When he heard his leg snap at the 200m mark, Manteo Mitchell wasn’t about to let his hard work and training go down the drain. So he did what almost nobody else would, he kept on running.
You know you’ve achieved something quite extraordinary when Usain Bolt is seeking you out for a picture.
Manteo Mitchell is the US quarter miler who ran the first leg of his 4x400m relay heat at London 2012 with a fractured left shinbone. Thanks to his herculean efforts, the USA qualified for the final and went on to win a silver medal.
The episode brought a whole new meaning to the phrase: ‘go out there and break a leg’ and for some, Mitchell’s achievement embodies the Olympic spirit. It certainly struck a chord with Jamaica’s sprint superstar.
“Bolt came over and said, ‘are you the guy with the broken leg?’ I was just honoured he knew who I was,” says Mitchell. “And then he said: ‘this is better than a gold medal. You’re the story of the Olympics.’ He then asked me if he could have a photo with me. That was awesome.”
As unfortunate as the incident was for Manteo (pronounced Man-e-o), it has elevated the North Carolina resident the status of celebrity.
“It has definitely been crazy but in a good sense,” he says. “The platform I’ve been given not just to inspire other runners but also everyday people, has been amazing. People come up to me and say things like, ‘I wanted to quit but you inspired me to finish this exam.’ It has been a whirlwind. The media attention has been great but being able to use my Olympic story to inspire others has been the best part.”
Mitchell is keen to put one thing straight about that famous 4x400m heat. Although the shinbone did crack and break during the race, he believes the root of the problem can be traced to an accident in the Olympic Village several days earlier.
“I was running late to get on the shuttle for practice and I tripped up the steps from my apartment,” he says. “I cracked my shinbone on exactly the same spot, which broke three days later. My bone definitely did not fracture then but I think that may have triggered it.”
Although the area was sore and tender before the heats, it got much worse as he tore out of the blocks on the first leg of heat two inside the Olympic Stadium.
“Everything from there went downhill,” he says. “I got to 100m and I couldn’t press or lift properly [on the left leg]. I got to the 200m mark: that’s when I heard it snap and break but I wasn’t going to let my hard work and my training go down the drain,” he says.
Mitchell shrugged off the excruciating pain and carried on, losing ground but still clocking a 46.1 leg: a semi-respectable time for a fully fit athlete. He also managed to pass the baton to Joshua Mance while still in fifth place, holding off the Dominican Republic’s Gustavo Cuesta down the home straight.
“Most importantly, I wasn’t going to let my country down and my team-mates down. I just didn’t want to be that person. I took one for the team. Fortunately, they were able to qualify and go on to take the silver medal [behind the Bahamas].”
He describes the final 200m as “the worst pain” he has experienced in his life. And this is from the man who broke an arm playing American Football in his younger days.
“It was like running on Jell-O,” he says. Yet rather than crawl off the track in agony he stayed, standing, to watch his team-mates qualify second fastest. He even carried out TV, radio and press interviews without a word of complaint.
It was only after an X-ray some two hours after the heat did he fully discover the nature of his injury. Mitchell could barely believe he’d completed his lap.
“The doctor showed me the results and the bone had separated,” he says. “I closed my eyes, replayed the race in my mind and thought, ‘how was this possible?’”
“I have a firm belief in God, and I thought this was part of God’s plan for me. Everything that has happened since then has boosted my career and helped other athletes.”
Like all great athletes, Mitchell is focused on the future. He’s back in training three or four times a week, and on the gradual road to recovery. He wants to improve on his current 400m personal best of 44.96, and earn a spot in the individual event for the US team at the Moscow 2013 World Championships.
Here’s hoping he does, and whatever happens next year; we hail Manteo Mitchell as the undisputed hero of athletics in 2012.