In the throwing cage in Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Stadium, Cassie Mitchell gives herself a moment to soak it all in: the crowd, the cameras, the lights. Then she exhales heavily. Leaning over the right side of her wheelchair, she swings her arm across her body and sends the discus spinning over the field to a silver medal. It’s her second medal of the Rio Paralympic Games. She took bronze in club throw three days earlier.
Visually impaired and paralyzed in both legs and with limited function in her arms, Mitchell competes in the most physically impaired class, T/F51. A research faculty member at Georgia Tech and Emory, her life is a study in adaptation. In 1999 she was headed to college on a track scholarship when, literally overnight, she lost use of her legs. It took two years for doctors to diagnose her with Devic’s disease, a condition that attacks the spinal cord and the optic nerve.
She pivoted to basketball and made the 2003 All-American team. When the paralysis progressed up her spine, limiting use of her hands, wrists, and triceps, she regrouped again, becoming a paracyclist and winning two world championships. Later, she took up wheelchair racing and throwing sports.
Mitchell is so focused on her goals that she admits she sometimes pushes through physical pain to reach them. While training for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic team trials, she battled a near-constant low-grade fever, often struggling to catch her breath after an intense workout or race. Sometimes her lips would turn blue, and she’d get dizzy and faint. Two months before the trials, Mitchell learned she had chronic myelogenous leukemia.
She started chemotherapy, which caused side effects serious enough to land her in the hospital: an accelerated heart rate, pneumonia, and shingles. Discharged just 10 days before the Paralympic trials, she not only managed to make the U.S. team, she set two world records in wheelchair racing in the process. Mitchell underwent chemotherapy until it was time to fly to Rio. She spent nine days there and continued treatment upon her return. In July she hopes to compete in track and field at the World ParaAthletics Championships in London. “I know, I know, I have a world record,” says Mitchell. “But I don’t have gold!”