When Cassie Mitchell first qualified for an international athletic competition, it just happened to be at the London 2012 Paralympic games and she’d only been competing for a few months as a track athlete.
“I was a little bit naïve,” she admits.
She still ended up finishing in fourth place, just missing out on the medals stand.
Mitchell set her sights on returning in four years to Rio and earning some hardware. In that time she became the world record holder in the women’s T51 100-meter, 200-meter, and 400-meter races as well as the shot put. She became the American record holder in the discus throw as well.
As all that hard work was set to pay off, a sudden glitch arose in the plans – an unexpected diagnosis of leukemia. Just 10 days before the Paralympic trials, Mitchell was lying in a hospital, battling the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy on her body.
“There was maybe just a little bit of doubt whether this was going to be able to come true,” Mitchell recalls.
But perseverance might as well be Cassie Mitchell’s middle name. She pulled together the strength to compete at the USA trials and earned her spot on the Paralympic team heading to Brazil.
It’s not the first time life has thrown her a curveball. At 18 years old, she was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica (also known Devic’s disease), an autoimmune disorder in which immune system cells and antibodies attack the optic nerves and the spinal cord. The neurological disease would presumably mean that she would be paralyzed for the rest of her life.
“Just because you get a terrible diagnosis like leukemia, or like neuromyelitis optica, you just want to continue to overcome,” Mitchell says. “Trying to overcome cancer, or paralysis, or an amazing field of athletes – never giving up is an important thing.”
She says her faith in God and support from family and friends have helped keep her going.
Mitchell has never stopped training for the Rio Paralympic Games while receiving treatment and chemotherapy. She worked closely with her doctors at Emory's Winship Cancer Insitute to develop a tight training regimen.
“You have to be smarter about how you train,” Mitchell says. “You can’t get the volume in you might otherwise. You really have to focus on the quality of your workouts.”
She also hasn’t reduced her role at Georgia Tech as a biomedical engineering professor and the primary investigator leading the largest undergraduate research laboratory on the entire campus.
She mentors and guides some of the brightest minds at Georgia Tech, analyzing data dealing with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s, a neurological disease as difficult to treat as her own.
Her role as researcher and engineer has given Mitchell a unique perspective as an athlete. As a world record holder, she’s surpassed many athletes twice her size by analyzing the biomechanics of her movements.
“I’m always thinking about how I can better optimize, whether it’s the angle or how I hold the discus or the strapping of my chair,” Mitchell says.
Now she’s ready to wear the red, white, and blue again.
“To be able to put on a USA uniform and see that across your chest, it gives me goosebumps,” Mitchell says.
And she hopes her journey will help others who might face seemingly insurmountable odds.
“I’m human like anyone else. I have tough days,” she says. “Through every circumstance, I’m being made stronger."
As for sticking through it all, her advice is simple.
“No matter what happens, I just do not give up. I will not quit. ”
Cassie Mitchell will compete at the Rio Paralympic games in discus and the club throw, the Paralympic equivalent of the hammer throw.