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Skiing bonds Shiffrin and Paralympian who overcame cancer

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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 balling 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.

He did.

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.”

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2020 Tour de France standings

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2020 Tour de France results for the yellow jersey, green jersey, white jersey and polka-dot jersey …

Overall (Yellow Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 87:20:05
2. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — +:59
3. Richie Porte (AUS) — +3:30
4. Mikel Landa (ESP) — +5:58
5. Enric Mas (ESP) — +6:07
6. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — +6:47
7. Tom Dumoulin (NED) — +7:48
8. Rigberto Uran (COL) — +8:02
9. Adam Yates (GBR) — +9:25
10. Damiano Caruso (ITA) — +14:03
13. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — +25:53
15. Sepp Kuss (USA) — +42:20
17. Nairo Quintana (COL) — +1:03:07
29. Thibaut Pinot (FRA) — +1:59:54
36. Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) — +2:19:11
DNF. Egan Bernal (COL)

Sprinters (Green Jersey)
1. Sam Bennett (IRL) — 380 points
2. Peter Sagan (SVK) — 284
3. Matteo Trentin (ITA) — 260
4. Bryan Coquard (FRA) — 181
5. Wout van Aert (BEL) — 174

Climbers (Polka-Dot Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 82 points
2. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — 74
3. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — 67
4. Marc Hirschi (SUI) — 62
5. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — 51

Young Rider (White Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 87:20:13
2. Enric Mas (ESP) — +6:07
3. Valentin Madouas (FRA) — +1:42:43
4. Dani Martinez (COL) — +1:55:12
5. Lennard Kamna (GER) — +2:15:39

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TOUR DE FRANCE: TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage | Favorites, Predictions

Tadej Pogacar, Slovenia win Tour de France for the ages

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A Tour de France that almost didn’t happen ended up among the most exciting in the race’s 117-year history.

Tadej Pogacar, a 21-year-old Slovenian, rode into Paris on Sunday as the first man in more than 60 years to pedal in the yellow jersey for the first time on the final day of a Tour.

Let’s get the achievements out of the way: Pogacar is the first Slovenian to win the Tour, finishing with the other overall leaders behind stage winner Sam Bennett on the Champs-Elysees.

“Even if I would come second or last, it wouldn’t matter, it would be still nice to be here,” Pogacar said. “This is just the top of the top. I cannot describe this feeling with the words.”

He is the second-youngest winner in race history, after Henri Cornet in 1904. (Cornet won after the first four finishers were disqualified for unspecified cheating. The 19-year-old Frenchman rode 21 miles with a flat tire during the last stage after spectators reportedly threw nails on the road.)

Pogacar is the first man to win a Tour in his debut since Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1983.

And he’s part of a historic one-two for Slovenia, a nation with the population of Houston.

Countryman Primoz Roglic, who wore the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks before ceding it after Saturday’s epic time trial, embraced Pogacar after a tearful defeat Saturday and again during Sunday’s stage.

Tasmanian Richie Porte, who moved from fourth place to third on Saturday, made his first Tour podium in his 10th start, a record according to ProCyclingStats.com. The age range on the Paris gloaming podium — more than 13 years — is reportedly the largest in Tour history.

TOUR DE FRANCE: Standings | TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage

Three men on a Tour de France podium in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, each for the first time. Hasn’t been done since 2007, arguably the first Tour of a new era.

This Tour feels similarly guard-changing.

It barely got off, delayed two months by the coronavirus pandemic. Two days before the start, France’s prime minister said the virus was “gaining ground” in the nation and announced new “red zones” in the country, including parts of the Tour route.

Testing protocols meant that if any team had two members (cyclists or staff) test positive before the start or on either rest day, the whole team would be thrown out.

It never came to that. Yet the Tour finishes without 2019 champion, Colombian Egan Bernal, who last year became the first South American winner and, at the time, the youngest in more than 100 years.

Bernal abandoned last Wednesday after struggling in the mountains. His standings plummet signaled the end, at least for now, of the Ineos Grenadiers dynasty after five straight Tour titles dating to Chris Froome and the Team Sky days.

Jumbo-Visma became the new dominant team. The leader Roglic was ushered up climbs by several Jumbo men, including Sepp Kuss, the most promising American male cyclist in several years.

What a story Roglic was shaping up to be. A junior champion ski jumper, he was concussed in a training crash on the eve of what would have been his World Cup debut in 2007. Roglic never made it to the World Cup before quitting and taking up cycling years later.

As Roglic recovered from that spill in Planica, Pogacar had his sights on the Rog Ljubljana cycling club about 60 miles east. Little Tadej wanted to follow older brother Tilen into bike racing, but the club didn’t have a bike small enough.

The following spring, they found one. Pogacar was off and pedaling. In 2018, at age 18, he was offered a contract and then signed with UAE Team Emirates, his first World Tour team. The next year, Pogacar finished third at the Vuelta a Espana won by Roglic, becoming the youngest Grand Tour podium finisher since 1974.

Pogacar was initially slated to support another rider, Fabio Aru, for UAE Emirates at this year’s Tour. But his continued ascent propelled him into a team leader role.

Bernal and Roglic entered the Tour as co-favorites. After that, Pogacar was among a group of podium contenders but perhaps with the highest ceiling.

He stayed with the favorites for much of the Tour, save losing 81 seconds on the seventh stage, caught on the wrong end of a split after a crash in front of him.

“I’m not worried,” Pogacar said that day. “We will try another day.”

The next day, actually. He reeled back half of the lost time, putting him within striking distance of Roglic going into Saturday’s 22-mile time trial, the so-called “race of truth.”

Pogacar put in a performance in the time trial that reminded of Greg LeMond‘s epic finale in 1989. Pogacar won the stage by 81 seconds, greater than the margin separating second place from eighth place. Roglic was a disappointing fifth on the day, but he could have finished second and still lost all of his 57-second lead to Pogacar.

Pogacar turns 22 on Monday, but that might not add much to the celebration.

“Sorry,” he said, “but I’m not really a fan of my birthdays.”

MORE: USA Cycling names Olympic team finalists

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