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.”
By the time I went to Oklahoma State, I was paralyzed. I was in a wheelchair. I didn't really know about wheelchair sports. One of the coaches on campus ... he recruited me and said, “You should come try basketball.”
I made All-American.
In 2005, after I came to Atlanta, I made the USA wheelchair basketball team. But unfortunately about six week before my first international tournament, my Devic's ... relapsed. I went from being a paraplegic to being a quadriplegic.
The impairments in my wrists and hands and arms would not allow me to even get a basketball up to the rim. So that sport was done.
I had this conversation with my mentor at Georgia Tech, and he was asking me about my goals in life. I thought he was talking about my research goals, but he was trying to get at, did I have any big dreams that I wanted to go after? One of the things that came up was that I really wanted to go to the Olympics. I always wanted to go to the Olympics, back to the time when I was in track or basketball.
So, I made it a goal that I wanted to be in London in 2012.
I thought it would be in cycling. In 2011, I was the world champion in my division, the first quadriplegic female to be a world champion. I thought everything was on track to do cycling in London. But when it came time to actually select the USA Cycling team ... I was not named to the team. I don't really know why. I don't know.
It just didn't happen.
So, five days later I went and qualified for the track team. I had been doing track. But track was more like my cross training sport at the time. But when I went to the national championships after the most disheartening experience since I've been paralyzed — not making the USA team for cycling — I just thought, “Well, I'm going to put myself out here and try it.” I was really blessed, and I made the USA team.
I went to London in what I considered to be my B sport.
I often feel like I've been blessed with a talent. I've been blessed with the tenacity to do this. It only feels right that I should go after what's been implanted there.
I have a lot of people that ask me, “What is it that keeps you going?” I'm not reliant on me. God has played a very important role in my life, and I've had great friends and family support. All of that, I think, is critical.
I have to want to be happy. But having the support ... is critical.
When I was in high school at Warner High School, one of the most noble things my science teacher told me was, “All species either have to adapt, migrate or perish.” I didn't want to perish. And migrating wasn't really an option; what are you going to run to? No matter where you go, you're still stuck with the same issue.
You just kind of take it as it comes. It requires a lot of creativity and a lot of patience.