Imagine waking up to find yourself partially paralyzed.
Now imagine your entire life previously revolved around your ability to move as a professional athlete.
That’s the reality Sacramento native Jamie Whitmore found herself facing in 2008, after a surgery to remove a tumor the size of a grapefruit from her body.
Whitmore was one of the top competitors in the world in triathlons. Her goal was to make it to the Olympics. And she was competing in a world championship race when she first realized she had a tingling in her leg.
“We went to hospital after hospital, doctor after doctor, and got misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis,” Whitmore said.
Finally, Whitmore received a diagnosis of spindle cell sarcoma from doctors at UC-San Francisco.
“It was like being in a cartoon of ‘Charlie Brown,’ where the adults are like ‘whomp-whomp-whomp,’” Whitmore said, describing how she felt when she first received the diagnosis.
“I turned to my dad and said, ‘I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die,’” she added.
She survived, but found herself in a drastically different physical condition. Surgeries left her partially paralyzed in her left leg. Her entire glute [gluteus maximus] was removed. Doctors prepared her family.
“I would never walk the same. My pro career was over. I’d never be able to run, and I’d probably never get on a bike again,” Whitmore said, explaining what physicians told her father.
However, the same determination and grit that had propelled Whitmore through a collegiate athletic career as a runner and then on to become a world-class triathlete motivated her to defy expectations of what would be physically possible.
“What I realized was, I’m not focused on racing, but I need to be focused on learning how to walk,” Whitmore said.
Whitmore’s competitive drive led to her trying to race other patients as she relearned how to walk using a walker.
And then, while recovering from a subsequent surgery related to her cancer, Whitmore received shocking news: She was pregnant with twins.
Needless to say, the reality of life as a new mother of twin boys, coupled with having to relearn how to walk, would make most people put athletic dreams on the back burner. But not Whitmore.
“I had been in and out of the hospital for over a year, gotten pregnant, had these kids, and for three years, I had dreamed of the day I’d get back on the bike and pedal on my own,” Whitmore said.
When she finally did get back on a bike, Whitmore said she finally felt independent again.
“I didn’t feel disabled on the bike,” she said. “It was just the first time I truly felt like my old racing self.”
That feeling meant that Whitmore could start to set even more extraordinary goals for herself. She completed a 100-mile mountain biking race. Then, the athlete who dreamed of going to the Olympics set her sights on the Paralympics in Rio 2016.
“The point is that you live with this attitude of quitting is not on the table. It’s never been on the table for me,” Whitmore said.
That attitude got her across the finish line. In 2016, Whitmore won gold and silver medals in cycling in Rio. Her twin boys were there to cheer her on.
Now, Whitmore – who doctors said would never get on a bike again – continues to set higher and higher goals. This past weekend, she placed third at the trials for the world championships, which should earn her a spot on the team for the 2017 Para-Cycling World Championships later this summer in South Africa. She is training with the hope of making the Paralympic team for Tokyo in 2020.
Whitmore described the perspective that has helped fuel her comeback.
“It’s what you make of it, it’s what you do in it, and my purpose is to leave a legacy for my kids. It’s all about being grateful for where you’re at,” Whitmore said.