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Thomas Walsh, Mikaela Shiffrin, and a true friendship

The pair of alpine ski loving kids have supported each other at difficult times in their lives, but both are now hoping to reach the top of their events at Beijing 2022.

5 min By Ed Knowles and Scott Bregman
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(Picture by 2017 Getty Images)

Alpine skiing is ingrained into Paralympic athlete Thomas Walsh’s life. Nearly 12 years ago, the time he spent with his precious sport was challenged.

“I was going through chemotherapy and radiation and surgeries and everything, and in the midst of it all, I was told that I was never going to ski again,” he said to Olympics.com.

Now, he’s a two-time medallist at the World Para Alpine Skiing Championships, and will be one of the podium contenders at the 2022 World Para Snow sports Championships (12-23rd January) in Lillehammer, Norway.

Walsh has also won a coveted Crystal Globe in slalom, and in February will be heading to his second Paralympic Winter Games at Beijing 2022 to represent USA.

After all he’s been through, the American is grateful for the opportunities sport has given him.

“I love the sport so much and I still love it and I will never, ever take a day of skiing for granted. It truly saved my life… it's what I was born to do, and it's what I'm going to continue to do for as long as I can.”

Thomas Walsh during the men's slalom at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games
Thomas Walsh during the men's slalom at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games (2018 Getty Images)

Walsh was 14 years old when he was diagnosed with a form of cancer called ‘Ewing's sarcoma’. It grows typically in and around bones. During this period, childhood friend Mikaela Shiffrin was supporting him throughout. The Double Olympic champion even promised to go to his prom with him after he recovered.

“How he’s fought back since then has been really inspiring,” Shiffrin said to Olympics.com back in 2018. “It was almost a miracle that he survived but, in a way, it wasn’t a miracle at all because knowing who he is, that’s the kind of thing I would expect from him.”

Thomas Walsh and Mikaela Shiffrin: A family bond

Zipping down mountains, aged five or six, Walsh and Shiffrin proved to be some great entertainment for anyone who spotted them on the chairlift ride in Vail, Colorado. The two families were heavily involved in the ski scene in the famous resort. Both progressed to be substantial teenage talents so, when Shiffrin received the news that Walsh’s life was under threat, she was shook.

“It was the biggest whiplash, the most unexpected thing I have ever experienced second-hand,” Mikaela said to Team USA. “It was just unfathomable.”

Her father Jeff, was one of Walsh’s anaesthetists.

“He was a very pivotal part in my treatment and ability to survive,” Walsh said to Team USA. “He was in the surgical room during probably my biggest operation. He really took extra time to make sure that I was OK, and getting the care and treatment that I needed.”

Shiffrin’s father unexpectedly passed away in February 2020. It was deeply shocking for Mikaela. And it was Walsh’s turn to support her, living just 10 minutes away from where she was based.

The bond continues now. “We’re both on the road in separate places, in different time zones, in different countries and continents. But, because I love skiing, and I know she loves skiing, we're always watching each other's results and supporting each other and sending each other positive messages.”

Thomas Walsh: His para-alpine skiing career so far

Thomas Walsh’s para skiing career includes two world championship medals and the Crystal Globe that he won in slalom in 2019. Despite the brilliant racing trophy cabinet, his favourite moment of his career was a more private occasion.

During his treatment, he put on some skis and hit the slopes. He didn’t have much of a purpose. He just wanted to do something.

“[It] was the most important moment of me being able to prove to myself that I could actually ski at that point in time, I had no idea that I was going to come back to racing. I had no idea that I was going to make the national team or even compete in the Paralympics or win a Crystal Globe or World Championship medals. However, that was the first step.”

Thomas Walsh’s aims for Beijing 2022

Walsh doesn’t deny that Beijing 2022 will be the highlight of his season. But he faces a more pressing matter first.

“Our next test is actually coming up here for our World Championships in Norway. At the last World Championships, I was fortunate enough to get two bronze medals; one in alpine combined and one in giant slalom. And, so, this will be the next level test where I'm still focused on my skiing, my technique, my tactics in trying to solidify that and see how the results stack up.

“But the real big game time of the season is going to be the Paralympic Games.”

Thomas Walsh competes in the men's Super-G at PyeongChang 2018
Thomas Walsh competes in the men's Super-G at PyeongChang 2018 (2018 Getty Images)

He’s suffered some injuries and mental setbacks since PyeongChang 2018 but Walsh believes he stands a good chance to perform well at the Winter Paralympics in China.

“I have never truly been a results oriented individual… [But] I do believe I have a chance to podium and I really want to stand on the top level. That's why we're all here. That's what everybody wants…

“I know that I'm coming into these Games with more experience, more understanding of what the environment is going to be like and knowing that I'll have a better feel for the pressures.”

Thomas Walsh: I'm most grateful to simply be alive

Given what Walsh has already achieved, his sense of perspective on racing is very grounded. His big aims and high ambitions are balanced with a reserved thoughtfulness.

“I'm most grateful to simply be alive. I'm grateful for the ability to wake up in the morning. To walk, to put on my skis, and to enjoy the world and the opportunities that I've been given…

“Anybody can compete in sports, it might look different, but we're doing the same exact thing.”

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