to the Paralympic Trials, “I was so exhausted after training that I literally could not push my day chair,” she said. Mitchell was diagnosed with leukemia.
She still didn’t give up. With the Paralympic Trials looming, and with Mitchell suffering from a low blood cell count, she was forced to cut down her training. Again, she used her engineering knowledge to adapt to the situation and make every training session count. “I break (my throwing) down like an engineer problem,” she said. “It allows me to do more with less.”
Against all odds, Mitchell made it to the Paralympic Trials, and punched her ticket to Rio.
“I think I passed out twice,” she said. “They carted me off the field unconscious … but I made my mark and I hit standard, luckily, before I passed out.”
In Rio, she won two medals — a silver in discus and a bronze in club throw. Plus, she competed in the 50-meter backstroke in swimming, placing seventh.
Now, Mitchell looks forward to the 2021 Paralympic Games, where she will compete for the only thing missing from her resume — a gold medal, and the opportunity to hear the national anthem from the top of the podium.
“It’s all about the gold medal at this point,” she said. “There’s either the gold, or there’s nothing.”
But there are even more challenges for her to conquer before she can get there. For one, her classification has been combined with the F52 and F53 athletes for discus in Rio.
“Some of the 53s can throw almost twice as far,” she said. This time around, “my best medal opportunity is club … but I’m training for both.”
Also, like every other elite athlete, the postponement has created some uncertainty, and many pre-Paralympic competitions have been canceled.
“My first competition in over a year and a half may be the Paralympic Trials,” she said. “That’s a scary thought.”
Mitchell will face these obstacles in the same way she’s dealt with the others — using her brain. Working as a professor while training for the Paralympic Games is quite the balancing act. But Mitchell said her job actually has been a key to helping her adapt to all these changes.
“If I wasn’t an engineer … I wouldn’t have had the success that I’ve had.”
She knows that whatever comes her way, she’ll have the smarts to handle it. That explains Mitchell’s cavalier attitude in the face of the uncertainty around the Tokyo Games.
“There’s a lot of things that are unknown, but that’s true in life in general,” she said. “I wasn’t counting on a cancer diagnosis four months before 2016. I wasn’t counting on being paralyzed when I was 18. So, there are a lot of things in life that are unknown, so you have to not use those unknowns as an excuse for not setting your goals and moving forward.
“I’m not going to let fear or the unknown stop me.”