I broke my ankle in college while jogging. True story. It was a Sunday night before I started my last semester at Wake Forest. There was a group of sorority girls standing in the sidewalk ahead of me. I ran out into the road to get around them. My foot landed partly on the pavement and partly on the drainage area just off the pavement. My ankle inverted, and I felt immediate pain. Not wanting to show weakness, I tried to keep running. Despite my desire to keep going, the pain was so intense that I stopped after five steps.
When I heard about Manteo Mitchell’s valiant effort to run through a fibula fracture in this year’s Olympics, it immediately reminded me of my own injury. Even if his fracture was higher up the leg than mine was, I can’t imagine how awful his pain must have been. And to still finish the race…
The scene was set for Manteo Mitchell and his American teammates. The United States had dominated the 4×400 relay, winning gold at every Olympics since 1984. The Americans were clear-cut favorites from the beginning, so qualifying for the finals should have been a mere formality. However, this semifinal preliminary race made headlines for an entirely different reason.
The previous Monday, Mitchell was walking up a stairway in the Olympic village when he missed a step and slipped. The 25-year-old sprinter from Cullowhee, North Carolina underwent treatments and performed his regular workouts in preparation for Thursday’s race.
Seconds after the starting gun fired, Mitchell felt his ankle cramping. He passed 50 meters, then 100-meters, and his leg felt weird. He kept running.
He reached the halfway point at 200 meters and heard a loud crack.
Focused on helping Team USA secure a spot in the 4x400m Finals, Mitchell refused to stop or even slow down after he felt and heard this pop in his left leg.
“(F)or the RED WHITE & BLUE,” he later wrote on his Facebook page, “I WAS WILLING TO DO ANYTHING TO WIN!”
While track and field is often considered an individual sport, Mitchell showed what he would do for Team USA’s success. The sprinter had half a lap to go in the first leg when he faced a sudden choice. Should he keep running or stop and eliminate his team from the race?
“I felt like somebody had literally just snapped my leg in half,” Mitchell said. “I heard it and I felt it. But I figured it’s what almost any person would’ve done in that situation. I knew if I finished strong, we could still get it (the baton) around,’’ Mitchell said. “I saw Josh Mance motioning me in for me to hand it off to him, which lifted me.”
After finishing his lap and watching his teammates qualify for the final, doctors confirmed that he had run the last 200 meters with a broken left fibula.
Mitchell’s endurance of tremendous pain to finish a race with a broken leg is admirable, but it isn’t unfathomable. The fibula is one of the two long bones of the lower leg. The tibia, commonly referred to as the shin bone, bears about 90% of the weight distributed through the lower leg. The fibula, the bone on the outside of the leg, plays much less of a role in bearing weight. Interestingly, when people suffer fractures of the shafts of the tibia and fibula in sports or motor vehicle accidents, frequently surgeons only fix the tibia surgically by placing a rod down the center of the bone. The fibula usually heals without surgery.
Mitchell’s troubles likely started with that fall on the stairs. He might have suffered a hairline fracture of the midshaft of the bone that might not have even been visible on plain x-rays. Since the tibia bears most of the weight, Mitchell might have felt soreness in the leg but still have been able to walk on it. Then the pounding stress of a sprint possibly caused the hairline fracture to break completely through.
Stress fractures are another possibility when it comes to athletes of sports with repetitive impact like track and field and cross country. The bone gradually becomes more painful as the runner tries to compete with a stress fracture, but finally the bone gives – similar to bending a paper clip back and forth until it breaks. Surgeons treat athletes all the time, even at the high school level, who try to push through one more race or tournament. I would expect the chance to compete in the Olympics, the biggest stage of them all, to be even more compelling and that much more of a reason to surge through.
Still, Mitchell’s determination was impressive. His pain must have been intense, and yet he finished his 400-meter lap in an impressive 46.1 seconds. He explained how he kept his composure during the race, despite his tremendous pain.
“Faith, focus, finish, Faith, Focus, Finish. That’s the only thing I could say to myself.”
Thanks to Prateek Prasanna for his help with this post.
Do you have a similar story to share? Have you suffered an injury but tried to keep playing? Have you taken care of an athlete who tried to fight through tremendous pain? Share your story below!