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How Roman Mitchell, a UNC javelin thrower, helped save his coach's life in 2017

Roman Mitchell

Roman Mitchell, now a first-year at North Carolina, competes in high school. Photo courtesy of Natalie Mitchell.

Natalie Mitchell never left the farm.

She made the drive there with her son, Roman, every other weekend. Garner to Chapel Hill, about 40 minutes, in a 2013 Honda Accord. While Roman trained with Jeff Gorski, a longtime javelin specialist, Natalie sat and watched and supported her son as he grew in the sport he loved.

She filmed his throws, so he could analyze his form on the ride back home. She kept water bottles on hand. When it got hot, she watched them train under the shade of a collapsible tent. But she was always there.

Natalie Mitchell never left the farm. Until one day in February of 2017.

“It must have been really hot,” she said.

Gorski and Roman were still going through warmups, too, so she wouldn’t miss out on her videographer duties. Natalie headed to Walmart, 15 minutes away, for a brief reprieve from the heat and some extra water. Better safe than sorry.

After she left, though, the training session almost turned to tragedy.

The life-changing events of that next hour now exist as lore among the Mitchells and the UNC track and field team, where Roman is a first-year javelin thrower and Gorski is a volunteer assistant coach.

Roman’s decorated javelin career, up to this point, has been defined by his attention to detail and maturity. Family members, teammates and coaches call him a student of the sport. Introspective. A cool cucumber. Always relaxed.

Roman Mitchell and Jeff Gorski chat during a training session when Mitchell was in high school. Photo courtesy of Natalie Mitchell.

No anecdote encompasses who he is more perfectly than that day in February of 2017 — when Roman Mitchell, a high school junior equipped with nothing but adrenaline and quick wit, prevented the unthinkable.

“It was unbelievably fortunate that he was out there,” said Gorski, now 63. “As far as I can tell, I owe my life to him.”

‘Wish I got to see that kid’

Joseph Mitchell always knew his youngest son had an arm. He’d watched the toddler hurl baseballs and footballs and his fair share of rocks — anything the boy could get his hands on, really.

But the first time Roman threw a javelin?

“It just went straight like you wouldn’t believe,” Joseph said.

A young Roman Mitchell with his brother, Ethan.  Photo courtesy of Natalie Mitchell.

Roman was 6 or 7 then, Natalie his coach and older brother Ethan his competition. He had thrown a Turbojav. It was a gimmicky piece of equipment, bulky and a bit like an oversized Nerf dart, with a nub instead of a javelin’s usual sharp point.

For a beginner, though, it was perfect. Ethan and Roman both progressed rapidly in the event, with Natalie, a former high school javelin thrower in New Jersey, giving them pointers. Finding someone who could push her boys to the next level was a challenge in itself. North Carolina didn’t give them much help.

Javelin is a sanctioned sport in less than half of the 50 states. North Carolina doesn’t offer it in high school. With no NCHSAA standards or schedules, prospective throwers must duke it out at the club level.

“Such a weird event,” Roman said. “You're running sideways half of the time.”

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The Mitchells tried four different clubs with mixed results. Then, in 2014, there was a breakthrough.

Ethan had badgered his mom for weeks to sign Roman up for the New Balance Nationals Outdoor event. “C’mon,” he told her. “Why not?” The meet was in nearby Greensboro. The junior high javelin event was perfect for his brother. Maybe they’d meet someone: a coach, a scout.

Natalie put it off, forgot about it and ended up paying a $100 late fee to get Roman in.

“This better be worth it,” she thought.

The meet was on a Saturday. Roman arrived in Greensboro having only thrown the Finnflier, the javelin of choice for the event, a few times. He promptly hurled it almost 200 feet and set an event record.

An optional clinic was scheduled for Sunday. The last thing Roman wanted to do was come back for that. Once again, Ethan had a different plan.

“The reason why I'm here,” Roman said, “is because he told me to go to that meetup the next day.”

From left to right: Ethan, Joseph and Roman Mitchell. Photo courtesy of Natalie Mitchell.

