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In 2008, Jamie Whitmore sat with her husband in a doctor’s office. She had just completed her first surgery to remove a rare form of cancer—a spindle cell sarcoma that had wrapped itself around her sciatic nerve, which left her without a left hamstring or use of her lower leg, a condition called complete dropfoot. “When I asked the doctor, ‘Do you think I can ever ride a mountain bike again?’ he said, ‘Oh maybe a stationary bike,’” Whitmore recalls. “I said, ‘No a mountain bike,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, a stationary bike.’”
The two-time Xterra world champion and 37-time Xterra winner, who had been sidelined by cancer at the peak of her eight-year pro career, left the meeting determined to prove him wrong.
But there was a lot standing in her way. She relearned how to walk, but then the tumor raged back before she had even finished her radiation treatments—leading to a second surgery that also took her entire left glute muscle. Then the scar tissue buildup led to a kidney infection and sepsis, which required surgery. She spent months in and out of the hospital sick from medications that didn’t interact well. But then a bright spot: She became pregnant and gave birth to twin boys in 2010.
Through everything, Whitmore held on to the hope she’d be able to ride a bike. After several people told her about a new brace—one that would be stiff enough to keep her foot from flopping on a bike pedal—she decided to try it out last spring. “As uncomfortable as it was—because my seat had to be lowered and I hadn’t ridden in three years,” she says, “there was just a sense of freedom. I felt like, Wow! I had independence; I could do something.”
That led to a mountain bike ride, then the Xterra Santa Cruz short-course race last year. As her husband walked with her along the run course, the men’s pro race on the full course began to unfold. “Each pro guy stopped to either high-five or hug me,” she says. “It was as emotional for them as it was for me to be out there. Because once they saw my physical disability, everybody had the realization that Jamie’s not like Lance Armstrong. There’s no coming back. She didn’t just have cancer—she’s disabled now. That was something that people couldn’t figure out until they saw me.”
Since Santa Cruz, Whitmore has raced the Xterra USA Championship in Ogden, Utah, and Xterra Guam. She’s also signed up to race the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race on Aug. 11.
Through racing as a challenged athlete, she’s gained a new perspective. As she was climbing over rocks and handing off her forearm crutches so she could slide down waterfalls in Guam, “It was like, ‘This is what racing is about: getting to the finish line.’ As much as we all want to say it’s about winning because, let’s face it, when you’re a pro, it kind of is. But for everyone else out there doing this, the only way you fail is by not being out there,” she says. “Maybe I’m not winning, but there’s such a bigger platform to be motivating people. … I make it my mission to show people that there’s life beyond cancer.”
Through it all she credits her faith with keeping her going: “My faith is what I draw on every day,” she says. “It’s truthfully what got me through some of the darkest times that I’ve had.”
She now fills her time training for Leadville, coaching individual athletes and triathlon training groups, and giving motivational speeches to churches, triathlon clubs and college groups.
But Whitmore hasn’t lost sight of how far she’s come. “Sometimes I’ll be riding my bike and I’ll just start crying. I get so filled with emotion because I can remember lying on my bed hoping for the day I could ride my bike again. And then there I am,” she says.
For complete coverage from the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race, visit our partner site Singletrack.com.