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Cassie Mitchell: Competing for Team USA in the Paralympic Games

As an internationally decorated athlete in the T51 class, Cassie Mitchell is bound for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where she’s favored to medal in events that include throwing the discus and club. Photo by Jack Kearse.

Preparing to throw a discus, Cassie Mitchell is a study in determination.

Seated in a narrow chair — anchored to the ground and hugging her hips as snugly as a carnival ride — her technique is uniquely honed to the task.

The wide belt that circles her waist lends stability. Her left hand is strapped to a pole that serves as an anchor. The strap across her knees secures her legs firmly in place.

Using her most functional muscle group — her powerful biceps — Mitchell rests the discus across the palm of her right hand, glances over her left shoulder, and swings her arm back, up and across her body, eyes tracing the disc’s soaring trajectory.

The simple act of flinging a weighted plate across a field requires strategy, specialized hardware and significant physical effort. But Mitchell 04G 09PhD knows a thing or two about finding a way to conquer her goals.

In response to the obstacles she faces as a quadriplegic with visual impairment, she has become a master in the art of adaptation, both on and off the playing field.

As an internationally decorated wheelchair sprinter and field athlete in the T51 class, Mitchell is bound for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, which open today and run through Sept. 18, where she’s favored to medal in events that include throwing the discus and club.

In her role as a research professor in biomedical engineering at the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, a partnership between Georgia Tech and Emory, Mitchell has built a career around problem-solving — analytical skills that have also helped her assess the very biomechanics of her movements in competition.

But the perseverance that fuels her? That’s always been there — a driving force as essential to Mitchell as breathing.

The drive to compete

This will mark Mitchell’s second trip to the international competition. Her first appearance at the London 2012 Paralympic Games brought her a fourth-place finish, which only whetted her appetite to make it onto the medal stand.

Over the past four years, she’s become a world-record holder in the women’s shot put, as well as the T51 100-meter, 200-meter, and 400-meter races. She also holds several American records.

Then this spring, with the promise of the qualifying trials looming just a few months off, Mitchell received challenging news.

The fluctuating blood counts and mysterious lung issues that had dogged her throughout months of heavy training were actually signs of chronic myeloid leukemia, a form of cancer based in certain blood-forming cells of the bone marrow.

For Mitchell, who has spent a lifetime adapting to health hurdles, the news meant yet one more critical adjustment. Working with Dr. Vamsi Kota at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute, she elected to balance her ongoing athletic training with her cancer care.

“I told Dr. Kota that it was his job to tell me if I was pushing myself too far, and he was definitely very supportive,” Mitchell says. “I think most doctors would have been like, ‘Are you kidding me? You still want to train?’ But he got it, he understood what I wanted, and he expedited the treatment.”

In fact, “everyone at Winship has treated me as something more than a cancer diagnosis, which has been important,” she adds.

In May, just two weeks after starting chemotherapy, Mitchell was again competing, her eyes on Rio.

The following month — only 10 days before the U.S. Paralympic trials — she was admitted to Emory University Hospital with an accelerated heart rate, pneumonia and shingles, side effects of her chemotherapy.

“I was on the sixth floor and remember looking out watching people run on McDonough Field,” she says. “It was pretty inspirational. I told the doctors and nurses, ‘I need to be out there.’”

Today, she’s fully resumed her Paralympic training, crediting Kota with his skill in balancing “the risk and the rewards.”

The power of resilience

Mitchell has always been a fierce competitor.

Raised in Warner, Oklahoma, she showed early promise, racking up trophies for a variety of sports, ranging from gymnastics to barrel-racing and track-and-field events.

When a severe asthma attack landed her in the ICU at the age of 12, she was told that her days of distance running were probably over.

Fine, Mitchell thought. I’ll become a sprinter.

And she did, winning medals for her speed.

Around the same time, Mitchell began experiencing curious bouts of double vision — the first indicators of Devic’s Neuromyelitis Optica, also called Devic’s disease.

The autoimmune disorder, which causes the immune system and antibodies to attack optic nerves and the spinal cord, went undiagnosed for six years, until Mitchell awoke, a few weeks before starting college, unable to move her legs.

The paralysis would spread through her legs and upper torso, eventually affecting her wrists and hands.

For a young woman who’d moved like a dervish throughout her childhood, it was a radical adjustment. But when the private college she’d planned to attend on a track scholarship abruptly dropped its offer, Mitchell rebounded by studying chemical engineering at Oklahoma State University on an academic scholarship.

One day a coach stopped her as she deftly negotiated her way across campus in her wheelchair. He praised her skill and asked if she’d considered wheelchair sports.

Mitchell didn’t even know they existed.

She took up wheelchair basketball, quickly excelling at it until the paralysis interfered with her ability to catch the ball. For a while, she tried wheelchair rugby, also called “murderball.” “I still have the scars and stitches to show for it,” she laughs.

Years later, a chance to be back on a track nudged her to consider the Paralympics. “With track and field, I felt that old drive and spirit that I had known before,” she says. “I knew I wanted to finish what I started."

Going for gold

Although wheelchair racing is Mitchell’s strongest event, the 2016 Paralympic Games isn't offering that for her T51 classification.

Instead, she will focus on throwing events. Her preparation has included cross-training that incorporates swimming, lifting weighted gloves, and hand-cycling for strength and speed.

“Figuring out a technique that works best is really an exercise in problem-solving for every athlete, drawing upon biomechanics, centrifugal force, physics — whatever works,” she says.

Because chemotherapy has compromised her immune system, Mitchell will skip opening and closing ceremonies, instead flying down for her individual events, tentatively scheduled around Sept. 11 and Sept. 14.

But she remains buoyed by memories of participating in ceremonies at the 2012 London Paralympics. “It was my first international track and field meet — being in front of 80,000 screaming fans was amazing,” she recalls.

While it’s an honor to simply compete, make no mistake. Mitchell knows why she’s there. In Rio, she’s going for gold.

Eyes on the prize

When not in training, Mitchell works in the field of computational modeling, sometimes called biomedical informatics analysis.

Her goal? To develop methodologies to better clinically treat and assess diseases and injuries of the brain and spinal cord, not unlike her own.

Mitchell jokingly calls herself a “neuropathology forecaster.”

“You put together very diverse and large data sets and try to make useful predictions from it — analyzing how a disease will progress and which treatment options look the most promising,” she says.

Her analysis can help narrow treatment options, refining a pathway for experimental and clinical work. “It’s new and interesting every day,” Mitchell says. “And it allows you to address the needs of a patient for now and in the future.”

Looking forward to the games, Mitchell is optimistic. Throughout her life, the sturdy alchemy of faith, friends and positive-thinking has served her well.

Weeks after realizing that she would face life in a wheelchair, Mitchell made a decision. She could give up, or she could live her life —moving and striving and achieving.

It’s a choice she makes every day.

And Mitchell likes to finish what she starts.

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