She’s carried an unfair load of adversity.
That’s my words or your words, not hers.
Look close at the life Cassie Mitchell leads, and it’s just not a fair fight on behalf of adversity itself. The Warner native body-slams it, doing so without the use of her legs and limited use of her arms.
Her spirit alone, her zest to conquer, blows adversity off its feet, and shames it for even thinking it belongs in her neighborhood of life.
She’s kept it from getting in the way of her dream, which she’ll realize late this month when the London 2012 Paralympics follows the Olympic counterpart, Aug. 29-Sept. 9.
Now living in Atlanta, she lives a far different life than the one she saw for herself as a Warner High School senior in 1999. She was part of the Lady Eagles’ state championship that year. She was set on running track at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., where she would also be a pre-med major.
She was also an outstanding barrel racer among other rodeo activities, having won four world championship event titles and two all-around titles. She could have easily done that or pursued gymnastics, something she began doing at the age of 2 and eventually becoming part of an elite team competing statewide.
Life was full of options.
Then came that summer morning, just weeks after her high school graduation.
“My legs wouldn’t move,” she said.
Nor would they again.
The sudden strike came from a condition known as Neuromyelitis Optica or Devic’s Disease, 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.
Her parents, Randy and Clara Mitchell, were stunned when she called them into her bedroom.
“She had just gotten her immunizations current for college and I remember the night before she told my husband and I she was feeling like she was coming down with the flu,” Clara said. “She took some Tylenol and went to bed.
“That next morning I was like dumbfounded, then scared. It was so out of the blue and still, it took us about a year to get a complete diagnosis.”
She’d had symptoms as early as 12 with an onset of double vision. The actual diagnosis came when the paralysis moved from her legs into her trunk and lower back.
After a year or so, she began college at Oklahoma State, Cassie took up wheelchair basketball, and almost from the start, excelled at it, becoming an All-American. The Wentz Research Scholar and USA Today Academic All-American graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, then went on to Georgia Tech where she began work on her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.
It was there that she made the U.S. women’s team in 2006, putting her on course for an Olympics goal in 2008.
The disease struck again, impairing her wrists, hands and triceps muscles.
“I couldn’t open or close my fingers,” she said.
Adversity, striking another blow, had made her quadriplegic.
She still had her studies and a research career in front of her. Shortly thereafter, Robert Lee, a professor at Georgia Tech who was her mentor on her graduate thesis had an off-the-cuff conversation with her about things outside the classroom.
The discussion, she said, turned into what she ultimately wanted from her life.
“The obvious was my work,” she remembers thinking.
But typical of a research professor, he was digging further.
“I’m talking about your dreams,” he recalled himself saying in a phone interview this past week. “She’d played some quad rugby and I made some comment that she was really good at it and ought to pursue it more.”
She’d played for a Shepherd Spinal Cord Injury and Rehabilitation Hospital team from 2006-11, helping them to the national championships four years in a row, placing third in 2011.
“She had one of these ‘yeah, well, I’ve been down that road before and it didn’t turn out.’” Lee said. “I finally got it out of her that when this condition struck her, she came up with a dream to make it to the Olympics. I think what I did at that point was kind of give her a kick in the butt, you know, noting that not everyone has a life dream and those that do need to figure out a way to make it happen.”
Cassie agreed it was a pep talk she needed.
“At that point I didn’t see rugby being realistic but there were some individual sports, but I’d have to train on my own,” Cassie said. “I remember him saying ‘we’ll let’s pick one, you’re here working on your postdoctoral and as long as you’re here, I’ll do what I can to help you make it happen.’
“I was a little hesitant, but I was hearing this little voice, ‘don’t be afraid, I am with you.’ Although my faith’s always been important to me, at the time I wasn’t thinking of that being a scripture but it was.”
Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (NIV)
Translated for Cassie’s sake: Adversity, I’m about to mount a rally.
Within six weeks she was competing in cycling. She obtained a special glove she used to grip her cranks. She wears a patch, usually concealed by sunglasses, over one eye to offset the double vision.
”I didn’t have a bike so I borrowed one which didn’t fit or function for a female quadriplegic and we had to make adaptations,” she said.
Within a year, she was in Denmark where she won two world championships in the fall of 2011. For some reasons she still finds hard to explain, those marks didn’t meet the criteria to qualify for the ParaPan American Games or offer her an automatic qualification spot in London.
That’s when the thought of wheelchair track came to her.
“I went online to look at the track qualifications for USA track and field, I had to compete in one International Paralympic Committee approved meet in 2011 (in addition to meeting the Paralympic time standards in 2012),” she said.
There was one in Chula Vista, Calif.
“I borrowed a track chair that was three inches too big, cashed in all my frequent flyer miles and went there,” she said.
She won the 100, 200 and 400 meter races and set an American record for her classification in the 400. Now, she thought, perhaps she could not only get an Olympic birth in one sport, but two.
In June, a week before the U.S. track trials, she went to the cycling trials in Augusta, Ga., and lowered her world record by seven percent and got her fifth national championship. Again, on discretionary criteria, she was short.
“I’m like, ‘what more can I do?’ It was a very emotional low to not hear my name called for the cycling team,” she said. “I had to remind myself, in five days I’m still competing for a berth in track and field, and qualifications in track are by time. I know what I’ve done and I know I’m capable.”
In Indianapolis, she qualified for the Paralympics in the 100 meters and 200 meters with personal best times, and she additionally qualified for the discus — becoming the only USA athlete who will compete in both track and field events in London.
Yes, this from the girl who had lost the ability to grip.
“It’s definitely not a conventional frisbee-like throw,” she said. “It’s more like a pendulum move off to my side. I’ll take some swings to get my shoulder in motion and it’s like a little bit like tossing a bowling ball as I come across my chest.”
Her typical toss goes 13 meters. Her every move impresses her parents and those who have watched her since childhood.
“You think parents should be the ones teaching their kids but she’s the one that’s taught us so much,” Clara said. “It’s surreal knowing she’s going to London. I’ve gotten so emotional calling everyone about it. Are we making the trip? If it takes a loan, or whatever, absolutely.”
Dotty Faith has known Cassie from her days attending York Street Christian Church.
“Hers is a story that if I heard it from someone else, I’d think they were lying,” Faith said. “But I’ve seen it for myself. I’ve seen her live it and it’s a marvelous story.”
One wonders what she could inspire in her 20 undergraduate students at Georgia Tech. A cure for cancer? A cure for what ails her?
“I’m not one to say if someone comes in with a cold and doesn’t feel like they’re up to their work, that hey, look at what I’ve overcome, too bad for you, get over it,” she said. “That’s not really what matters. That’s little stuff.
“If I encourage them in anything it’s to go for what you want to accomplish. I think everyone has natural God-given abilities, an inner drive if you will, that’s a blessing from God. Everyone has it in some form. You just have to apply it.”
For more on Cassie Miitchell’s life and her accomplishments, visit her website at cassie-mitchell.com.