"Four years for 44 seconds." That's all Team USA's Manteo Mitchell could think about at the halfway point of his leg of the 4x400-meter preliminaries during the 2012 Olympic Games in London. His left leg had broken, shooting waves of excruciating pain through his body.
But he kept running.
I trained four years to run 44 seconds. I will not let anything stop me from getting this baton to my teammate.
He finished in 46.1 seconds, far worse than his average time but quick enough that his three teammates could make up ground and qualify for the finals. Except for his uncharacteristically slow time, it was nearly impossible to tell anything was wrong with the Mooresboro, N.C. native. He never broke stride, never let a grimace take hold of his face. It wasn't until his segment was over that Mitchell pulled up lame and limped off the track.
If Mitchell had stopped short, or peeled off into the grass, Team USA would have been disqualified.
"I just focused on working good form, making it look like nothing was wrong with me at all," Mitchell said. "I knew that if I got back to the line, no matter how fast or how slow I was running, [my teammate] will do their job and we'd still make the finals."
Doctors still don't know exactly what caused Mitchell's leg to snap. Three days before the race, he fell while going up a flight of stairs in the Olympic Village. He banged his leg on the spot where it would eventually break, but X-rays before the snap showed no damage. Mitchell says the general consensus is that he developed a severe bone bruise that went unnoticed, and that the stress he put on the leg during practice runs leading up to the race caused it to break.
But why did his leg snap on that day, at that time, during that race? "I'm still waiting for an answer on that," he said, a hint of frustration still evident in his voice.
No matter how mentally tough you are or how much "USA" on the front of your jersey means to you, running on a broken leg is not advisable. Mitchell, a self-described workout-a-holic, points to his training as the reason why he didn't crumble to the ground the minute his leg broke.
"At the end [of my practices], I always have 150 meters or some kind of distance where my body is completely depleted and I barely have enough left; but my coach wants to see what I can come back with when my body is at its worst," Mitchell said.
Mitchell's training, under the leadership of his former Western Carolina University coach Danny Williamson, has him close to regaining his form again, less than a year after the incident. Today Mitchell is talking about a return to the Olympics.
Following his injury, Mitchell spent 10 weeks away from the track, hobbling around in a boot and doing nothing but lifting weights. The lack of cardio and increase in weight training caused the sprinter to gain 25 pounds, pushing him close to 200 pounds, 25 pounds heavier than his ideal running weight of 175. Mitchell took the indoor season off to work with Williamson to get his weight back down.
"That basically was my rehab," Mitchell said. "We just trained through the indoor season, and now we're almost back to where we were last year."
Once Mitchell was able to resume running in January, he stopped all weightlifting activity and refocused on running, sprinting and bodyweight exercises. He also started paying closer attention to things off the track that affect his performance. He started wearing special leg sleeves from Incrediwear, which are designed to decrease fatigue in the muscles and helped Mitchell fight his recurring shin splints. He overhauled his nutrition. And he committed to recovery, making sure he gets at least seven hours of sleep a night.
To whip Mitchell's body back into shape, Coach Williamson implemented speed endurance work—things like one- and two-mile repeats,which are not commonly found in training regimens. The theory is that the additional endurance work will prevent Mitchell from getting fatigued early on in a race. Mitchell's favorite workout features 300-meter, 200-meter, and 100-meter sprints, with just 30 seconds of rest between sprints.
"Most people would be like, 'Oh my gosh he's crazy,' but just knowing that my workout is over in less than 20 minutes after the full warm-up is just amazing," Mitchell said. "I love a challenge."
The IAAF World Championships, coming up in August, will be the first real test of whether Mitchell's leg is ready to compete again at an elite level. But Mitchell doesn't just want to compete. He wants to take home first place in either the 200-meter or 400-meter individual race. Winning the 400 might slay some demons that still linger from that fateful day last year.
As for his maiden Olympic voyage that was cut short, Mitchell harbors no regrets. "I've gotten a medal on a relay team, but it was silver," he said, referring to the relay team's second place finish in the finals of last year's Olympics. Mitchell earned a team medal, although he was unable to participate in that last race. "So of course I would like a gold."
Follow Mitchell's journey over at his Twitter handle, @manteomitchell
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock