Ten years ago, Mikaela Shiffrin visited a friend and fellow ski racer in the hospital who was diagnosed with cancer.
Thomas Walsh could barely sit up or eat and later had parts of his pelvis and lung removed due to the tumors. Shiffrin grew up skiing with Walsh, the two sharing a similar instructor in Shiffrin’s mom and an equally similar passion for the slopes.
His condition hit Shiffrin hard.
Zip forward to the present: Walsh is a rising Paralympian fresh off a season in which he captured the overall World Cup slalom title — just like Shiffrin — and earned two bronze medals at the world Para Alpine championships.
His success now melts the two-time Olympic champion’s heart.
“He has that kind of ‘zest-for-life’ that is very rare, very contagious, and cannot be stifled. Not even by cancer,” said the 24-year-old Shiffrin, who wrapped up a season in which she won 17 World Cup races and her third straight overall title. “Thomas was always a much better athlete than I was. He was literally good at everything. I mean, everything. Skiing, soccer, a triathlon, dancing, acting, singing, school — you name it. He did it all and he was always the best.”
Cancer just forced him to take a slight detour.
Growing up in Vail, Colorado, he naturally took to the mountains. Walsh met Shiffrin in kindergarten and they became teammates on Ski Club Vail. He and Shiffrin learned to ski under Shiffrin’s mom, Eileen. He was talented, too, and was accepted into the Green Mountain Valley School in Vermont, which has produced such notable racers as Daron Rahlves and AJ Kitt.
About then, Walsh noticed something was wrong. An accomplished triathlete at the time, it bothered him to sit on his bike. Then, to sit in regular chairs.
On May 28, 2009, Walsh was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancerous tumor that grows in the bones or in the tissue around bones.
It was Stage 4. The disease started in his pelvis and spread to his lungs. He began chemo treatments.
“Up to that point in my life, I had never really known anybody with cancer,” said the 24-year-old Walsh, who captured a giant slalom national crown this week at the U.S. Paralympic Alpine championships in Winter Park, Colorado. “I very quickly learned much more than I wanted to.”
That October, he underwent a resection that removed key bones from his pelvis. There went his ski racing career.
Or so he thought.
“As with every traumatic event, it takes a little minute for it to settle in — for the bigger picture to come into play,” Walsh said.
Three months later, he convinced his doctor to allow him to hit the slopes. Just a few turns on the beginner’s hill.
“Emotionally, it was way impactful,” said Walsh, who also suffers from lymphedema, a progressive disease that causes his leg to swell. “It was an emotional rescue where I said skiing is what I want to do.”
But he didn’t know anything about the Paralympic movement. Not yet, anyway.
After dealing with cancer treatments for a year, he attended Green Mountain Valley where he returned to racing and got more involved in theater. He starred in the production of “Anything Goes,” with Shiffrin showing up in the audience.
“There was a whole tap-dancing scene and he was front and center, tapping like crazy and singing at the top of his lungs, and I was just bawling in the audience because I just felt like he was shining like a star,” recalled Shiffrin, who was attending nearby Burke Mountain Academy. “It was a gift just to be able to watch.”
The friends also attended a “ski-academy” prom together in 2013.
“When I was sick, we had a pact that we’d go to prom together,” Walsh said. “It was fun.”
Turns out, he’s a skillful teacher, too, as he turned the graceful slalom artist into a confident dancer.
“I was so shy and didn’t want to dance,” Shiffrin said. “You could tell he was the best dancer in the room. ... I was baffled because I actually looked like I kind of knew what I was doing. That’s the kind of stuff that Thomas is able to do.”
Following high school, Walsh attended Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia to study performing arts. It also provided a test: To see if he would miss the thrill of ski racing.
About that time, he and his mom, Kathleen, learned he could be classified as a disabled ski racer because of his pelvic resection. So he embarked on a path to become a Paralympian.
This only sharpened his determination: Using his Make-A-Wish request, Walsh attended the 2014 Sochi Games and was there when Shiffrin won the slalom gold medal. He posed for pictures with her and imagined that maybe one day he could have a similar moment.
Like Shiffrin, his specialties are the slalom and giant slalom. And like Shiffrin, he’s also incorporating the super-G. His idols include Austrian standout Marcel Hirscher, American Steven Nyman and, of course, Shiffrin.
A year ago, Walsh took fifth in the slalom and seventh in the GS at the Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang.
Now, he’s setting his sights on the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing.
In his corner? Shiffrin, of course.
“Thomas and the way his life and his story have evolved, and the role that he now played in the Paralympic family and as one of the top athletes competing, I realize that it is the most inspirational comeback story I have ever witnessed,” Shiffrin said. “And even though that was never the intention, it is incredible.”