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‘Never give up’: In third Paralympics, Emory, Ga. Tech researcher aims for gold

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Biomedical engineering assistant professor Cassie Mitchell is on a quest for gold in the Tokyo Paralympics, in hopes of adding to her collection of other Paralympic and World Championship medals. Photo courtesy of Mark Reis/U.S. Paralympics Track & Field.

ATLANTA - Cassie Mitchell has always been a talented athlete. Her childhood and teenage years were a blur of gymnastics, track and equestrian events.

All that changed at age 18, when an autoimmune disorder left her paralyzed. For many, that would have marked the end of an athletic career. But not for Mitchell. She turned her attention to wheelchair sports — and it turned out, she was very good. Over the years, as her disease progressed and the landscape of Paralympic sports changed, she shifted from cycling to track events and, finally, to throwing. 

Now, competing this week in Tokyo, she’s vying for the prize that’s eluded her — Paralympic Games’ gold.

“I have World Championships gold medals, world titles, world records and Paralympic medals. But I don't have the Paralympic gold medal,” Mitchell says. “And it's not just the gold medal, itself. I want to see the American flag raised; I want to hear our national anthem. It's the process and what it means to ‘never, never, never give up’ to reach the top, and to compete with honor for the USA. I'm sentimental and very patriotic when it comes to competing for Team USA.” 

This is Mitchell’s third trip to the elite Paralympic Games. A researcher and assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, she brought home a silver and a bronze medal from the Rio de Janeiro games in 2016. She earned a few fourth-place finishes in the 2012 London games.

In these Paralympics, which run Aug. 24-Sept. 5, she’s aiming for the top of the podium, competing in the club throw and the discus throw.

Already, Mitchell is having quite a year. She’s No. 1 in the world in both events for her F51 Paralympics classification, and, in May, she set a new world record in the women’s F51 discus. 

(Paralympic athletes are classified according to their disability; Mitchell is a 51, meaning she is among the most severely disabled athletes who have impairments in all four limbs. The “F” refers to field athletes.)

“I have to hedge: I'm currently No. 1 in the world this year in club throw, but the F51 club throw world record holder is Zoia Ovsii, and she has thrown two meters farther. She hasn't done it in competition this year, but that doesn't mean she won't,” Mitchell says.

“It also doesn't mean that I won't go and have a breakout performance in Japan.”

“As an athlete, I've learned that you have to control what you can control,” she continues. “I can control my attitude, my work ethic, my choices.”

That focus was tested when Mitchell was diagnosed with leukemia just before the 2016 Rio Games. Like everything else, though, she hasn’t let that stop her. In Rio, she went on to win a bronze medal in club throw and a silver in discus. In fact, she says, competing has helped her quality of life as she fights cancer. 

“Oncologists have said most people in my condition, even now as I do treatment, struggle to get out of bed, much less go and train at an elite level. I think that the act of training and competing — it's not just about the medals, but how it helps you in other ways mentally and physically as well,” Mitchell says.

Engineering and athletics

In Atlanta, Mitchell’s  research focuses on harnessing the power of big data and machine learning to forecast disease, identify new therapeutics and optimize treatments. Her work is at the intersection of engineering, data science and pathophysiology — she calls herself a “pathology forecaster.”

Her engineer’s mind has helped her athletic endeavors. 

“I am not a research expert in biomechanics, but I do specialize in biomedical data science. I definitely use analytics to tweak my technique,” she says. “I do an engineering analysis on all my throws. I have pages of math and simulation. Sometimes the engineering analysis is spot on, and sometimes what is mathematically optimal is not physiologically possible for me. But, overall, I do think my engineering perspective has made me a better thrower.” 

For many athletes, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted a fairly regimented four-year rhythm of trying to make it to the Olympics or Paralympics. Mitchell would’ve preferred to skip the pandemic and the havoc it has wreaked on people’s lives and families. But the extra year has given her a chance to reflect on why she competes. 

“I've always been one to push myself, but I find I have a really exceptional desire to push forward this time, even maybe greater than I would have had last year,” Mitchell says. “I think that's [the result] of losing one of the things that you love to do: You remember, I didn't start competing just to get a medal; I started doing it because it was fun.”

The additional year of practice has Mitchell set up well. She mostly was able to continue training since her events are naturally socially distanced individual sports. She trains outside with the aid of a trusted personal care assistant.

She suspects her best shot at gold this year will be in F51 club throw. In the discus, several classifications have been combined so Mitchell will face other athletes who are less disabled.

In the meantime, she’ll continue to balance the demanding world of academia with the demanding world of elite international athletics — even when it means teaching bioengineering statistics from her car at the U.S. Paralympic trials. She says sometimes she wishes she could isolate the two worlds — academics and sports — and focus on one at a time. Mostly, though, she finds them to be a synergistic combination.

“The athletic endeavors keep me from getting overly consumed with the often fiercely competitive academic environment, and vice versa. It gives me balance in my life.”

Maybe things are shaping up just right for her to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Japan.

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