Jamie Whitmore: A New Life

What do you do when you've been laid low by cancer, deprived of a shining sporting career, almost lost your life, had your swift and strong legs cut up? If you are Jamie Whitmore, you dedicate yourself to helping others, taking on new challenges, and bucking the odds that said you'd never swim, bike or run again.

Venturing back out in the world

While I was still fighting the nausea and before the ureter issues I traveled to the Xterra US Championships at Tahoe in September and the World Championships in Maui in October of 2008 to help announce. People there raised a bunch of money for me. I was really sick, but I sucked it up. I was nauseous ‘til noon, then I went out to do my thing. It was a struggle, but I got so much good energy
from people who were happy to see me.

Winning the Xterra Warrior Award at Maui was great. In the middle of your career, you never realize what people think of you. When news of my struggles came out, I had over 1000 emails from people, some I’d never met telling me that I made a difference in their lives. Some read my blog on battling cancer and wrote to tell me that I touched them and that they decided to do a triathlon in honor of me. They want to do what I couldn’t do!

I’d tell people, ‘Don’t complain about running because I can’t run and I would give almost anything to be able to do it again.’ Then they would write back and say, ‘I didn’t walk at all during the race and shattered their personal best times, ‘Because before I always walked when it became painful.’ Now they realized they could do it. I don’t know if they felt guilty, or if it was more a sense of ‘We want to do it for Jamie.’

My sister Trina is a 4th grade teacher and ironically, at the same time I got sick, she took up marathons. She was never much of a runner, while I ran for 15 years. She ran here and there. But all of a sudden, she is running marathons.

It was great to know all these people were affected in a positive way by what I was going through. Obviously it didn’t hit them as hard as me, but they were affected, moved and inspired to break through their old limits. I always say there are bigger, more important things I need to be used for now.

Look reality in the face, but never surrender hope

Whenever you have hope, it keeps you moving forward. I realize many eyes are on me to see how I handle my situation and overcome. If I don’t give up, other people who may be tempted to give up won’t. They will have to keep trying because I am living proof of unwillingness to give up.

That is one thing people will notice about me. I do not sugarcoat things. I am not off in La La land. I do not pretend nothing happened. I know I have a permanent disability. But I am also stubborn. If someone tells me it’s impossible, I refuse to believe there is not another way to do things. I told my dad, maybe I will not be able to go from point A to point B in a straight line any more. But I will still get from point A to point B.

Really the biggest thing that keeps me going is my faith. That came directly from God’s strength. I have always been the type to know the reality of the situation but you can’t give up hope.

How she looks at her abrupt change in life

I look at it pretty positively. I am so glad for all the choices I made in my life -- that I did so much traveling overseas. I am so glad I was not more concerned with always winning. I would not have done as much traveling as I did. Look at all the places I saw when I was a lean mean fighting machine. I am still pretty lean. I’m down to one leg but I still work out doing whatever I can as much as possible! I laugh a lot more these days. I may not be racing right now but I am still connected to the triathlon world. I am announcing races and coaching athletes. I will talk and share my stories as long as there is an ear to listen.

Eventually, I will find a way to be competitive again. I’ve always liked competition … But it’s never been about winning, never about money. It’s the thrill to race the best of the best and find out if you will be the best on that day. Xterra is a neat sport. You never know how it will turn out. You just hope you are prepared enough.

Pioneering prosthetics for drop foot

People in my condition, most people with drop foot, are stroke victims or have had some sort of trauma from an accident. They have severed nerves which forces them to have a drop foot. That is an area where there is not much prosthetics development. I’d like to be part of changing that.

Look at how far medicine has come in making prosthetics and similar things for amputees so people could walk, run and ride bikes. That was not done 50 years ago. Until now, there has not been that much science and development for patients like me. I’m working with dead weight. I cannot put on an existing appendage. It’s kind of tricky. My orthotic guy is trying to figure out something that will work with me. I feel like a test pilot for him which is pretty cool but can be frustrating when AFO’s don’t work. Courtney has to constantly remind me that it will get better and that everything is just a prototype right now.

Kenneth Kane is my orthopedic and he is going to make me a running brace with a blue snakeskin pattern. I’m the style queen. So if you gotta wear a brace, you want to look dope and ride in style. Kenneth is based in San Francisco and he is a very creative, amazing guy.

I’ve also asked him to create a butt prosthetic. I carry around a memory foam pillow to sit on so that it allows me to sit a little more evenly. I use it everywhere, driving, restaurants, church, airplanes, all except for the gym. I just stick a towel under my left buttocks while I am using the weights. It is much easier the carrying a big pillow! This same prosthetic guy will help design an implant for the outside because I can not have an internal implant. With all of the radiation I had in the area plastic surgeons say my body would reject anything foreign in that area. He is pretty creative. He mentioned that figure skaters when practicing constantly fall so they put gel pads on their bottom, which add cushioning and stick to the skin. This would be a great starting place for what I need.

