Hero. Such an overused word. Unless you happen to work in a deli.
And the Olympics are famous for spawning heroes. Myriad heroes, if you buy into the media hype.
But the London Games produced a true hero who stood out among the rest. One man whose feat of courage and nobility of purpose lifted him to heights sought by many but attained by few.
With three teammates and an entire nation counting on him, Manteo Mitchell ran 200 meters on a broken leg.
He was leading off the USA’s qualifying heat of the 4 x 400 meter relay last Thursday. Mitchell, 25, from Cullowhee, N.C., made his first Olympic team by finishing fifth in the 400 at the US Olympic Trials. That finish, one spot ahead of 1984 gold medalist Jeremy Wariner, earned Mitchell a spot in the relay pool in London.
But the US, which hadn’t lost the 4 x 400 in the Olympics since 1952, wasn’t at full strength. Wariner had sustained an injury in training during the Games. LaShawn Merritt, the defending Olympic champion at 400 meters, injured at a meet two weeks before the Games, barely made it a dozen steps into his qualifying heat in the 400, and withdrew. The other members of the relay pool — Tony McQuay, Bryshon Nellom, and Josh Mance, like Mitchell, were participating in their first Olympics.
Mitchell himself had suffered an injury. "Three days ago, I was going up the stairs, and I kind of missed one and landed awkwardly," he told Katie Branham of USA Track & Field Thursday. "I got treatment, and I was fine. I did workouts, and when I warmed up today I felt really well. I felt I could go 44 (seconds)-low. I got out pretty slow, but I picked it up, and when I got to the 100 meter mark, it felt weird. I was thinking I just didn’t feel right."
Runners know their bodies, and they know when something doesn’t feel quite right. They also know that usually, if they keep running, whatever doesn’t feel right will work itself out. So Mitchell kept running.
"As soon as I took the first step past the 200-meter mark," Mitchell continued, "I felt it break. I heard it. I even put out a little war cry, but the crowd was so loud you couldn’t hear it. I wanted to just lie down. It felt like somebody literally just snapped my leg in half."
But Mitchell kept running. He told the Associated Press that he came up with a mantra: "Faith, focus, finish. Faith, focus, finish. That’s the only thing I could say to myself."
He kept running, which came as no surprise to his college coach, Danny Williamson. "He was a team person here," Williamson told the A.P. "As soon as he came to Western Carolina, no matter what the situation, he’d do anything we asked of him. I’d like to believe the only way he would have stopped is if the leg had fallen off."
Fortunately, it hadn’t. So Mitchell kept running.
The human body was not meant to sprint a quarter of a mile. It hurts. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve run the race, or how fast you are, or how good a shape you’re in. Running the 400’s a killer.
Your legs go numb. Your chest burns. You can see your arms moving, see scenery slowly moving past, see your knees rise and fall, but that’s the only sensation you have of movement, because your body cannot feel anything but pain. Down the homestretch, you feel as though you’re running through soft sand, with a piano on your back.
Now try to imagine all that on a broken fibula.
But Mitchell kept running.
"I knew if I finished strong we could still get it (the baton) around," he told Branham. "I saw Josh Mance motioning me to hand it off to him, which lifted me. I didn’t want to let those three guys down, or the team down, so I just ran on it.
"It hurt so bad. I’m pretty amazed that I still split 45 seconds on a broken leg."
It was 46.1 officially, but who’s to quibble? Mitchell’s heroic effort enabled the US to qualify for the final, where they took the silver medal. Though that race broke a 60-year winning streak, those medals have a unique luster all their own.
The relay veteran and anchorman replacing Mitchell for the final, 400 meter hurdler Angelo Taylor, just didn’t have enough of a kick to hold off Ramon Miller of the Bahamas down the stretch. But he had the right words on NBC Saturday morning.
"Manteo Mitchell’s our hero," said Taylor. "Without him, we don’t even have a chance to run for the silver medal."
A hero in the truest sense of the word.