The man who organized the Finnflier competition was speaking on Sunday. He had missed the actual event, but other coaches had given him the lowdown — on one kid especially. So he thought out loud to a crowd of cross-legged campers.

“Some eight-grader threw almost 200 feet with this thing,” Jeff Gorski said. “I wish I got to see that kid. Does anybody know who he is?”

In the back row, a small hand shot up.

“Do you know him?” Gorski said.

“Yeah,” Roman said. “It was me.”

‘So much progress’

Four seasons ago, in the UNC track and field team’s online archives, you can find the exact moment Roman caught the program’s eye.

March 19, 2016. A nine-page PDF, listing the final results from the Dennis Craddock Carolina Relays. On Page 8, in the bottom right corner, you’ll see his name.

“Mitchell, Roman … Unattached … 59.17m.”

In invitational meets like these, colleges allow open or unattached athletes, usually people who train individually, to pay an entry fee and compete against scholarship athletes. Roman, then a high school sophomore at Southeast Raleigh also playing quarterback, had done just that.

He also threw himself into third place.

Roman’s 59.17-meter throw, just over 194 feet, beat out athletes from East Carolina, N.C. Central and UNC. Harlis Meaders, the North Carolina track and field head coach, took notice immediately.

“You don't really see many high school javelin throwers from the state of North Carolina,” Meaders said. “My first impression was, ‘Hey, this guy is pretty talented, and he has the ability to potentially do some things really special.’”

Harlis Meaders, UNC's track and field head coach, addresses the team after a January meet.

Roman, at that point, was on a stretch he likes to call “Cloud Nine.” Soon after he met Gorski at the 2014 Greensboro clinic, the two began training consistently. Gorski also added Roman to Project Javelin Gold, his travel team for elite high school throwers.

Roman was throwing around 50 meters when he met Gorski, but after a few tweaks from the veteran coach, he shot up into the 60-meter range. The improvement culminated in Sacramento, California. There, Roman threw a javelin over 207 feet, set a meet record and became a 2015 New Balance National Champion.

He was racking up honors left and right, putting up college-level scores at invitational meets and making a friend for life.

“Whenever someone shows me that they care and that they're genuine, I listen,” Roman said of Gorski. “I'll give them my full attention. And that's what he did. That's why we got so much progress in such little time.”

Gorski is a UNC track and field alumnus himself, who also threw javelin and graduated in 1977. Since 2000, he’s been training high school, college and professional throwers alike at a secluded javelin runway in Chapel Hill.

It sits on the farm property of one of Gorski’s old UNC teammates. The coach built it on his own from scratch: clearing the area with a machete, shoveling out a runway, filling it with gravel from a wheelbarrow.

That’s where he met the Mitchells every other weekend — including that day in February of 2017.

Jeff Gorski (middle) graduated from UNC in 1977. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gorski/Facebook.

Besides the heat that convinced Natalie to leave briefly, nothing was out of the ordinary. It was around noon when Gorski and Roman, then 16 years old, went through a warmup and a couple preliminary throws and stopped to plan the day’s workout.

Roman asked about a certain way to hold his javelin. Gorski raised his arm to demonstrate a grip. But he stopped at his chin. His hand bent inward. His fingers starting shaking. His whole hand started shaking.

“I just remember looking at him, thinking he was maybe joking with me,” Roman said. “Like maybe the question I asked him was obvious. And that's what I was thinking at first, but he kept doing it.”

Gorski’s eyes fluttered. His entire body shook.

“Jeff, what’s wrong?!” Roman said. “What’s wrong?!”

Gorski heard Roman’s cries. He tried to say something. He couldn’t. He took a step back. He stumbled. He lost control.

The javelin thrower sprinted toward his falling coach.

‘Unbelievably fortunate’

Roman, to this day, still doesn’t know how he pulled it off.

“I was just on autopilot,” he said. “I don't even know what I was doing. I was just trying to make sure he was OK.”