Dreams of returning to sports – and keeping her stylish shoes

It’s frustrating to go to the gym and see people swim and you’re stuck on the elliptical trainer. I have never been a person who was satisfied walking. Why should I, when I can run somewhere? It isn’t any easier when all of the handicapped parking is right in front of the pool. Every day I remind myself, you will swim again!

I am working hard to expand my sports coaching clientele. I also have a friend working to get my website updated – to announce my motivational and other speaking engagements. I want to motivate people to hope, to get people off their butts, to walk and work out and improve their lives.

I want to start announcing at more races, speaking to kids at schools and all that kind of stuff. I want to slowly pick up the ability to ride a bike again. I think that is my main goal right now. Get well and get back on the bike!

As a native Californian I have always been a flip flop wearer. I also love my strappy sandals. A few months after my first surgery I went into my closet and counted all of the shoes that I was unable to wear. I think I stopped around 100. These are shoes I have collected over the years and taken great care of. I teared up thinking about how I would never be able to wear my flip flops again. I walked out to Courtney and said “Don’t even ask me to get rid of any shoes because I won’t do it!” He stared at me with a puzzled look on his face. If I get rid of my shoes then I am saying there is no hope I will be able to wear them again!

Proud of her racing, and the legacy of her duels with Melanie McQuaid

I have trophies from my racing all over the house. I like it that people can see who I am -- past and future. People need to be able to come and see all this and see I have not really changed. I will get sponsors and I will find a way to race again. You will see.

In Xterra it’s just not the same without me. Melanie and I put a lot into the sport, a lot into the rivalry. When someone is dominating, it’s not the same excitement. The neat thing is that now more women are stepping up – Julie Dibens from Great Britain and Renata Bucher from Switzerland are racing more in the USA. And Shonny Vanlandingham and Danelle Kabush also have the ability to do well. There will be good competition between all of them. I would love to coach any one of them and share my treasured secrets!

Melanie and I both realized that what made us both better was each other. What made the sport great were the duels we had with each other. It is not the same when Conrad wins all the time and has no rival. More people tuned into the women’s race to find out would Melanie or Jamie win? It was like Lakers or Kings fans in basketball. I honestly do not think there will be anything like that ever again. Like Dave Scott and Mark Allen -- I don’t think you will see the likes of the rivalry between Dave and Mark again. And it will be a long time before we have a female rivalry like Melanie and I. It was an exciting time in my life. Now that I was taken out of the sport so early, Melanie said “It is not the same.” This is not to take away from any of the other women, I think it has to do with the ‘love – hate’ relationship we have always shared. We love to beat each other and hate to lose!

The strong friendships remain

When I raced, I was never so self-involved. Everything was not about me and my career. I was out there asking fellow competitors “Hey what can I do for you? What can I give you?” I noticed someone’s transition wasn't set up and helped 'em with that. I always did that. I never thought what I was doing was too important to take a few seconds out to talk to anyone who asked.

Melanie and I fought hard at every race, but now it is not about the rivalry. Now it’s ‘Are you OK? What can I do?’ The spirit of being a good person overtook the rivalry. I needed help from a lot of people and Melanie definitely was someone who came through. She sent me a video that made me laugh at a time there was not much laughing going on. At the end the caption reads “This is Jamie winning worlds,” and shows a picture of me crossing the finish line holding up the tape. Then it reads “This is Melanie winning worlds,” and shows a picture of her passed out on the ground at the finish line. She left it up on You Tube, and it is on my website. She has checked in on me more then most. She will often shoot me an email saying “Hi how you doing?”

All the emails have been that way. Mike Vine, Craig Evans, Conrad, Ryan DeCook, Jenny Smith, Shonny Vanlandingham and Danelle Kabush and so many others -- It is neat to see what they think of me. The thing is, people don’t say enough nice things to people when they are well. That was one of the things that made my year in 2008. Like Conrad and Jenny Smith talking about how much I have endured and how strong I must be. They also noticed my faith. These are things we just don’t say to each other on a daily basis.

“Jamie you’re a really great person.” “We really like you.” It is nice to know I was appreciated for living my life exactly how I wanted to live it.

But no one stood stronger for me than Courtney. Courtney had to definitely take a back seat and sacrifice a lot of stuff. It is weird to go through anything like this. It can tear you apart or make you closer. It definitely made us closer. His mom had Huntington’s, his Grandmother died of a brain tumor …. He’s dealt with very important women in his life being sick.

