In the decade after graduating from California State University, Northridge in 1998, the energetic Jamie Whitmore became the most successful female athlete in the history of the Xterra off-road triathlon series, netting 37 championship titles.
In February 2008, everything changed. Persistent leg pain left Whitmore, a former collegiate track and cross country runner, bedridden. After exploratory surgery that month, she was saddled with a catheter. A biopsy, followed by another surgery in March, revealed a cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit wrapped around her sciatic nerve on the spinal cord. When Whitmore woke up from surgery, she couldn’t feel her left foot—she was paralyzed from the knee down.
Later that year, the cancerous spindle cell sarcoma returned, leading to another surgery to remove Whitmore’s left gluteal muscle, part of her tailbone and sacral nerve. “It got really scary,” says Whitmore, whose 5-foot-5 frame whittled down to 98 pounds. “I was in and out of the hospital fighting for my life. I can remember walking with a walker and being just skin and bones.”
But this was far from the end of the road for Whitmore, who refused to give up.
In 2011, after five more surgeries and remarkably giving birth to twins, Whitmore and her husband went for a tandem bike ride. Less than a year later, Whitmore raced the Xterra USA Championship in Ogden, Utah, and Xterra Guam Championship, and finished the 2012 Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race in less than 12 hours.
That same year, she competed in the National Championship Time Trial for C-3 category paracyclists. Since then, Whitmore has racked up nine Union Cycliste Internationale Para-Cycling Road and Track World Championship titles, including the 2015 title for winning the road race.
In September, Whitmore will compete in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio in four events—two track and field competitions, plus two road races. It will be the highlight of the three to four months she is on the road racing, a grueling schedule forcing Whitmore to take extra precautions against germs and sickness, as well as swelling that is especially dangerous for those with leg paralysis.
Financially, her path to competing in Rio has been a bumpy one, compounded by the fact that prize money is almost nonexistent for paracyclists. Whitmore says right now she is breaking even, but not making a sustainable living like she was prior to having cancer and becoming disabled. For example, while Olympic winners like Michael Phelps will earn $25,000 in prize money per gold medal, a parathlete will earn $5,000 per gold medal. “If we are equals as athletes, why isn’t the payout the same?” she asks.
Regardless of the payout—or lack thereof—Whitmore says she’s been waiting her whole life for this moment.
“Going to the Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was 5,” she says. “Just because my path has changed doesn’t mean my dream has to.”
Jamie Whitmore: Around the World
January-March: Southern California; training camp, track selection race, track camp
March 12-22: Italy; Track World Championships
April: Colorado; training and testing, Cooking With Team USA
May 16-23: Belgium; World Cup race
June 9-12: Reno, Nev.; Race
June 20-28: Colorado; training
June 30-July 2: Charlotte, N.C.; U.S. Para-cycling trials
July: Dallas; speaking engagements
Aug. 20-Sept. 1: Southern California; training camp
Sept. 2-19: Rio de Janeiro; Paralympics