Written by: Heidi Volpe
Jamie Whitmore, professional triathlete
and decorated Xterra World Champion and I have more in common then just
the love of sport.
Our bodies tapped us on the shoulder saying
something was amiss. We both just carried on running, riding, living our
lives thinking that tap would disappear, but that wasnít the case.
Finally the tap became an unbearable smack and we
both found ourselves in a hospital emergency unit, and weeks later faced with
the gripping reality that we had different but rare forms of cancer.
Shannon at MTB Race News suggested I interview
Jamie, not because of our similar conditions simply because she is remarkable.
I was happy to do this interview simply because I
know those tears that fall and what it feels like to be temporarily stopped
dead in your tracks.
I know the giant hole you climb out of with the
help of family and friends once you accept what is and continue to live your
life and not let the things you enjoy the most betray you. I know you march
forward with the cards youíve been dealt and play your best game.
In early 2008, Jamie Whitmore sat atop the
endurance-sporting world. A 5-time Xterra national champion and Xterra world champion
twice over, Whitmore never imagined her body, of all things, could be out to
get her. Persistent pain in her left leg finally led to crushing realization
that a rare and aggressive form of cancer was attacking her nervous system.
The treatment included extensive surgery that
ultimately removed her entire left gluteus muscle and damaged her sciatic nerve
leaving Jamie with a nonfunctioning left leg.
Despite her disabling surgery, Whitmore refused to
abandon her passion of riding and being outdoors. Almost 4 years removed from
her surgeries, Jamieís left leg is no better but sheís not letting that stop
her. In 2012, Whitmore finished four cycling races and a full Xterra while just
missing a spot on the 2012 Paralympics team. Jamieís will to overcome,
persevere and not simply walk away is inspiring to me and no doubt will be for
every single person that has an obstacle yet to face.
Read Jamie's complete interview below.
Heidi Volpe: What were the first tell tale signs
that something wasnít right?
Jamie Whitmore: At first it felt like I pulled a
hamstring but the pain in my leg that wasn't going away with rest. I
couldn't run and two months later I couldn't ride my bike any more.
Within days of my last ride I was no longer sleeping. The pain was
so bad I could only fall asleep for 20 minutes at a time. I would wake up
screaming in pain.
HV: How many doctors were incorrect in your diagnosis
and how long did it take to eventually pinpoint you had a rare sarcoma nerve
JW: I visited 3 hospitals and saw 7 different doctors
over a period of two months before going to UCSF where we finally got some
answers. They were unable to diagnose what I had until after surgery.
Going in, they only knew that it was cancer but they didn't know where it
was growing from.
HV: In a few words sum up the most valuable thing to
share dealing with the medical community as an athlete?
JW: Trust your instincts and be your own advocate.
Second opinions are a must. And most of all trust your doctor!
When I finally found Dr. Nakakura and his team I knew I was in good
HV: You earned a running scholarship in college so
this has been a discipline youíve enjoyed for a long time and was your first
love. How did your doctorís tell you that youíd never run again?
JW: Everyone was under strict orders by my husband not
to tell me I had "Drop Foot!" Not sure what he was thinking!!
When the doctor asked me to wiggle my toes and I couldn't I knew
something wasn't right. When I was fitted for a brace I finally put two
and two together. That's when I asked him if I would ever run again and
he said "Probably not!" Then he added "But if anyone can find a
way it would be you!"
HV: How is it that you are still able to ride, but you
have no sensation in your right leg? How does the muscle know to fire? Is that
because of all your running in college, the deep muscle memory?
JW: The only thing that works on my left leg is the
quad and knee. It isn't very strong and I am lucky I can bend the knee
(the quad nerves are helping out some), which is the only way I can ride.
It functions enough and yes muscle memory from many years of running and
riding help. My right leg does most of the work and the left leg is along
for the ride!
HV: Did coaching and lecturing fill the training gap
for a bit early on and of course having twins.
JW: I coached for several years while I was racing and
yes it helped to fill the time while I was fighting cancer. Sharing my
testimony also helped. I loved motivating people to fight and never give
up! The twins are a whole other story. Nothing prepares you for instant
parenthood! My hands have been full from day one.
HV: You only have one working quad and glute, How well
can you climb? And how about the flats?
JW: Flats are definitely easier for me. I don't
climb anywhere near what I used to but at least I can climb. The worst
part for me is if I have to get off the bike and walk. Walking is
difficult and even more so with my bike AFO (brace).
HV: What has been the single most challenging aspect
of this massive change?
JW: Not being able to move faster (walking) or simple
things like bowling. I can't wear flip flops and I always have to watch when
the floor is wet because I can slip. And sometimes by good leg gets
really sore if I've been on my feet all day but then I sit down only to be
uncomfortable because I have a glute missing!
HV: You've already accomplished so much:
37 Xterra wins, world championships, you've beaten cancer and have two
beautiful children why not just walk away from training and competition?
JW: Competition is in my blood.
