Thomas Walsh competes in alpine skiing. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
When Thomas Walsh was growing up in Colorado, he joined Mikaela Shiffrin and a couple other friends on the slopes every day. The skills of the future elite skiers were already apparent, and they were catching eyes.
“We’d rip around the mountain,” Shiffrin said. “People would shout and scream from the chairlift, because they saw these 5-6-7-year-olds ripping down the mountain better than anybody else could.”
When Shiffrin was eight years old, she moved to New Hampshire with her family, states away from Walsh. While they lost touch for some time — they didn’t have smartphones, after all — they never lost their connection through school, skiing and life.
Now, they live 10 minutes apart in Colorado. Their skiing schedules may be the opposite of one another, but they haven’t stopped tracking each other’s progress.
For Walsh, that progress came in the form of securing a reputation as one of the best Paralympic skiers in the United States. He competed at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 Games and was not far from finishing on the podium in the slalom. He also has three World Cup wins.
Shiffrin, who like Walsh is 26 years old, sits as one of the best international Olympic skiers. She became the youngest woman in history to win a gold medal in an Olympics in 2014. Shiffrin won 17 World Cup races in 2019, the most in a single season.
“I think what separates Mikaela apart from the rest of professional athletes that I know is her true dedication to her character above everything else,” Walsh said. “While her success on the hill speaks for itself and her results and records are one thing, knowing who she is and the heart she has is really what to me makes her such a great person.”
The Shiffrin family supported Walsh through a bout with cancer when he was a teenager. Walsh was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer that typically forms in and around the bones, in 2009. Instead of spending the next few years at a ski academy, Walsh found himself in a hospital battling a much bigger foe.
“It was the biggest whiplash, the most unexpected thing I have ever experienced secondhand,” Mikaela said. “It was just unfathomable.”
Her father, Jeff, was one of Walsh’s anesthesiologists.
“He was a very pivotal part in my treatment and ability to survive,” Walsh said. “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.”
Outside of the operating room, Mikaela was never far away.
Walsh received his last radiation treatment in 2010. His and Mikaela’s schedules may not align anymore, though their relationship has no limits.
Last year, Jeff unexpectedly died, and Mikaela found herself scrambling to learn all of the tax, business structure and accounting information necessary to manage her career. “I don’t know how to survive without him,” she told Sports Illustrated of her father last year. “He was our safety net.”
Through this hectic time, it was Thomas’ turn to support Mikaela.
“Last summer, it was like, ‘Ok, this is about survival now. So I don’t have time to do anything or see anyone outside of this (learning the business) and doing my workouts,” Mikaela said. “(Thomas) was kind of like, ‘Seriously, I’m here. I’m 10 minutes away.’”
Shiffrin and Walsh look to have strong seasons next year for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams. Shiffrin is wrapping up a successful World Cup circuit; Walsh, who Shiffrin says is the “most beautiful skier,” decided to take most of the season off after injuring his left labrum, a fairly common injury from the wear and tear of skiing.
They will be following each other from afar, and they acknowledge the uniqueness of their relationship.
“A lot of Para athletes look to able-bodied athletes; however, not as many able-bodied athletes look to Para athletes, simply because we compete in different ways,”Walsh said.
“All of the Paralympic athletes who I’ve ever met have some special kind of perspective on life and competition and just existing,”Shiffrin said.
She added: “There’s just a perspective and a mentality that I think we all could use more of. … It’s pretty incredible. I definitely feel that way about Thomas, and watching him compete and ski.”