When Bryan Fletcher begins his season this weekend in Lillehammer, Norway, he will be representing more than Team USA in Nordic combined.
The 2014 Olympian will be aiming to inspire childhood cancer survivors through a new organization called ccThrive that he co-founded. Like its name implies, ccThrive aims to help childhood cancer survivors thrive and achieve their dreams after treatment.
It all started two years ago in the lead-up to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 3 years old, Fletcher began ski jumping and cross-country skiing while he was undergoing chemotherapy as a child. He even suffered a stroke but remained active. In remission by age 6, Fletcher made the U.S. Ski Team in 2006 and was on track to make the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team when he injured an ankle.
Before his Olympic debut in 2014, his story caught the attention of parents whose children also had childhood cancer.
|Bryan Fletcher competes in the large hill individual Gundersen at the FIS Nordic Combined World Cup at Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium on Jan. 23, 2015 in Sapporo, Japan.|
“I got quite a few emails from parents who were blown away not because of what I’d been through or what I’ve accomplished, but because they were so thrilled that they finally found a story that they could show their kids who were going through chemo, that they could be anything that they wanted to be,” Fletcher said by phone from his home in Park City, Utah.
One of those parents was Andrew Shamis from South Burlington, Vermont. His son, Gavin, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 8. Gavin was a swimmer who was looking forward to competing on the regional level, and his dad struggled to find role models to help him focus on life after chemo.
Andrew could not find any high-profile survivors who found their success after childhood cancer. There were famous adult cancer survivors who returned to the top after treatment, but none of them were just kids starting out — kids who are eager to put the “sick kid” label behind them.
“From the moment of diagnosis, it was all about getting out alive, and the physical and cognitive damage caused by the cancer and its treatment,” Andrew said.
When Gavin tried to return to the pool after ending chemo a year early (because of complications), he had developed a chloramine sensitivity, making it difficult to breathe pool air.
“My entire world was about swimming, I trained and competed whenever I could while on chemo,” said Gavin, who’s now 13. “It was a huge deal for me not being able to swim competitively, and I was crushed. I could not swim, I could not run, I loved sports but what were my options? I needed something to go for. After years of cancer, this was my low.”
Weeks after finding out swimming was no longer an option and five months after his last chemo, the Shamises took Gavin to a USA Luge Slider Search. Gavin loved being on the sled. But with his legs neurologically weakened by chemo, he struggled in the physical tests and thought luge was just another dead end.
But USA Luge coaches saw something more.
Gavin instinctively had good position on the sled and quickly mastered steering it, said Fred Zimmy, who runs USA Luge’s recruiting program and serves as a junior coach.
He also showed “a certain level of fearlessness and daring,” said the coach.
“The ability to relax at speed is critical to winning or losing a luge race,” added Zimmy. “Tension in the body is what steers the sled or makes it act erratically. Gavin seems to be able to remain relaxed in stressful situations, which will allow him not only to go fast on ice, but also potentially avoid putting the sled in a skid or hitting a wall.”
Kids who are diagnosed with cancer also tend to mature quickly.
“I remember going to the hospital and being like ‘I’m going to do everything the doctor asks of me this week as fast as I can get it done and as best as I can get it done so I can get back to skiing,’” said Fletcher. “That’s not a rational thought for most kids that age.”
For many childhood cancer survivors, that work ethic carries over to school, work and athletics.
|Gavin Shamis slides as a forerunner at the 2015 Norton National Masters Championship.|
In May 2014, Gavin was named to USA Luge’s junior national team. He is now aiming for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.
Although Gavin’s athletic dreams were already back on track by the time he met Fletcher, Andrew realized that between both athletes’ stories, perhaps they could inspire other kids with cancer.
Although types of childhood cancer vary, survivorship is high. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 15,780 children were diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and approximately 13,820 will survive.
“We decided that we wanted to raise awareness that kids could be anything that they wanted to be, whether it’s an athlete or artist or whatever,” said Fletcher,” that they’re not damaged goods and that they can go on to thrive.”
Besides Fletcher and Gavin, other ccThrivers include Lacey Henderson and Melinda Marchiano. A synovial sarcoma survivor who lost her right leg above the knee at age 9, Henderson is a former cheerleader and Rio 2016 Paralympic hopeful in long jump and the 100-meter. Marchiano survived lymphoma and is an author, dancer and choreographer.
Their first goal is to raise funds for ccThrive.
Then between world cup races this winter, Fletcher will launch a program to get the ambassadors into hospitals across the country — “so they can raise awareness, but also provide a tangible link to what can actually happen.”
With chemo still a recent memory, Gavin wants to inspire kids to keep dreaming even while they are undergoing treatment.
“Never give up,” he said. “New challenges and limitations just mean working harder and smarter, and sometimes, changing the game. It’s not about what you can’t do but about what you can do.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.