When Gorski fell, Roman was there to catch him. He lowered his coach to the ground as Gorski foamed at the mouth and coughed. He turned Gorski on his side, so he wouldn’t choke on his own tongue — a crucial step Roman thinks he learned in school.

He called his mom, and Natalie picked up in the Walmart checkout line.

“I think Jeff’s having a seizure,” he said. “Can you come back?”

He didn’t even wait for a response. He hung up, called 911 and told an operator the same thing. He described their location as best he could — “in the middle of a field on the side of the road,” he told them — then helped Gorski into a sitting position and waited.

“It was really scary to me, because I didn't even know what was happening,” Roman said. “I'd never dealt with anyone having a seizure, ever.”

Again and again, he tried to engage Gorski in conversation: “Jeff, are you OK?”

“I don't know you,” a dazed Gorski said. “Get away from me.”

Jeff Gorski, a renowned javelin instructor, is in his second year as a volunteer assistant coach at UNC. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

Memory loss. That really scared Roman. Gorski had always been kind to him, even treated him like his own child. He never accepted any payment for training beyond a seltzer water. This was serious.

Before he could think further, the whine of sirens pierced the air, and Roman saw ambulance lights flashing through the trees.

He laid Gorski on his side again and sprinted out to the front of the road, frantically waving his hands. By the time EMTs reached them, Roman was back at Gorski’s side, propping the coach up on his knee and patting his back.

Natalie arrived minutes after the ambulance did. She had sped back from Walmart, begging for a 911 operator to stay on the phone while she tried to navigate them to the training facility impossible to reach by GPS. When she got to the runway, Gorski was already surrounded, getting treatment, and her 16-year-old was speaking with paramedics.

Gorski was talking more by this point, but his memory was still shaky. He struggled to answer some simple questions: his name, his age, the date. Roman recalled his coach saying that John F. Kennedy was the current president.

Gorski gradually came to, though, and when someone asked if he knew the woman standing next to him, he answered immediately: “Oh yeah, that’s Natalie Mitchell. That’s Roman's mom.”

From left to right: Ethan, Natalie and Roman Mitchell. Photo courtesy of Natalie Mitchell.

He recognized Roman soon after. Before leaving, Gorski insisted on locking up the front gate of the property himself, to make sure kids on ATVs didn’t tear up the land. He stood up, padlocked the gate and then allowed the ambulance to take him away on a stretcher.

At UNC Hospitals, a CT scan and biopsy revealed an unknown cancerous tumor on the left side of his brain.

“If I was out there by myself and had that seizure, I probably would have died,” Gorski said. “I mean, I have no idea. But it was unbelievably fortunate that he was out there.”

‘Does not get uptight’

At the standard track and field meet, Madison Wiltrout will tell you, there are two types of athletes. One will warm up obsessively before their designated event, often for hours. The other is the polar opposite: calm, approachable, always ready for a joke to ease the tension.

Wiltrout, a sophomore javelin thrower, falls into the second category. She was pleased to see that Roman, as a first-year, was right there with her.

“He’s a cool dude, definitely laid back,” she said. “Most of the group is not, and I think that’s where me and Roman click … he does not get uptight or anything.”

Roman has maintained that attitude despite a new challenge in his first year as a Tar Heel: recovery. In October, he injured his right elbow while throwing and later underwent the javelin equivalent of Tommy John surgery. He hasn’t yet thrown in a meet for UNC.

A redshirt year brings its own challenges — even more so when it’s due to injury. Earlier in the spring, Roman was splitting time with the team and the Stallings-Evans Sports Medicine Center as he went through rehab.

“It's easy to sort of separate yourself from the group when you're not actively engaged with everybody else,” Meaders said, “but I think he's handled it well.”

UNC's javelin cohort. From left to right: Jared Martin, Madison Wiltrout, Will Eskew, Jeff Gorski, Roman Mitchell and Emily Malone. Photo courtesy of UNC track and field/Twitter.

