Mitchell kept charging ahead, to reach teammate Joshua Mance and hand him the baton so the United States could continue in the 4×400-meter sprint relay.
As he told The Tribune, he maintained “emotion and energy” throughout that courageous lap. He reached down and grabbed his left leg, just after handing off the baton.
“I felt it,” he said. “At first, I thought it was a cramp.” It was much worse. Pain seeped in at a hospital an hour and a half after the race.
“My leg snapped in half,” he told Mills River Elementary students in a school assembly Friday. He broke his left fibula bone, midway into the lap.
Thomas Deese, at right, leaps as he high-fives Jackson Mills (in lieu of passing a baton) in a third-grade relay race at Mills River Elementary Friday. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Rather than “sit down and cry like a baby,” he told the youths, “I picked myself up from the track and carried on” despite pain. He did not want his intense preparation to go for naught. “I trained six hours a day for ten and a half months” ahead of those Olympics, for “a race that takes 44 seconds.”
By giving his all despite intense pain, he enabled the U.S. to qualify for the final heat and win a sprint relay silver medal in the last Olympics. The Shelby native and Asheville resident came in ahead of another sprinter, in 46.1 seconds — merely a second more than his personal best of 44.96.
The next U.S. relay sprinter, Mance, zoomed into second place. The U.S. foursome ran the nation’s fastest Olympic-qualifying time ever in the 400 relay. The U.S. won silver, with 33-year-old Angelo Taylor pressed into action. The Bahamas nipped the U.S. in the prior heat, then won its first men’s Olympic gold in any event.
Tony McQuay told the Associated Press of his roommate Mitchell’s courageous qualifying run, “without him, this (any medal) wouldn’t be possible. He held it down for the USA. We want to thank him, for getting us to the final.” Mitchell joined their post-race, on-field celebrations, while on crutches and wearing a walking boot up to his knee.
Manteo (“Manny-oh”) Mitchell proudly held his relay silver medal to Mills River students in their gym, then as they filed by for close-up glances and grins.
Before that, he organized fun relay races by all third-graders. When finishing his/her leg, the runner “high-fived” the next runner instead of passing a baton.
Mitchell after those relays shared his inspirational story to the full student body with much humor and insight, to launch a two-week SUBWAY® “Fit for Life” Challenge.
Teamwork and fun fitness are among lessons children said they learned. Hannah Peters cited a “balanced diet with fruits and vegetables.” Tyler Medford, another fourth-grader, said it is crucial to “drink a lot of water.” Mitchell suggested at times subbing soup and salad for hamburgers and pizza.
Succeeding at the ultimate international level takes years of “dedication, motivation, hard work, listening and learning,” Mitchell told the local youths. He equated his training to homework. “If you don’t study math problems, you won’t pass that test.”
His Western Carolina University track coach, Danny Williamson, praised Mitchell’s “unbelievable work ethic that is second to none. And his character is first class.”
Faith, Focus, Finish is among Mitchell’s slogans. Also “perfect your craft.” Since college days he has been very “self-motivated” and disciplined in fitness and diet.
His individual crowning glory was gold in the 400 meters, in the 2012 World Indoor Championships.
Mitchell’s Olympic odyssey still evolves, even at age 28 which is a half-decade to decade older than most elite sprinters. He is training to qualify for 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He finished fifth individually in the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships last year.
“I’ve truly lived an amazing and blessed life thus far, and it’s only the beginning of the trip God has set me on,” he stated on Facebook. He has a young son. He thrives on motivational pep talks to children. He set up a foundation, and helps Miracles for Kids.
An Olympic athlete needs a financial “support structure,” he noted. He is the first male track sprinter with sponsorship from Under Armour athletic wear. “They understand my will and determination to be the best at what I do,” he stated. He is finishing the first year of a deal that lasts through the Olympics next year. He was in an ad this year. He was with Nike. He said Under Armour is customizing shoe spikes for him; a version goes public next spring.
Mitchell remains fit, in his ongoing Olympic quest for gold. His body fat measures to 3.2 percent. Thus “I’m 96.8 percent ‘fat-free.’” He is 6-foot-1 1/2, and weighs 180 pounds.
He has also run 100 and 200-meter sprints. He is WCU’s first Olympian. He earned from WCU a master’s in education (comprehensive phys. ed.), and B.A. in sports management and marketing. He was a WCU graduate assistant track coach. He did not run track until as a Shelby Crest High senior. He was already a receiver and kick returner, in a premier football program.
Beyond his mother, his heroes include sprinter-leaper Carl Lewis who won nine Olympic golds. His record fourth long-jump gold was at age 35, in Atlanta in 1996. “I look up to Carl” for how long and well he competed, he told The Tribune. “He’s a multi-medalist. He was in the game a while.”