Putting out the word made her a willing ally for fellow cancer patients

At the beginning of my cancer treatment, people did stories on me in Triathlete and Competitor. But that was only after my first surgery. So much has happened since then. The triathlon world likely isn’t aware of it all.

When articles about me appear in the local papers, some people who are suffering want to talk to me. I met a woman who had a stroke and her husband and friends pretty much abandoned her. I had a great husband, great friends and family to support me through my disease. I felt so bad for her and so angry at these people. I cannot believe what has happened to her.

Most recently I met with a woman and her husband over coffee. She has stage four colon cancer that has spread to her liver. It was nice to talk about what I have gone through and where I get my strength from because no one knows when their time is up. Until then we have to fight to live!

I want to be a supportive person to anyone I can who is going through cancer, disabilities or other ailments. During my radiation treatments in San Francisco, I developed a support network. Every day we would come in and swap cancer stories. There was no ignoring our situations just lots of encouragement and questions.

What happened to me is so rare – I got cancer and a disability all rolled up into one big trauma. So in some way, the people I feel most connected with are challenged athletes. Like my good friends Jonathan Bik and Andy May. We need hopeful people like them. They are both athletes and they understand what I’m going through and what I’ve lost.

It’s hard to relate to Lance Armstrong

I can’t really relate to Lance. He got cancer but then was able to return to an elite level. As much as I would like to believe that is possible the reality is the opposite. These days I just hope I can get back on a bike even if it is at a snail's pace (which it won’t be!) People always want to address the cancer issue and not the disability. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say “O you will make a comeback like Lance!” And I look and them and very calmly say, “I wish it were that easy but Lance didn’t lose the use of his leg!”

Favorite TV shows are House and Mixed Martial Arts

Yes. I watch a lot of TV. I always have and probably always will. I have many favorites but one that stands out these days is House. I love how creative he is in diagnosing his patients. I also like his character. I understand his frustrations and pain! But I do not like how he walks with a cane on the same leg that is bad. That is just not possible and it pisses me off. Try walking with a cane like that and you will have problems. We have been saying we should write to the TV executives and share my story. It has been a strange one.

I also like to watch a lot of MMA -- mixed martial arts. I am really into that. For my birthday this May my in-laws bought me a punching bag. I was super stoked. I turned 33 and my favorite number is 3. Double to fun!

Her inspiration

I watched a documentary on a friend of mine who is legally blind. He can see with one eye but it is like looking through a straw with Vaseline on the end. Bobby McMullen (my blind friend) does not ride tandem. He rides his own bike and follows a guide who yells commands. It is crazy. He is the only guy in his category to finish Xterra Worlds. He normally just races downhill! Bobby has come through so much – he is a big inspiration for me. He had Type 1 diabetes but because he got a new pancreas he no longer had diabetes. He lost his eye sight in law school and had a double kidney transplant. He is simply amazing. To top things off, the documentary I went to was a fundraiser for me. He wanted to help with the ever increasing medical bills. Bobby told me that he knew I would get through this. He said, “You do the impossible.” I look at all that he has done and I know I will be able to overcome similar obstacles.

Meanwhile, if Jamie has any regrets, it’s about that last ride and that last
run before the cancer hit full force.

Written in her blog was a lyrical valedictory for what she loved about her sport: “With the amount of pain I was in for that last ride and run, I couldn't truly enjoy either one. Instead the memory of agony is embedded in my brain. If only my last run could have been on my favorite trail in Sly Park, with rolling single track around a lake. I spent most of my winters on that nine-mile loop smelling the fresh cedar and damp air. If only my last ride could have been battling it out in Salmon Falls with Courtney and Cliff in 90-degree weather trying to avoid the poison oak. The first time I ever rode that trail I crashed over and over. I walked almost all of the technical, steep descents. Months later, I was able to ride everything on that trail. It became my favorite place to ride and drop the hammer on all the guys. It has just the right amount of hill climbs and technical difficulty. There are tight single track sections with rocks all over the trail and a cliff to one side. Every once in a while you run into cows or skunks and a handful of other riders but most of the time I felt like it was my own personal trail and I had it all to myself.

“The desire to get back to riding my bike and running is highly driven by these memories. I want to feel the wind blowing in my face and my heart rate skyrocket when I am attempting a difficult section. I want to feel the endorphins from running 10 miles at a steady pace.”

But those regrets only fuel her dreams

Most doctors say you cannot run because you can’t push off -- because you do not have a glute muscle for stability and strength. I know the likelihood of overcoming that physical challenge is remote. But you know me. I will try everything to make it work.