Since the age of nine, Mitch Whitmore dreamed about representing his country on the world's biggest athletic stage, the Olympic Games. He has already competed in two Olympics in the sport of speedskating, but the 2018 Games are his last chance to compete for a place on the podium and bring home a medal.
His 19-year journey almost ended when he suffered a devastating bike accident on the first day of training camp, five months before the ISU Speed Skating World Cup in Kearns, Utah. Even worse, it happened just seven months before the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
In a numb haze, Whitmore sat in the exam room waiting for his diagnosis ¾ he broke his sacrum, the bone at the end of the spine, near the tailbone. While it seems like a small injury, this was serious. It impacted his ability to skate. His dream and his life's work appeared to dissolve in one moment.
Whitmore reflects on his initial wave of emotions that washed over him.
"I was super sad," he said. "There were a lot of ups and downs. Some days I didn't even want to try."
To his advantage, Whitmore had overcome setbacks in his speedskating career before, especially with injuries.
The previous year, Mitch began experiencing pain in the muscles above his knee. He was diagnosed with calcific quadriceps tendinopathy in his left leg—inflammation that caused severe pain during and after skating.
He met with Daniel Cushman, MD, sports medicine physician at University of Utah Health's University Orthopaedic Center, to discuss treatment options. U of U Health is a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee's National Medical Network, which provides America's Olympic and Paralympic athletes with top-tier medical care. As one of three members of the Network, U of U Health is entrusted to provide orthopedics, primary care, dentistry, psychiatry, ophthalmology and neurosurgery to our country's top athletes.
Cushman performed a procedure called ultrasound-guided tendon barbotage, a method used to break up the buildup of calcium deposits so the body can dispose of them naturally. Post procedure instructions required Mitch to take it easy and expect pain for another two months.
Mitch's determination during rehab was immediately apparent. "A lot of the time the hardest thing for high-level athletes is dialing it back a little," Cushman said. "We followed up a couple of times by phone and saw how he was doing a couple of weeks after the procedure. He did a good job with his rehab."
Mitch was pleasantly surprised when Cushman's prediction for his recovery was spot on.
"After two months, which is exactly what Dr. Cushman had outlined, I was able to do everything in the weight room again," Mitch said.
In fact, he had an easier time lifting more weight with greater ease than he had experienced in several years. According to Whitmore, knowing his treatment was done right the first time was a fantastic feeling.
Two months after the procedure in 2016, Mitch returned to the rink. His body was ready to skate but he was still crippled by doubt. He had healed physically, but he hadn't healed mentally.
"The road to recovery is both physical and mental," said Dr. Cushman. "Mitch was tough; determined to recover. At every follow-up appointment, he was progressing faster than expected."
Day after day, Mitch was back on the ice, slowly rebuilding his confidence. He kept his eye on the prize and thought about the American flag and Olympic rings that he had tattooed on his back.
On a regular basis, he would say to himself, 'if I can skate, I can figure this thing out again.' And eventually, he did.
He continued this approach after his recent bike injury. Mitch remained committed to both his physical and mental rehab, with the goal of competing in one more Olympic Games.
With a newfound sense of gratitude for the opportunity to represent his country in the sport of speedskating, Mitch is back on the ice, putting in last-minute training time in preparation for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang.
"I've learned to be grateful for the chance to compete for my country, which I absolutely should have known already," he said, "Since then I've been able to learn from it and become better."