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Collected wisdom: Wheelchair athlete Cassie Mitchell

She's a successful athlete, accomplished in her field of study and a gifted researcher. She's also a quadriplegic.
by Jenni Carlson Published: July 13, 2013

Age: 32

Hometown: Warner

Cassie Mitchell is a successful athlete, an accomplished academic and a gifted researcher.

She's also a quadriplegic.

Affected by neuromyelitis optica, or Devic's disease, she is completely paralyzed from the chest down and has significant impairments to her arms, wrists and hands. But none of that has stopped her from becoming a world-class athlete. She was a Paralympian in track and field in 2012, and before the summer is out, she will compete in the track and field world championships in France and the para-cycling world championships in Canada.

Mitchell will be a favorite in the shot put after setting the world record in the women's quadriplegic classification for shot put with a throw of 6.14 meters.

A chemical engineering graduate of Oklahoma State, she is currently research faculty in biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University in Atlanta.

I lived in a very rural area, a small farm with cows and horses and goats and all those things. We started running, and I was running a couple miles at a time. I got to where I was really good at running long distances. I thought I would be a cross country person.

My body ate a hole in my spinal cord.

It started out when I was 12. Typically with neuromyelitis optica, there's a myelitis part, which is the paralysis, and there's an optica part, which is blindness and double vision. Usually one will come on before the other. For me, it was the blindness that happened first.

I started with double vision. I was actually taking a spelling test, and I was filling in the bubbles, and I noticed that they were mirroring one another, but I didn't say anything to anyone because I was scared. The first time I ever got called into the principal's office is because I'd taken this test and they thought I was joking because I hadn't actually filled in the bubbles. Finally I had to out myself.

The double vision stayed. It's been like that ever since.

Then when I was 18 ... one night I went to bed with a low-grade fever and kind of a headache. When I woke up the next day, I couldn't move my legs. That was the end of it. I never moved them since.

That's the thing with Devic's — it has these really acute attacks that happen very suddenly. Then you'll go long periods where there isn't any change.

You never know when another attack might be coming.

Usually the attacks happen overnight. I know there's been several times where I've been like, “Oh, I don't want to go to sleep because I'm afraid what's going to happen when I wake up.”

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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