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Pair of Shepherd Center Athletes Heads to Rio for Paralympic Games

Cassie Mitchell and Krige Schabort to go for gold once again.

Team USA will again feature Shepherd Center athletes when the 2016 Paralympic Games take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this September. Cassie Mitchell and Krige Schabort are back for another go at glory, competing in their second and sixth Paralympic Games, respectively.

For Cassie, 35, a veteran of Shepherd Center’s rugby, cycling, swimming and track teams, the path to her second Team USA selection came loaded with more obstacles than in 2012. This past April, Cassie was diagnosed with leukemia. Aggressive chemotherapy and a case of septic pneumonia kept her in a hospital until 10 days before the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Charlotte, N.C. Then, just before she flew to Charlotte, she contracted shingles, a viral infection that causes extremely painful rashes.

“When I was still in the hospital and the Trials were approaching, I said, ‘I’m getting out of here if I have to pull the IV tubes out myself,’” Cassie says. “I know it was a blessing to come out of that in time to compete. I’m still a little shocked that I was able to do it.”

Cassie qualified for the Paralympic Games in two field events – discus and club throw, the Paralympic equivalent of the hammer throw. She qualified in the discus just before passing out on the field. “I think the heat combined with the chemo put me over the edge,” Cassie says, laughing about it now. “Luckily, I made my mark before I passed out.”

That determination is indicative of Cassie’s approach to life. The Oklahoma native was 18 – and already a star athlete in track, gymnastics and horseback events – when a neurological condition called Devic’s neuromyelitis optica resulted in quadriplegia. As an adult, Cassie moved to Atlanta to pursue her doctoral degree in biomedical engineering. There, she discovered Shepherd Center and its array of sports teams that enable individuals with physical disabilities to participate in sports on a recreational and/or competitive level.

“The daily benefits of staying active far outweigh any medals,” Cassie says. “I started into sports to get into better shape. It helped me in everything from transfers to grocery shopping. It gave me confidence and greater independence. And it gave me an extended family at Shepherd Center that I know is behind me every day.”

By the way, making the U.S. Olympic team is just one of Cassie’s impressive accolades this year. In July, she was a female finalist for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Athlete of the Month award – alongside such luminaries as tennis legend Serena Williams and star gymnast Simone Biles. Cassie’s nomination recognized her gutsy Paralympic Trials performance, as well as the two world records she set this year in the T51 100-meter and 400-meter events.

“Just seeing my name next to those other athletes, wow,” Cassie says. “It shows that anything is possible. Hopefully, that inspires a few people to dream big, no matter the obstacles.”

Finish Line in Sight

Krige Schabort is certainly dreaming big in his last go-around with Team USA. The five-time Olympian plans to retire from the team after Rio, but not before making a little history.

Krige’s specialty has long been the marathon. The 53-year-old qualified for the marathon in all five of his past Paralympic Games appearances – four with his native South Africa and once with Team USA (2012) after becoming an American citizen. He notched three top 10 finishes and reached the medal podium twice, taking home a bronze in 1992 and a silver in 2000. Eventually, though, Krige’s passion for his signature event waned, and he turned his sights to a new challenge – triathlons.

“I was at a point with marathons where I did not feel the butterflies in my stomach anymore,” Krige says. “I’d just been doing it for so long. But I am definitely reenergized doing triathlons. Those butterflies are back!”

He’s already proved that he can handle the pressure. In 2010 and 2011, he claimed consecutive triathlon victories at the grueling IRONMAN World Championships, held on Hawaii’s famed Kona Coast. In 2015, his triathlon success earned him an ESPY Award, presented by ESPN, for best male athlete with a disability. Despite all the success in his newfound sport, though, one opportunity was still missing. Krige didn’t have a chance to prove himself on the Olympic stage in 2012 because the triathlon wasn’t yet a Paralympic sport. This year, the event makes its debut in Rio.

“The addition of the triathlon is what kept me training,” Krige says. “It’s going to be special to be part of a team that’s starting a new Paralympic tradition.”

His continued presence on the U.S. team has also allowed younger athletes to get advice from an experienced veteran.

“Very experienced,” Krige says with a laugh. “I’m the oldest by so far that I’m older than the coaches. So it’s definitely time, but I’m already anticipating that sense of loss when I do retire. It’s a great team and an incredible bond to be part of. It’s been an honor.”

Of course, he’ll still have outlets for his competitive drive. Krige will continue racing in individual competitions – and he will remain a member of the Shepherd Spinners and Cyclers sports teams.

“When my family moved from South Africa to Atlanta, I quickly joined the Shepherd Center teams,” he says. “It was a huge benefit to me both athletically and personally. It’s where I’ve made so many good friends. I want to stay a part of that for a long time.”

Krige jokes that he might even start acting his age.

“Maybe I’ll do some coaching moving forward, too,” he says. “So many younger athletes around here already just assume I am one, that’s probably a natural progression!”

By Phillip Jordan

The 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio take place Sept. 7-18, with coverage available on NBC. Visit the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games website and the Team USA Paralympics site for news and updates.


About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.