Over the last month or so, Roman has slowly eased back into a full team schedule. He did light warmups. Then started throwing a ball. Then a 400-gram javelin, roughly the weight of the Turbo Jav he started with in elementary school. About five months after his surgery, Roman is doing things it takes most recovering throwers nine or 10 months to do.

The injury has also inclined Roman to take a more observant role at meets and practices. He’s always been one to analyze his own technique — but he now has the chance to analyze teammates.

UNC’s javelin cohort, led by Gorski, is a small and tightly knit one. This season, on a UNC track and field roster of almost 90 athletes, just two men and two women are throwing. They’re all open to feedback and tweaks.

Wiltrout said Roman has been especially helpful toward Will Eskew, a junior who ran the heptathlon up until this season — enough that Gorski once quipped he should pay Roman an assistant’s salary for the work.

“It seems like Gorski knows the cues for Will,” Wiltrout said, “but Roman knows him dead-set.”

Roman, who is expected to make a full recovery, chose UNC for a number of reasons. The business program. The scholarship. The proximity to his family, who plans to show up to his meets, home and away, in droves.

And, of course, there’s Gorski, who was brought on as a volunteer assistant coach ahead of the 2018 season. When Roman committed to North Carolina in the fall of 2017, he had no idea Gorski would be joining him. They'd be working together, more directly than ever.

"How much better can this get?” Roman thought.

‘Definitely a miracle’

Jared Martin has seen the unspoken relationship at work.

He’s seen Gorski try to explain some concept or drill, only to be met with confusion from his throwers. Except Roman. He’s seen Gorski cheerfully greet everyone as they arrive for practice, but perk up extra when he sees Roman.

“They're very close,” Martin said. “They kind of have a sense of humor together that we're trying to catch up with.”

Martin, a redshirt junior javelin thrower, is vaguely familiar with the day of Gorski’s seizure. Wiltrout just figured it out this spring. Meaders estimated that around 40 percent of the roster knows the story. The story of how one of their teammates helped save Gorski's life.

“Every day, I come to practice and I'm like, 'I couldn't be doing this if it wasn't for Roman,’” Gorski said, tears in his eyes. “It’s that obvious.”

Ten months before his seizure, Gorski was diagnosed with Stage 4 bladder cancer and underwent chemotherapy. After the seizure, when doctors removed his brain tumor, the area got infected and he underwent another surgery to remove the abscess. Within a month of the seizure, his wife, Elaine — who lived with quadriplegia for 15 years after a car accident — died at 62. Gorski was her primary caretaker.

Every day, Gorski said, he misses his wife. And every day, he thanks Roman.

“He thanks me for him getting to school here,” Gorski said. “I tell him he wouldn't have had the chance if it wasn't for him keeping me alive. He's the son I never had. I mean, I feel that close to him.”

Of all the times Roman’s composure has given him an edge, that day in February of 2017 trumps them all. When Roman took every single correct step to ensure the survival of his coach. At the drop of a hat. At age 16.

“He did something I couldn’t do,” Natalie said. “It was something else.”

“Roman just loved that man,” Joseph said. “When you love someone and they fall, you’ll do anything in your power to be there to help them up.”

“It's a miracle,” Meaders said. “You don't like to use that word lightly, but for Roman to be able to act in a situation like that … I'd say it's definitely a miracle.”

Roman Mitchell and Jeff Gorski take a break from a training session. Photo courtesy of Natalie Mitchell. 

“I didn't really say much about it,” said Roman, now 18. “I just told my mom what happened, and she was happy to know. That was really it. But me and Jeff, we know what happened.”

“Maybe it was common sense,” Gorski said. “Maybe he's had first-aid class. I have no idea. But he knew what to do, and I'm pretty frickin’ grateful.”

As Gorski finished an interview in the Eddie Smith Field House, he turned to his right. Athletes were filtering in through a side door for practice, and he’d seen a familiar face, decked in a black hoodie and sweats.

“There’s my guy!” he said with a smile.

The athlete stopped. He turned. He looked at his coach.

And then Roman Mitchell smiled back at him.

@chapelfowler

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