Tokyo Paralympics: Quadriplegic Cassie Mitchell won silver in 2016 while battling leukemia
Many athletes competing in the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics have some incredible stories and life experiences to share with the world. Cassie Mitchell is no different. The 40-year-old athlete's story is a lesson in resilience and zeal for life, despite the many obstacles that lay in her way. The two-time Paralympic star is all set to compete in the 2020 Paralympics in club throw and discus throw events.
Born and raised on a small farm in Oklahoma, Mitchell was always interested in various sports and physical activities. At the tender age of two, Cassie began riding horses. Mitchell's grandfather further fueled her passion for horseriding by gifting her a young retired racehorse as a Christmas gift when she was in her early teens. She began competing in Western speed events and she had already won four World Championship even titles by the age of 16! Aside from horseriding, Mitchell was also an elite gymnast, dancer, and a runner. However, all her physical activities came to a screeching halt when she was hospitalized due to severe asthma and told that she would never be able to run again.
After her high school graduation, Mitchell had an autoimmune or “allergic” reaction that triggered a neurological condition called Devics Neuromyelitis Optica. An auto-immune, inflammatory disease of the central nervous system in which there are episodes of inflammation and damage to the myelin (fatty, protective covering of nerves) that almost exclusively affect the optic (eye) nerves and spinal cord. According to her website, one morning she simply awoke and could not move her legs. Multiple later recurrences of the Devics over the course of several years wreaked havoc on Cassie’s spinal cord, ultimately rendering her a quadriplegic. Cassie is now completely paralyzed from the chest down, has significant impairments to her arms, wrists, and hands, and has permanent double vision from the “optic” portion of Devics’.
"Early on, just two weeks after my initial paralysis, I decided that I would soar above my situation like an eagle, rising to my best. It is a choice I still must face each and every day. I have a sign in my office (pictured) that says, “Never, never, never give up,” that serves as a reminder to my commitment to overcome challenges and find beauty from pain.," she shared on her website. She later enrolled at Oklahoma State where she took up wheelchair basketball and became an All-American in it before graduating with a degree in chemical engineering. However, a recurrence of her Devics in 2006 forced Cassie to leave wheelchair basketball weeks after becoming an alternate on the USA womens’ wheelchair basketball team. With her additional upper body impairments leaving her a C6 quadriplegic, Cassie no longer had the required physical ability to play basketball. She then took up Para cycling and Para athletics.
"After having switched sports several times due to my physical condition, I made it to the Paralympic Track & Field team, acquiring multiple world titles, medals, and records within 3 years," she shared with Team Sunrise. Mitchell excelled in para cycling and was looking forward to competing in the 2012 London Olympics. But the quad cycling program was suddenly removed from the London Paralympics, although she was disappointed she didn't let this obstacle stop her from competing in London Paralympics. She turned to track and field. She put her engineering knowledge and skills to use and designed her own racing chair and came up with strategies to improve her throws for discus and club throws. Her hard 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 told Team USA.
Despite it being her first Paralympic participation, Mitchell managed to impress everybody by coming in fourth in throwing and racing events. Mitchell wanted to achieve more so she immediately began training for Rio Paralympics that was to be held in 2016. This time around she decided to focus on discus and club throw. Just as things were beginning to fall in place for her, four months prior to Rio games she was diagnosed with leukemia. Despite the diagnosis, Mitchell continued to train while undergoing her treatment.
"I eventually got the diagnosis of leukemia (blood cancer) a little more than 4-months prior to the 2016 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. I never quit. The Games fueled me to overcome the seemingly impossible odds of cancer and chemotherapy. I was blessed with a silver and bronze medal in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games despite the ongoing chemotherapy. In Rio 2016, I was also one of the first athletes to compete in two different sports at the same Games (the other one being swimming)," she explained.
Mitchell is more than ready for 2021 Paralympic Games and has her eyes on bringing home the gold medal. “It’s all about the gold medal at this point. There’s either the gold, or there’s nothing," she declared. Aside from excelling at sports, Mitchell also has an impressive resume. She lives by the motto of "“Never, never, never give up.” She currently works as an assistant professor in Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. Mitchell founded the Laboratory for Pathology Dynamics, which does research in predictive medicine and machine learning. She was also recently awarded the American Neurological Association Outstanding Young Investigator Award and the National Science Foundation CAREER award.
“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," she added.
The 2020 Paralympic Games (originally scheduled for last year and delayed by the pandemic) will be held two weeks after the Olympics, from August 24 through September 5. You can live stream the Tokyo Paralympics on Team USA website here.