Silver Lining

WCU’s Olympic medalist on the Games and adjusting to life post-London

Interview by JILL INGRAM MA ’08

Manteo Mitchell ’09 was a name heard ’round the world during the summer 2012 Olympics in London, though not in the way he might have imagined. The track and field standout, who qualified as a USA pool runner for the 4×400 meter relay, snapped his left fibula bone at the 200-meter mark during the event qualifier. Despite the injury, Mitchell, WCU record-holder in the in the 200-meter and the 400-meter, finished his race and earned the team its spot in the finals. While the USA’s ultimate silver (including for Mitchell, for his part in qualifying) ended a longtime winning streak in that event, Mitchell’s teammates applauded him. “Without him, this wouldn’t be possible. He held it down for the USA,” relay runner Tony McQuay told the Associated Press. The 25-year-old, of Shelby, is finishing a graduate degree in physical education at WCU, where he trains year-round with WCU track and field coach Danny Williamson ’85 MAEd ’87. In a boot and off the track for four to six weeks, Mitchell sat down with The Magazine of Western Carolina University in mid-August, shortly after his return from London.

Manteo Mitchell

Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but are you a little bit down?
Maybe 20 percent down, but it’s not a down like, “I hate myself” or anything like that. It’s just the fact that I wanted to keep competing, and I know that we would have gotten gold if I would have been on that relay. But that just comes along – things happen, and you have to pick up and go from there. I’m just upset – well, not upset, just a little down that my season ended so early.

Do you miss the Games? 
I haven’t transitioned yet. I’m still not back in the real world yet. The Olympic Village, the whole experience, is a totally different world.

Tell me about living in the Olympic Village. 
The village life was amazing. Just walking out there, seeing all the different colors and different people from different countries, and just knowing that for the next two and a half weeks you’re going to be with these people and among these people are the best athletes in the world. To be there, it finally set in – “I’m an Olympian, I can’t believe that this has really come true, something I’ve been working on for the past six and a half years.” … When I tell you anything, I literally mean anything you needed was done. All you had to do was just tell them what you needed and it was there. [The U.S. track and field] house was stacked. We called ourselves “The Stoop,” because on the front of our apartment we had a stoop, and I kid you not, everyone from every country came to our place. It was a hit. It’s on the NBC Olympic channel and everything. It was so much fun.

What happens with your medal? What do you do with it? 
I just put it away. I look at it every once in awhile. It’s in my nightstand right now. I never hang [my medals] up because I want more. I’m greedy. When it comes to winning, I hate to lose. So when I get one medal, the first thing I do is, “OK, I’m happy I got this medal, but what can I do to get a better one or a bigger one?”

Is it difficult to adjust to your newfound fame? 
Everywhere I go, people want autographs and want to take pictures, so I told myself that from now on, if I’m going somewhere, I have to leave an hour early just in case. I’m so serious. I landed in an airport in Charlotte at 5:15. I didn’t leave there until 7:45. The TV station was there – three TV stations there – there were reporters there, there were people from everywhere. They heard that I was coming in. I don’t know how they knew this, but I guess that’s where tweeting and all this stuff comes in. … I kid you not, there were probably about 400 or 500 people just waiting. Babies wanting pictures. Parents wanting pictures with their babies with me – “Will you hold my baby?”

Manteo Mitchell ’09 (right) shows his Olympic medal to Chancellor David Belcher.

What are your plans for continuing to train? 
I have maybe two more Olympics left in me. … Of course the main focus right now is the [International Association of Athletics Federations] World Championships in Moscow [in August 2013] … then [the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Poland in 2014]. Those are just short-term goals, but of course the ultimate goal is to continue to stay healthy and train and get faster for [the 2016 Games in Rio De Janeiro]. … My goal now is to make it in an individual event and not have to worry about being a pool relay person.

Does training in a place like Cullowhee help you avoid distractions? 
That’s why I stay here. Cullowhee has kept me grounded. … Cullowhee was the first time I went mountain climbing, it was the first time I camped, I hiked. When I first got here I did everything, and the first thing I want to do when I get my foot back is climb the wall in the gym. … Western has done so much for me. I train here for free. I’ve lived here, it’s been lovely. I got an education here, I got degrees here, so why would I not be thankful? My coach has been like a dad to me. … [After the Olympics], my plan was to go onto vacation. But unfortunately, walking around in white sand in clear water is not cool in a boot, so I’ve been told. Instead I came to Cullowhee. Still, it’s beautiful. Good weather too, so I can’t complain about that.

Interview printed in edited and condensed form.