The former XTERRA World Champion takes home a gold and silver from Rio’s paralympic games.
I don’t care much for movie stars or models, mostly because any adulation from me would go unreturned — famous people are like the opposite of dogs. I don’t get the butterflies if I run into a politician or a financier — and I have no idea why I said “running into a financier” besides I needed to finish that sentence. Writers, especially novelists or for the screen, impress me but only because they do something I like to do, only seemingly better. (Although they also write stuff like Kevin Can Wait so I guess it all evens out.) Musicians always seem a little bit too sweaty which in recent years has become a little off-putting.
Get me in the room with an accomplished athlete though and my knees melt, my hands sweat and my forehead begins to twitch. Athletes or Cosmo Kramer, that’s my jam.
As a little kid with asthma, rashes and an eye that didn’t work quite right (still doesn’t), my prospects for becoming a standout athlete were about the same as me getting to stay up and watch Taxi. Though that didn’t stop me from loving sports.
The first time I ever read a magazine cover to cover was when I was in second grade. While thumbing through to see what Goofus and Gallant were up to, out of the corner of my good eye, I spied a glossy cover with a picture of Vinny Testaverde and those python-strangling forearms wearing a sherbet-orange jersey looking like the waiter who brings out the spaghetti at my grandpa’s favorite restaurant. I read about Testaverde, the “NFL’s first $8 million man” and how he overcame tunnel vision (caused by his bushy eyebrows?) to become one of the most sought-after college quarterbacks of all time.
This a-ha moment happened — as all incredible things did in my youth — in the waiting room of my allergist’s office. It was a Monday and instead of going to soccer practice, I got to get shots in both of my arms of doses of whatever it was (hint: everything) I was allergic to.
Prior to my therapy starting, the doctor told my parents it’d be wise to move somewhere like Alaska, where it’s overcast or snowy most of the year. My dad, a big Northern Exposure fan, thought that sounded pretty OK.
But I had Vinnie, and he gave me hope.
From that moment to today, my admiration for the exceptional athlete is unwavering. Sports, in my mind, are the great equalizer. Can you perform, under pressure, better than anyone else? No autotune, no second takes, no editing. No starting over.
When I met Jamie Whitmore she — through training, experience, dedication and luck — was one such person of rare, exceptional performance-based beauty.
I came across her when I was covering the XTERRA Nationals taking place on the shores and mountainsides of Incline Village, Nevada — I was star struck. It was the fall of 2005 and Whitmore was the reigning world champion in off-road triathlon, think open-water swim, mountain bike and trail run.
She was en route to her fifth U.S. title in a career where she would collect six. I interviewed her after she barely edged out her professional rival, Canadian super woman Melanie McQuaid. If McQuaid was hard-charging and no-nonsense as the northern wind, Whitmore was this sort of crazy-loud unbreakable dervish, the girl next to you in the apartment complex who’s always screaming or singing or dropping off some cake she made at 3 a.m. at your doorstep just because.
I’ve never — before that day or since — interviewed anyone who was that “on” or frankly, had that much energy, after finishing a race. Most endurance athletes, besides needing a minute, are kind of worked into a meditative calm upon crossing which is usually immediately followed by sitting down in the grass, eyes glossed over as they watch others finish and take in what they’ve done.
Whitmore was different. She crossed and instantly turned into one part commentator, one part cheerleader and one very boisterous, very plainly funny, very human ambassador not only for her discipline, but just getting out there and doing something.
She was so inspirational — and this is 100-percent true — that Emma Garrard, who was assigned with shooting photos of the event, decided right then and there to take up XTERRA racing as well. Garrard, it should be noted, won XTERRA U.S. Nationals in 2015 as a pro.
I too used Whitmore’s enthusiasm as an excuse to get on the bike, on trail and in the pool. So it came as a huge surprise that in 2008 my hero Whitmore, still in her prime and as unstoppable as tomorrow, was diagnosed with cancer. In her recent recollect for the Huffington Post prior to the Rio games, she wrote, “I turned my head towards my dad, tears still pouring out of my eyes and repeating the words, ‘I don’t want to die!’”
Along with chemo and radiation, Whitmore was forced to undergo surgery that removed a grapefruit-sized tumor growing out of her sciatic nerve sheath. Post-op, her lower left leg no longer moved or had feeling and though she had beaten the disease, the hopes for a storybook comeback to professional racing were dashed. Then, as Whitmore was getting back into training for whatever would be next, the tumor came back and this time her entire left gluteal muscle was removed. She went down to 98 pounds, had a drain coming out of her back for her kidney and nearly died from sepsis.
She recovered and by the next fall, Whitmore could be spotted at XTERRA races announcing from the booth. During XTERRA Worlds in Maui the next year, she made a special announcement after the race’s finish — that she was pregnant, with twins.
Whitmore, cancer survivor, challenged athlete and mother of two, kept going. She got back on the mountain bike and finished the Leadville 100. She picked up a road bike and won a half-dozen road championships and set a pair of world records as a paracyclist.
Friday in Rio, Whitmore, who lives in Elk Grove just outside Sacramento, won a gold medal in the women’s C1-3 road race out-sprinting Sini Zeng of China and Denise Schindler of Germany and crossing with a time of 1 hour, 30 minutes and 14 seconds; not bad for 48k.
She also took home a silver in the C1-2-3 3,000-meter individual pursuit at the Velodrome.
There she is again, top of the podium.
As reflected on this site, I haven’t paid much attention to the paralympic games. Maybe it’s because they’re less accessible than the olympics, maybe it’s because they really, ultimately should be run congruously with the olympics. Athletes are athletes, period. Or maybe, like most, it’s not until I have a personal connection that my ears perk up.
Olympic medalist or no, I think a lot about Whitmore. Anytime I’m out on the trail and i don’t feel like finishing or my legs get weak or sweat and sunblock sting my eyes or all the problems of the world, career, parenting, relationships, money, don’t peel away immediately — I dial it back to Jamie.
She nearly died in the prime of her career, this woman who found so much joy in it, and enough life in her for a dozen others, was the least deserving to have cancer’s broken, malevolent arrow point toward her. But it did and she fought and kept fighting and then dug deeper and fought a little harder.
And she won dammit.
What she won was so much more than gold — she won her life back.