SHELBY It was Manteo Mitchells big break.
An obscure track athlete for most of the past decade, the Olympic sprinter from North Carolina catapulted into national attention three months ago when he broke a bone in his left leg and finished his race anyway in front of 80,000 fans at the London Games. Mitchell pushed through the final 200 meters on adrenaline and faith, tears welling in his eyes behind the sunglasses he wore.
It felt like I was running on Jell-O, Mitchell said. The pain was excruciating. I wanted to give up but I also knew I had to finish.
The world noticed the Western Carolina graduate because of that race, and Mitchells life changed. Usain Bolt found him and congratulated him. TV networks sought time with him. And when several hundred Olympians and Paralympians assembled in Washington, D.C., at the White House in September, President Barack Obama singled out Mitchell in his 10-minute speech.
And then theres Manteo Mitchell, Obama said. This has to be one of my favorite stories of the whole Olympics. Breaks his shin bone halfway through his lap on the 4x400-meter relay but he finishes anyway in 46 seconds and helps the U.S. qualify for the final. Unbelievable!
The video of Obamas speech shows a chorus of Oh yeahs! led by First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Mitchell who was slyly trying to videotape Obamas speech on his cell phone smiled.
A few moments later, Michelle Obama led Mitchell away by the hand to get a photo taken with herself and her husband. Mitchell said Michelle Obama told him it was going to be a family photo and that she would be proud to have him as a son.
So what do you do for an encore after that?
Turns out quite a lot. Mitchell, 25, was one of the grand marshals of Ashevilles Christmas parade last week. He has been speaking regularly at N.C. schools including Township Three Elementary in Shelby, about 15 minutes from where he grew up, earlier this month. There, he had the children repeat the phrase Listen to your parents three times in a row. He also continues to train in Cullowhee, the broken bone in his fibula fully healed.
Best of all, Mitchell has become a father.
Khi Avery Mitchell was born on Nov. 1. And while Mitchell is not married to the baby's mother and they are no longer a couple, he said they are on good terms. He has vowed that after not having a father figure in his own life growing up that he will be a good Dad to Khi.
I put my silver medal beside Khi the other day, said Mitchell, whose teammates won an Olympic silver in the relay final after he helped them qualify in the preliminaries. And I thought, This year couldnt have worked out any better. First I got my silver, and then I got my gold.
First love was football
Mitchell grew up in Mooresboro, about 55 miles west of Charlotte. He and his younger brother were raised by their mother, Dianna Ellis.
Ive always worked, and Ive always provided for both of them, said Ellis, who now works second shift as a freezer operator at Nestles prepared-foods factory in Gaffney, S.C. It wasnt a struggle. It was hard at times, but we always made it.
I had all of what I needed and some of what I wanted, Mitchell said.
Mitchells first love was football, and he ran track almost as an afterthought. He was a wide receiver for Crest High, but broke his arm early in his senior season.
From there, he concentrated on track but was overshadowed by another Crest sprinter, Travis Padgett, who would eventually make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team while at Clemson.
The way we found Manteo was that a regional track meet was held on our campus, said Danny Williamson, who has been the head track and field coach at Western Carolina for three decades. Travis Padgett was one of the top high-school sprinters in the United States at the time, but I kept noticing this kid who got second in everything behind Padgett.
Williamson talked to Mitchell, found out no one was recruiting him and got him to come to Western Carolina in 2005 on a partial scholarship. Mitchell was one of the best Southern Conference runners for four straight years there, but never an All-American.
Mitchell stayed on campus after getting his degree, became a graduate assistant under Williamson and tried to make a go of it as a professional runner. His career started slowly. Williamson said originally Mitchell wasnt committed enough to the life of a pro runner.
His first year was not a success, Williamson said, because he thought just going pro made him something special.
But Mitchell then made a stronger commitment to nutrition and training, Williamson said, and got better. Some runners just gel a little later, the coach said, and Manteo was one of those.
Break a leg
At the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Mitchell finished fifth in the 400 meters. That put him on the team and qualified him for the 4x400 relay. His mother went overseas in August for the first time in her life and saw her son lead off the relay in front of 80,000 people in London.
Most people didnt know anything had happened, but I could tell something was wrong the way he was running, his mother said. I thought it was a cramp.
Mitchell believes his fibula was weakened a few days before the race, when he banged it on some stairs while trying to skip steps to get to an athletes shuttle bus on time. But the fibula did not actually break at that time he is sure of that. He had it checked out after the stair bump and team doctors told him he had only bruised it.
It was incorrectly reported by some media outlets that Mitchell had broken his tibia during his race. Since the tibia is the legs primary weight-bearing bone, to finish the race then would have been practically impossible.
I would have just caved in, Mitchell said.
Instead, he fought through the pain, thinking of his own personal slogan tattooed on his arm: Faith. Focus. Finish. He finished, handed off the baton to a teammate, and limped off the track. The broken bone was diagnosed minutes afterward.
Mitchell did have a sense of humor about it, writing on Twitter: Never thought the phrase break a leg would reach reality for me.
An unusual platform
Mitchells story didnt get a fairytale ending in one respect. The U.S. normally wins Olympic gold in the 4x400 relay but was upset the next day in the final by the Bahamas. So Mitchell who would receive the same medal as his teammates for running in the first heat earned a silver medal instead of a gold.
I never wanted to go break my leg, Mitchell said. I would have been OK with a gold medal. But they probably would have forgotten about Team USA the next day (without the break). The platform that this injury and this Olympic experience has given me has opened numerous doors.
Mitchell plans to start entering track meets again in March, with the ultimate goal of making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. A possible move from Cullowhee looms. He loves the mountains but may end up training in a warmer place at least part-time. After running is done for him, he would ultimately like to work in athletic administration at a four-year college.
In the meantime, Mitchell plans to continue sharing his story whenever he can. At Shelbys Township Three Elementary, he carried a homemade Olympic flame, made by the children, through the school, then spoke for 20 minutes without notes as the kids listened raptly. He talked mostly about the value of education and stressed competing in the classroom as hard as you compete in sports. (Mitchell is close to obtaining a masters degree in education at Western Carolina).
Motivational speaking was always something I thought about doing, but I was always timid and afraid, Mitchell said. But not anymore. Not since this happened to me.
As Mitchell hung toy gold medals around the necks of more than 130 children to celebrate the kids achievements in reading, he looked like a man enjoying his life.
He has his own silver medal. His 15 minutes of fame has extended for several months. And while all of this began with one broken leg, the end of the journey is nowhere in sight.