A Former Pro Triathlete’s Paralympic Redemption

American Jamie Whitmore goes for gold in Rio.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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American Jamie Whitmore goes for gold in Rio

Jamie Whitmore has accomplished a lot in her 40 years: she ran cross country and track on scholarship at Cal State Northridge, raced as a pro mountain biker, and has been hailed as one of the most successful pro XTERRA triathletes ever. Then, in 2008 she became a cancer patient and everything changed.

Only a few months after competing in the XTERRA World Championships in October 2007, where the pain first began, Whitmore was in such bad shape that she couldn’t even stand, let alone walk. A parade of physicians played guess-the-ailment, finally diagnosing Whitmore with a rare form of cancer called spindle cell carcinoma in early 2008. By the time she was diagnosed, she was in such excruciating pain that she was often unable to speak; when she finally met the specialist who could treat her properly, Whitmore’s left leg had already begun to atrophy due to lack of use.

Whitmore’s first surgery removed a growth the size of a grapefruit. While the operation was a success, part of her sciatic nerve had to be removed due to the tumor’s location. In a piece for HuffingtonPost.com, Whitmore wrote about the unforeseen results of her first procedure: ”No one told me my lower leg was paralyzed. I would never be able to run again. My pro career was over. The likelihood of getting back on anything more than a stationary bike was pretty slim. I couldn’t even put weight on my foot.”

Due to a condition called drop foot, Whitmore lost the use of her lower leg and had to learn to walk from scratch. Later, just when she had begun to see some progress in physical therapy, she received a revised diagnosis: The tumor was more aggressive than doctors had thought. This time surgeons were forced to cut out Whitmore’s entire left glute. Sepsis from the procedure almost ended her life, but she fought on.

Less than two years after her diagnosis, Whitmore showed remarkable signs of a comeback when she gave birth to twin boys with her husband, XTERRA racer and cycling coach Courtney Cardenas. Her pregnancy—less than a year after being told she was cancer-free—was nothing short of a miracle given Whitmore’s chemotherapy, radiation treatment and surgeries. After first overcoming the biological odds, Whitmore next reset her sights back on to the familiar territory of sports.

She began cycling again—first on a tandem with her husband—and then, after watching the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Whitmore recommitted to the Olympic dream she thought she had left behind. In an interview with TeamUSA.org in July, Whitmore spoke about her interrupted Olympic goals:

“I was knocked out of my game before I had a chance to try to qualify,” Whitmore said of her cancer diagnosis. “I was actually going to try [to make the U.S. Olympic Team in mountain biking] in 2012…knowing that I could’ve been close to making it, and was taken out too soon… that kinda drives me now.”

The Paralympics do not offer mountain biking as an event, so Whitmore chose a different path. After starting out on a “hipster fixie-bike,” Whitmore took her first ride on a track bike on Nov. 21, 2013. Less than 24 hours later, under the guidance of her coach Neal Henderson (who also coaches Olympian Flora Duffy and short-course pro Cameron Dye among many others), Whitmore won the Paracycling U.S. National Track Championship for individual pursuit in the C3 category, which includes cyclists with lower limb dysfunctions; the next day, she won the track time trial. Since then, Whitmore has claimed 13 medals at Paracycling World Championships (nine gold, three silver and one bronze) in cycling events on both the road and the track.

Now Whitmore has set her sights on a gold medal at the Paralympics in Rio. She claimed a silver medal on the first day of competition in the 3,000m individual track pursuit, and still has three events to go. Watch her go for gold in the 500m time trial on Sept. 10 at 10 a.m., road race on Sept. 16 at 9:30 a.m. and road time trial on Sept. 14 at 8 a.m. All times local to Rio de Jeneiro.

Update 9/16: Whitmore claimed gold in Friday’s C1-C3 road cycling race.

Photo: Gutzytrigirl Instagram
Photo: Gutzytrigirl Instagram

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