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    Manteo Mitchell’s Plucky Break

    Manteo Mitchell’s first-leg run in the final of the men’s 4×400-meter relay in the 2012 Olympics in London has been heralded as one of the most remarkable in the history of the Games. Not because it powered the Team USA quartet to a silver medal—but because he finished it with a broken leg.

    Mitchell was halfway around his lead lap when his lower left fibula snapped. “You would think with thousands of people in the stands and as loud as it was that you wouldn’t hear it,” he recalls. “But in that moment I felt it and heard it. I knew something broke, but I didn’t know exactly what it was.”

    Somehow, he found the courage and drive to keep going. “At that time, I was faced with… do I continue running right now and risk further injury or do I just let all those years of hard work and dedication, all those things you’ve tried to work for, come to an end right here?” Mitchell dug deep to complete a 45.7-second lap. “I just channeled all that emotion and negativity that was going on down there to my mind, to keep pressing forward.”

    He needed to find similar resolve to come back from the injury. After several months in a boot, he began to train again, only to find his body rebelling when he reached the same distance at which the break occurred. “My body would just stop running,” he remembers. “It was like my mind was just, ‘Nope.’” It took several months, working with a sports psychol-ogist, to overcome the mental hurdle.

    A decade later, Mitchell has been bringing that same inspiring determination to another challenge—becoming the first male Black American athlete to represent his country at both Summer and Winter Olympic Games. A couple of years ago he began training for the bobsled team, hoping to qualify for Beijing in February.

    No shortcuts
    Though speed work training has been similar, he has had to adapt to the new Winter Game’s discipline, which he calls “basically NASCAR on ice without the pit crew (because we are the pit crew).” He has gained almost 40 pounds as he has increased his strength, though he is faster now than ever. There has also been learning bobsledding skills: “It’s a lot more than just running on ice and jumping into the sled and pulling the brakes at the end.”

    Mitchell was actually a late-comer to track and field. He grew up playing football and basketball, only starting to run in his junior year, because his football coach was also the athletics coach and “he made us come out there.” But he soon found a taste and a talent for the track, and went on to become one of the most decorated athletes at Western Carolina University.

    His brave Olympic silver medal run opened up an unexpected new opportunity as a motivational speaker. His then-agent told him, “No matter how fast or slow or how good you do on the track, you’re going to make more money and more people smile, and more people will remember you off the track from telling this story.” “And he didn’t lie,” Mitchell observes, “it’s been a whirlwind.”

    Initially, the public spotlight was daunting for a shy young man who didn’t like speaking in front of big groups. “I had no choice,” he says. “I was put on this pedestal and everybody, all the news outlets, wanted to hear what happened and hear my side of the story, so it gave me a new career. Now I enjoy being in front of the camera and being behind a microphone.”

    He passes on some of the lessons he learned through the experience—“about the sheer determination and the hard work that you put into any task or any endeavor; if you go about it the right way and don’t take the shortcuts, you always end up finishing the race. As long as you keep running, you’re going to get there.”

    Then there was realizing the determination required to be a professional athlete as an African American man, when “people are always going to have these negative connotations about you, but you have to keep building,” he says. “In that moment of 45 seconds, you wouldn’t think you would have that much time to learn so many valuable lessons, but I definitely did.”

    “I enjoy encouraging and enhancing people’s lives the best way that I can.”

    Never shy away
    Mitchell has shared his story and his lessons hundreds of times, from big-business settings to small groups of young people. “I feel like that was my calling,” he says. “That was God’s way of saying, ‘Hey, this is what you thought you were going to do, but this is what I’m going to do for you through what you thought you were going to do.’ And I had to just run with it, for lack of a better term. I enjoy encouraging and enhancing people’s lives the best way that I can.”

    Mitchell may parlay that speaking talent into some kind of media role when he hangs up his athletic shoes. “I definitely think I have a future in TV,” he says. “I don’t know exactly what capacity that will be, but I love talking to people, I love sharing people’s stories.” Or maybe he will pursue something to do with music. “I feel like there’s infinite possibilities for me going forward, but we’ll see.”

    Has the major transition he has made going from the track to the bobsled run been of any help coming through the COVID-19 and racial pandemics of the last couple of years? “It has been tough,” he says. “With COVID, I’ve lost family members due to the virus, and that’s impacted not only me but millions of people across this country in many different ways.”

    Because of his celebrity status, he’s often asked for his view on things. “I try to keep my political views and all that stuff under wraps just to protect myself, but at the end of the day I would never shy away from what it is I believe in. I’m always going to stand by that, so when I’m asked the tough questions, I go at them wholeheartedly.

    “I know that I’m not answering this for me, I’m answering this for everybody with my same last name, for everyone that looks like me—maybe a little bit darker, maybe a little bit lighter. The biggest thing is just being in the know, knowing your surroundings, knowing what’s going on and not shying away from those tough conversations.”

    Social media has brought greater awareness to things which have been going on for a long time, he says. “It’s important for people like myself, anyone in any kind of capacity of exposure or influ-ence, to be able to use their voice the way that they can… understanding that you’re not the only one going through what you’re going through, there’s so many people that are suffering.”

    “I would never shy away from what it is I believe in.”

    My grandfather, for sure. He didn’t finish school; I actually taught him how to read. I didn’t have a father figure in the home, so my grandfather was the father figure in our home, and he showed me so many different things growing up. He was very, very tough on me and in those times, I didn’t really understand… I talked back. Now it’s all come full circle with me having a son, and I remember when my grandfather taught me this or told me that… just little things that have definitely enhanced my life and made me really, truly appreciate not only the lessons that he taught me but now being able to teach those same things to my son.

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