Since I was little I have been competitive at everything including
Pictionary and other board games. It is hard to walk away from something
that is part of you. Not to mention how important it is to show people
that they can do anything if they just try and never give up!
HV: What has returning to competition
meant to you.
JW: Returning to competition has been an
incredible experience that words cannot accurately describe. For three
years a part of me was missing. Every time I ride my bike it is pure joy
and racing . . . well that is the cherry on top!
HV: You didnít qualify for the Paralympics this year,
JW: I was late to the game. I've only been
riding for a year . . . even though I won my category there were many fast
ladies in other categories. I was competing for one open spot and in the
end they took someone else!
HV: Are you feeling challenged by the Paralympic
courses? Do you hope to be a voice to make then harder then lets say the course
for the wheelies?
JW: I've only competed in road for paracycling.
This was the first year they offered para-mountain biking but I did not
go. It was a joke. Our course was the short track course. I
wasn't going to drive all the way to Idaho and pay over $50 to race for less
than 20 minutes on a non-technical course. I absolutely hope to be a
voice in the para-mountain biking world. I'm hoping to be able to compete
on the same courses as able-bodied people!!
HV: Do you still have all your sponsors?
JW: Yep! Everyone of them has still been there!
Cannondale, Clif Bar, Michelin, Mona Vie, Zeal, Squadra, ESI Grips
HV: How was Leadville?
JW: Leadville was awesome! The experience of a
lifetime. I was emotional a few times as I climbed to the top. I remembered
lying in a hospital wondering if I would ever ride (let alone compete) on a
bike again. Then there I was climbing high on a mountaintop with thousands of
others. It was AMAZING for sure!
HV: Do you have to do anything different to your bike?
JW: My seat is lower which makes the good leg
uncomfortable but it could be worse
HV: You recently did an Xterra in Guam and used forearm
crutches for the run, are you going to start training with those now for future
events? Or are you just mountain biking now.
JW: Mostly mountain biking but I'm always up for an
Xterra if someone has forearm crutches to borrow!! I don't own a pair . . . I
suppose if I did I would train with them!
HV: Describe lining up on any given race day.
JW: It is difficult if itís a triathlon - I always
have to watch my step since I can't feel my left foot. I have to have a
pair of crocs with me to put on right when I come out of the water. I
usually hop to it and put it on then hobble to transition.
If it is a mountain bike I have to have my bad foot
clipped in and I need to line up to the right in case someone knocks me off or
crashes in front of me. I need to be able to clip out and I can only do
so to the right.
HV: I made sure I walked the day after my
surgery. I was in a level one trauma unit and making it from the bed to
the exit sign was a huge accomplishment for me (it was about 20 feet). What about
you? Did you have any ground-breaking firsts while in the hospital?
JW: I had to learn to walk again after the first
surgery. It was difficult because my leg was in atrophy and I could no
longer feel it. I wasn't making progress for 5 days and they were worried
. . .over the weekend I pushed myself and was able to walk the hallway.
Mostly I could just support myself on the walker. It was enough to
be able to go home. Every time I ended up back in surgery it was like
starting all over again. The kidney infection really set me back because
of the pain on top of the incision in my stomach and butt! I was a mess.
HV: When I finally came home from the hospital, seeing
the moon had a big impact on me. My field of vision [in the hospital] had been
about 8 feet. I either stared at the ceiling or the hospital curtain. It was so
freeing. How about you? What made you feel that sense of freedom again?
JW: I feel a sense of freedom every time I ride.
I feel like I'm not disabled!
BY THE NUMBERS
and glued (to many stitches and staples to count and sometimes I was glued
Days in Hospital:
Too many to count but was in and out for a year
3 years 1
1/2 months from first major surgery to first race
Races this year:
Xterra Guam, Defi Paracycling TT race, Para Cycling Nationals, Leadville 100
and ParaTri Southwest Regional Championship
Traveled: Guam, Canada
Colorado, Georgia and Arizona
Speaking Engagements: 10
the Twins: 7 (Races and Camps)
Staples: 17 up my abdomen
Days in Level One Trauma Unit: 6
Suggested Chemo Treatment: declined
Accepted Treatment: watchful wait
CT Scans: 5
Days between last surgery and first race: 30
First race: 6 hrs of Temecula : 2nd
US Cup Triple Crown XC: 1st
USA Cycling National Championships: 1st
USA Cycling Nationals Super D: 2nd
Work Trips to Brazil: 3
Podiums in Brazil: 3
Work trips to Santa Fe: 3
Vegan Powered 12 Hrs of Temecula Duo: 2nd
(Sarah Jansen and I raced against men)
ISC Single Speed: 1st
6 Hrs of Temecula: raced single speed, Series
November 2011 Heidi Volpe was diagnosed with a rare form of digestive
cancer and wondered if she would ever ride her bike again. About one year post
surgery riding and racing have taken on new meaning for Heidi. Itís given her a
new sense of fulfillment and is an indication of her overall well being.