Thomas Walsh grew up on the same slopes as Mikaela Shiffrin in Vail, Colorado, where ski school was his “daycare” and where he forged a lifelong friendship with the girl who became an Olympic champion.
Walsh, 21, has taken a very different path to the podium than his former prom date, but the two still share the same goal — to be the best in the sport.
While Shiffrin has 27 world cup victories to her name over seven seasons, Walsh has already garnered eight world cup podium appearances in just a little more than one season and is one of Team USA’s strongest medal contenders heading into this week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Tarvisio, Italy.
“Watching Mikaela from afar just dominate international competitions is motivation for me, and I think our whole team, to do well internationally,” Walsh said.
With more than 100 athletes from 30 countries set to race starting Wednesday, the world championships will be the largest gathering of skiers prior to the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games and the biggest competition of Walsh’s career thus far.
Walsh will contend for medals in four disciplines — super-G, super combined, giant slalom and slalom — in the men’s standing division, competing for the first time in front of such a massive worldwide audience.
“I think the part that shocks people and puts them on edge is the amount of spectators and the television around it,” Walsh said. “I’m a little bit ready to expect the unexpected.”
The moment in the spotlight is well overdue for Walsh, whose mother has worked as a ski instructor for decades and ushered him into the sport when he was just 5 years old.
“Coming from Vail, everybody has to be involved in the mountain in some way. It’s a resort town, so there’s not much else to do if you’re not on the mountain every day,” Walsh said. “The winter has always been my place, and skiing is very important to me. It’s what I do. It’s what I love.”
Walsh’s first racing coach was Shiffrin’s mother, and he progressed quickly enough on the slopes to be considered a rising star on the USSA and FIS junior circuits by the time he was a teenager.
In 2009, he was awarded a scholarship to Green Mountain Valley School, a ski academy in Vermont. But the day before he was supposed to leave for orientation, he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that developed in his pelvis and lungs.
Everything came to a halt at that point. The mountains suddenly seemed distant.
Walsh endured an intense year-plus of chemotherapy, radiation and pelvic resection treatments. Shiffrin stayed loyal throughout, finding time to visit her friend in the hospital, always encouraging him to keep his head up.
After powering through a disconsolate 14 months, Walsh was declared cancer-free.
Immediately, his mind returned to the mountains.
“Once I finished treatment, it was such a shot in the dark to try to ski race again,” Walsh said. “I was so bent out of shape, and my life was in shambles. I could hardly walk, never mind put a pair of skis on.
“But coming back to skiing was a no-brainer. It was the reason why I lived. When I decided to come back, it was a personal choice. It wasn’t to prove to anybody anything, but it was to prove to myself that I could come back and ski, because when I was sick and down in shambles in the dirt, skiing was the only thing that kept me going.”
Walsh gradually recovered.
He returned to skiing recreationally.
He took Shiffrin to her high school prom.
Then, the Sochi 2014 Games rolled around.
When Shiffrin completed her post-race interviews after her Olympic giant slalom race and was headed toward doping control, she unexpectedly bumped into Walsh. The disappointment of finishing fifth was whisked away when she embraced Walsh, who was able to make the trip to Sochi to watch his childhood friend through Make-A-Wish Foundation. A slight cough by Walsh during that encounter, and Shiffrin turned into an overprotective mother, offering everything but a bowl of chicken soup.
That’s what you call friendship.
Walsh attended all of his friend’s races in Sochi, gathering more than enough motivation to return home with aspirations to re-launch his own career.
He started researching Para alpine skiing — he was eligible to compete in the standing class because of a limb deficiency — and in December 2014 reached out to Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club’s adaptive program for coaching and guidance.
One year later, Walsh was named to the U.S. Paralympics national team.
He finished his debut season ranked No. 2 in slalom and No. 3 in giant slalom, and opened this season with five podium finishes in his first seven world cup races last December.
Stirred by Ted Ligety’s early career “Help Wanted” helmet sticker, Walsh often wears a black hat with “MOM” stitched across it both in honor of his biggest hero and in place of where a sponsor logo ought to be.
“Some people think it’s cute and nice — and yeah, it is — however, for me, it’s a very serious thing as I’m struggling to find funding,” Walsh said.
His ultimate goal is to compete at the PyeongChang Games, not only to prove himself as the best in his sport, but also to fulfill an old promise. During his chemotherapy, three-time Olympian Steven Nyman gifted Walsh the bib he wore at the Torino 2006 Winter Games. Walsh vowed to return Nyman his bib when he made it to a Games himself.
It’s been a full-circle journey for Walsh to his first world championships — from the slopes to a hospital bed to the stadium stands to the slopes.
It’s been grueling, but worth it.
Skiing has motivated him. Shiffrin and Nyman have inspired him.
And now, it’s time for his two friends to watch him go for the podium.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.