Thomas Walsh competes at the Paralympic Games PyeongChang 2018. (Photo: Mark Reis)
It could only have happened in Vail, the Colorado village whose namesake ski resort is four years older than the town itself.
From his earliest memory to second grade, Paralympian Thomas Walsh absorbed the event of the year when legendary ski and snowboarding documentarian Warren Miller’s latest film came out. Town viewing parties featured good-natured guffaws at the blooper reels and an appreciation for the general publicity lent to the local pastime.
These days Walsh will watch the oldest of Miller’s 45 documentaries, which date back to 1950, and admire the late U.S. National Ski & Snowboard Hall of Famer’s handling of primitive technology. That, to him, typifies “the determination of Warren and all those kind of films to get that content and share a love of the sport, a love of winter, a love of skiing.”
The same infatuations and resolve plus an ever-broadening artistic streak serve Walsh and his time with U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing well. To date, nothing has embodied that crossover like his stint as the team’s graphic designer circa 2017-18.
Granted, Walsh’s product — with the American flag before an overcast Rocky Mountain backdrop — was a stand-in. He accepted that fact, and appreciates the way his rendering lives on in the program’s Facebook archive.
“It kind of was a passion project, mostly,” he said. “But (now) I know that I have the skills.”
It befits the standing skier who likens his athletic craft to “painting a canvas.”
Following his ski instructor mother Kathleen’s example, he took up the sport at age 2, and was competing by age 5. Within another year, he added acting to his regimen, and fast relished the common threads between “two separate worlds.”
In a thin-air locale, Walsh learned to breathe intently toward placid nerves on stage. He wove that warmup into his competition routine, segueing into a “mentality of success. It’s kind of putting me into character when I start going down the course.”
That is what he does after the beep, which is “almost like a director saying, ‘Action!’”
At times, life has yelled “Cut!” on his sports saga. In one case, he effectively scrapped and rewrote his role, crossing from able-bodied skiing to Para.
Walsh’s first hiatus came when he conquered cancer prior to high school, his second when he followed his other major passion to the Savannah College of Art and Design.
But months before snagging his SCAD bachelor’s in performing arts, the former Nordic specialist reemerged on the Para alpine national team, debuting at the 2017 world championships. That was his springboard to PyeongChang 2018, where a carry-over habit of absorbing tough lessons went to work.
For the then-23-year-old first-time Paralympian, a succession of so-so second runs after flaming firsts was “Obviously very disappointing in the moment.”
But because he has taken to stages since age 6, the permanence of his performance before a live audience sank in matter-of-factly. What follows “Action!” is part of the scene. Even the bungled lines, missed directions or downhill speed bumps.
Fortunately, there were more acts, scenes and productions yet to come.
“Knowing that I had that ability to calm myself down, look ahead, not focus on what had happened, was greatly beneficial,” said Walsh.
“All I can do is think ahead.”
As it happened, he went ahead and claimed bronze in the giant slalom and super combined at the 2019 world championships. With the subsequent pandemic, that was the last major Para alpine competition until the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. In the interim, Walsh refreshed his arts education log.
“Being able to focus on something outside of my sport was a necessity to me,” he said of his graduate studies at DeVry University. Equipped with an MBA in marketing, on top of his other promotional and creative credentials, he exudes “the confidence that I will be able to retire eventually.”
But first he has his Paralympic encore, another opportunity to merge another pair of realms.
Walsh grew up alongside two-time Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, his good friend since age 5. Yet in a community where the elevation (8,150 feet) dwarfs the population (4,835), the former figure represents the gap between their athletic sectors more than the latter.
“Our worlds are very, very separate,” Walsh said. Average Olympic skiing fans “don’t necessarily know how our side of the sport works.”
That said, he considers it a “very big gift” to have experienced “both worlds and both sides of our sport.”
The master marketer might not answer an emergency design call like he did as a rookie. But by embracing his physical presence on the canvas of a course and stage of a slope, he could showcase a developed character.
And maybe star in some highlight films marked less by chuckles and more by cheers.