When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Erika Mitchell never thought she’d have to make lemonade. As a talented high school track star, she was recruited to Alabama State University to compete in the heptathlon – a track and field competition that involves numerous running, jumping and throwing events.
“In heptathlon, you don’t dominate in only a few events, like Usain Bolt,” explains Erika. “It’s more about being good at several different events including the hurdles, high jump, long and short distance running, shot put and javelin. It’s about being a really good overall athlete.”
Erika immersed herself in heptathlon training, fine tuning her skills and preparing for competition. Then came the lemons.
Early in her junior year at Alabama State and following arthroscopic surgery, Erika began experiencing significant pain in her right shoulder. “I knew something wasn’t right,” said Erika. “There was a lot of pain. I went back to the doctor and said, ‘Is this right? Should I be experiencing this much pain?’”
Testing revealed that Erika had glenohumeral arthritis in her right shoulder – a type of arthritis that causes deterioration in the shoulder joint, often leading to bone-on-bone contact.
Erika was devastated. She couldn’t throw the javelin and could only barely jump or run without pain. She feared her scholarship and future were in danger. Then she made lemonade.
The only remaining event Erika could do without significant pain was the hammer throw. She changed her training regimen to focus solely on the event.
“It turns out I was a natural at hammer throw,” Erika now says. “In my first year I was ranked second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. In the NCAA’s, I was in the top ten.”
Erika’s track and field days are long gone, but her drive continues. Today, she works as a marketing and public relations consultant for the National Football League Player’s Association Metro Atlanta. In her spare time, she trains for her new passion, the Spartan Race – a race of varying distance and difficulty that incorporates physical obstacles and challenges, oftentimes immersed in mud, water or other complicating features.
“I participated in my first Spartan Race in March. I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” said Erika. “I thought that, because of my arthritis and the years that had gone by, I wouldn’t be able to compete anymore. But I was wrong. It was just a matter of getting back into it. I’m not as fast as I was, but I still did a pretty good job.”
Erika recently joined the Foundation’s Advocate program and plans to work with her state and federal lawmakers to improve access to care for people living with arthritis. She also is the 2016 Atlanta Jingle Bell Run honoree and is fielding a team named SportsUnlimited/NFLPA. Her goal is to raise $5,000 in support of our mission to conquer and cure arthritis.
Through it all, Erika refuses to settle for lemons. “I didn’t think I would be able to compete again. I thought it was the end of everything I worked so hard for,” reflects Erika. “Arthritis didn’t stop me. It changed my direction and helped me realize the opportunity to excel at something else.”