Max Parrot: Cancer reshaped my life for the better

The Canadian snowboarder, who will compete at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, tells how his outlook on competition and life has changed since beating cancer in 2019, and how a new film about his journey will help and inspire others.

By Ashlee Tulloch and Andrew Binner
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

It wasn’t so long ago that simply stepping on a snowboard again was a monumental achievement for Max Parrot.

The Canadian, who won slopestyle silver at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma - a type of blood cancer - in December 2018.

After six months of chemotherapy, he announced that he’d beaten the illness and returned to competition. Two months later, he won Big Air gold at the Winter X Games in one of the finest comeback stories in winter sports history.

On 19 January 2022, Parrot was named on his third Canadian Winter Olympic roster for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. sat down with the 27-year-old to find out how his perspective on life and snowboarding has changed, and how a new film documenting his full experience through cancer treatment and back to competition is supporting people who have been through similar experiences. (O): Talk us through your feelings on having been picked for another Olympic team, given everything you’ve been through in the past Olympic cycle…

Max Parrot (MP): It's totally amazing. This is going to be my third Olympics. Like you said, just to go to one Olympics is something totally crazy. And now this is going to be my third one. So it means a lot. It means all of the hard work I've put in over the past 10 years, means I’m able to qualify every four years. So it's really amazing to see that and especially with the Canadian team it is not easy [to be selected] because there's a lot of good snowboarders out there, so it really means a lot for me to go to my third Olympics in Beijing this year.

O: Was there a point in time in your life where you thought that winning silver at PyeongChang 2018 was going to be your last Olympic experience?

MP: No, definitely not. It was for sure not the last one because I was 24 or 23. Now I'm 27 and I'm going to Beijing. I knew that I could definitely go to another one and possibly maybe another one after this one as well. Who knows? It really depends on your body, depends on injuries and that stuff. And the sport also evolves so much. If you're not keeping up, you're not going to qualify. So you have to put all of the hard work in every day through the years. And in PyeongChang, I was really happy about my second place because this was my first medal at the Olympics. And is also my goal for China, to bring back a medal bronze, silver or gold. I just want to have at least one medal in the Olympics because in Sochi [2014] I wasn't able to catch one. But I knew when I got the silver medal that I would want to have a shot at gold. So this is the reason why I've put all the hard work in and I wanted to come to Beijing, because it's amazing to have won an Olympic medal, but I can't imagine the feeling of bringing back the gold from the Olympics.

O: Your new documentary film “MAX - Life as a Gold Medal” just came out. What is it about?

MP: In 2018, just eight months after the Olympics, I was diagnosed with cancer, with Hodgkin lymphoma, and that was just right at the beginning of the season. Of course I was going to miss the whole season, and we decided to film the journey. So I had a camera filming me 24-7 for over eight months. It was a big mystery because we were filming every day, every week, every month, and we didn't know when the end was going to be. We didn't know how much time we were going to need to film. Was it going to be one year or five months? We had no idea. We were just capturing everything. I had 12 treatments of chemotherapy that went for six months, and these were by far the toughest months of my entire life. Once you've battled cancer, you have to gain back all of your muscles, all of your energy because chemo puts you really down at zero percent. So it was a big eight months for me battling cancer and battling myself to get back in shape. I would have never gone through all of that with all, all of my team surrounding me. That helped me so much. So I'm really grateful for that.

When I was diagnosed I didn't know a lot about cancer. I found out that in 1960, my cancer only had a 10 percent chance of survival. So if I was born just a couple of years earlier, I would have probably not even made it. And because of all the people that contributed to cancer research, they were able to develop treatments that mean there is now over 80 percent chance of survival. So it makes a huge difference. And this is one of the reasons why I wanted to become a spokesperson for the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada, which I've been for the past three years now. And I'm really proud that for my documentary, one of the goals was to gain as much money as possible to keep contributing and to keep having cancer research going further than 80 percent. And we want that to be 100 percent because there are still people dying out there, and I'm really grateful that my documentary will play a role and we'll make a difference in the end.

O: Were there times after your diagnosis where you just wanted to close your doors and hide inside and run away from the world?

MP: There's moments in there that are really personal in a way, and it's definitely hard to to show that to the world. But at the same time, it was really important for me to show the reality, the whole thing. Sometimes I feel like it's a part of my life I want to forget. But at the same time, it's a part of my life that can inspire people and that can make a difference. So this is the reason why I put it out, but it's not an easy task, that's for sure.

O: How does it feel to be an inspiration?

MP: When I started putting all of my life's journey from cancer on my social media, I had a lot of messages from people knowing someone that had cancer or even people diagnosed with cancer would write to me and would tell me how inspired they were that I was sharing my story to the public and sharing how I was fighting it all my way. This is when I decided to do a documentary.

Some people wrote to me who had battled cancer, and they said without my story they probably wouldn't have. That's what I got in messages. When I get these messages, it really touches my heart straightaway. These are like the big messages, but even the smaller ones that people tell me, that my story inspired them a little bit through a challenge in their life. And it's not only about cancer. Some people told me it's inspiring them to pursue other challenges. And every time I get these messages, it's always surprising to me. It's cool.

O: What did you learn about yourself during this period?

MP: It made me realise how grateful I am to be alive, actually grateful I am able to do my passion, to do my sport as a job, to travel the world, there's tons of stuff. Before I was kind of taking everything for granted and now I am not at all, so I'm appreciating life 100 percent more, whether it's just waking up in the morning and getting coffee, it makes me smile, all the little things. But every time I strap my feet up to my snowboard, travelling, and going to the next Olympics, I appreciate them more.

My last two Olympics, I was so stressed the whole time and I was putting myself under so much pressure 10 months before the Games. But now I'm appreciating every moment and while there's always a little bit of stress and a lot of pressure because you want to perform well, I'm enjoying the journey, which makes a huge difference. I try not to look too much in advance. Before, I would see myself in 10 years doing exactly this and I knew where I was going, and now I'm not 100 percent sure who I'm going to be, so I try to go just year by year. And I think it's better that way for me. It ensures that every year what I do is really what I want to do, the things that make me happy, projects that make me happy.

O: How has your outlook changed in terms of being a competitor?

MP: Going through that up part of my life made me stronger mentally and physically. The year after my cancer, I won three X Games gold medals. So this was probably the best year of my career! I think my way of approaching my sports, about appreciating everything and embracing the journey, brought me better results as well.

But a lot of things in my personal life have changed too. I met my girlfriend Kayla this past year and I got engaged with her a couple a couple of weeks ago. Before I was always just focussed on my career 100 percent, but now it's not the same. I try to focus as well on my personal life. So I say no to a lot of things now to get more time at home, to get more time with my loved ones. I wish I would have done that way earlier, you know? But I'm still young, I'm learning every year. But having cancer was definitely a big lesson in those things, for sure.

O: Do you feel like there's more or less pressure for you at Beijing 2022, given that you've been to two Olympics before?

MP: I’m always the one putting the pressure on myself. The external pressure, I don't even see it. In Sochi I got fifth, then I got second [at PyeongChang 2018], so of course I put myself under pressure because I like to be the best. I like to be the best when I do my runs, everything. When I do this, I normally do well and it helps me take care of all the details, it makes me more focused in a way.

In the end, after these past months where I've been working so hard, I can tell myself when I'm at an event that if I don't do well, that I've done everything in my power and I couldn't have changed anything to have better results. So whatever the result, I'll be happy. You don't want to have regrets and I know I won't have regrets. And as of today, I’m truly ready to perform at my best.

MORE: Get to know Canadian snowboarder Max Parrot


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