‘Until next time’: A snowboarding champion’s life of fight, gratitude and love

2014 Paralympic Winter Games - Day 7
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Bibian Mentel, a Dutch Paralympic champion snowboarder who repeatedly beat cancer while the eminent figure of her sport, shared an update through her foundation on March 5.

The cancer returned, this time in her brain, and no treatment was possible. Doctors advised her to say goodbye to her loved ones.

“I still like to take every day as a beautiful moment,” Mentel, 48, said at the beginning of a national television interview last week, according to a translation. “That sounds cliché, but we’ve had — in the past two weeks — a lot of time to speak about everything with family and friends, and eventually you reach a point where you wonder, ‘Are there still things that need to be said?’ And I’m happy that I have not been taken from life from one day to the next, and that I have the chance to say those last things that you want to say to each other to my family and friends. Because of that, everything has actually been said. Now every day is a gift.”

In 2000, Mentel, a former law student, was on a path to making the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. It ended when bone cancer was found in her lower right leg, just above the ankle joint. Her leg was amputated below the knee.

“Although the doctors told me I would never snowboard again, I was determined to pick up my passion,” Mentel said in a 2018 Ted Talk. “And only seven months later, I was back on my snowboard, competing at the Dutch Championships and winning myself a gold medal.

“That day I did not only win a gold medal. No, I thought I had beaten cancer. But boy was I wrong.”

The cancer returned, again and again, and would not respond to chemotherapy. Mentel, in that Ted Talk, showed a timeline on a screen that listed five lung surgeries and two neck operations, plus radiation in her neck and rib areas.

Her husband, Edwin Spee, recently said she’s a 15-time cancer survivor who had 128 radiations (128 is also the number of gold medals she won, Mentel said in that Ted Talk.)

In 2016, doctors sent her home to her husband and three children with the message, “You’re probably going to die within a couple of years, and there’s nothing, really, we can do for you.”

“I had to tell my children that I was going to die,” she said in 2018. “But we always tell our children, no matter how bad the situation might look, never, ever let it ruin your future. That evening, we had a good cry. And we ended up in a restaurant celebrating life, and the next two months, I slept amazingly well, but my husband didn’t. He searched the internet for hours and hours trying to look for a solution. He found out there was a new way of radiation therapy. I underwent that therapy, and, look, I’m still here.”

She always returned to her passion in dominating fashion. In 2014, Mentel became the first Paralympic snowboarding champion, winning snowboard cross gold in Sochi.

It was a culmination after Mentel led the fight for the sport’s Paralympic inclusion, writing letters to the International Paralympic Committee and traveling the world with other riders to get the word out. During that time, Mentel started the Mentelity Foundation to create opportunities for young people who live with a physical or mental challenge.

“Let’s be honest, if I didn’t become sick [in 2000], if I didn’t lose my leg, I would never have been in para sports,” she said. “The fact that I gave others strength makes me proud.”

In 2018 in PyeongChang, she swept both snowboard events, snowboard cross and banked slalom. Those triumphs came two months after 16 hours of surgery to replace vertebrae with titanium to keep her from being paralyzed from the neck down.

“We all know you’re going to come back strong. You always have. You always do,” friend Amy Purdy, an American who shared the Paralympic podium with Mentel in 2014, said in her “Bouncing Forward” podcast interview with Mentel taped in December and published this week. “That just right there proved how badass you are.”

Mentel retired from competitive snowboarding in 2018. In 2019, she woke from a back surgery with no feeling in the lower part of her body. She couldn’t move her legs.

Bibian Mentel, Amy Purdy
Bibian Mentel (left) and American Amy Purdy. (via Amy Purdy)

Mentel was due to participate on the Dutch version of “Dancing with the Stars,” inspired by Purdy, who in 2014 became the first Paralympian on the U.S. version of the show. Mentel improvised, reaching the finals as the first-ever competitor in a wheelchair.

“The more and more people were telling me what I could not do, the more I wanted to prove them wrong,” Mentel said in 2018. “I still have never found anything yet [that] I cannot do because of the fact that I’m missing a leg.”

Mentel and Purdy are not only friends and competitors, but they also authored parallel lives.

Each cried watching the other on “Dancing with the Stars.” They both fought for Paralympic snowboarding inclusion, albeit based from different continents — Purdy with her organization, Adaptive Action Sports. They both faced recent life challenges. Purdy underwent nine surgeries since 2019, when a massive blood clot was found in an artery in her left leg.

Mentel and Purdy, and their husbands, spoke for more than an hour in a WhatsApp video chat on Wednesday, sharing memories, laughs and tears.

“It’s hard to believe how incredibly grateful and positive this woman is, no matter what she’s facing,” Purdy said. “It doesn’t matter if she’s on the top of a Paralympic podium, she’s grateful and positive. It doesn’t matter if she has just weeks left to live. She literally has the same attitude and perspective on life.”

Mentel cherished that she wakes up with the warm sun on her face. Wakes up to her husband. And to hugs and kisses from her son and daughters every morning. She abides by the mantra, collect memories, not possessions. She was asked in the TV interview what she considered the meaning of life.

“That’s simple for me,” she answered. “It is love. Love in any form. For those close to you. For nature.”

A pier was named after her in the Netherlands. Mentel told Purdy that she is most proud of a playground, also named after her, that was built specifically for children with disabilities.

“[Mentel] said, ‘You know we’re still making memories, and I’m grateful for that,'” Purdy said. “Bibian reminded us, all that matters is what we have today. She said, ‘Look at us right now. I have love in my life. You guys have love in your life. We love each other. We’ve lived this incredible life side by side. What more can we ask for?'”

Purdy and her husband, Daniel, didn’t know if the conversation was a goodbye. They made sure to say everything and thank Mentel for being a role model in sport and outside of it. A Dutch reporter wrote last week that Mentel’s first name is derived from a word that means “life,” which she didn’t know until her husband recently mentioned it to her.

“[We] thanked her for being such an example of how to live and how to love and how to even die with grace,” Purdy said. “I think we should all aspire to live life in a way that she has.”

Purdy will never forget that hour together. Particularly the end.

“We don’t know how to say goodbye, and we don’t want to say goodbye,” she said. “[Mentel] said, ‘Well that’s why I don’t say goodbye. What I say is “until next time.”‘ It was so fantastic. So that’s how we ended the conversation. ‘Until next time.'”

Snowboarders sue coach, USOPC in assault, harassment case

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Olympic bronze medalist Rosey Fletcher has filed a lawsuit accusing former snowboard coach Peter Foley of sexually assaulting, harassing and intimidating members of his team for years, while the organizations overseeing the team did nothing to stop it.

Fletcher is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday. One names Foley, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team and its former CEO, Tiger Shaw, as defendants. Another, filed by a former employee of USSS, names Foley, Shaw and the ski federation as defendants.

One of the lawsuits, which also accuse the defendants of sex trafficking, harassment, and covering up repeated acts of sexual assault and misconduct, allege Foley snuck into bed and sexually assaulted Fletcher, then shortly after she won her bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics, approached her “and said he still remembered ‘how she was breathing,’ referring to the first time he assaulted her.”

The lawsuits describe Foley as fostering a depraved travel squad of snowboarders, in which male coaches shared beds with female athletes, crude jokes about sexual conquests were frequently shared and coaches frequently commented to the female athletes about their weight and body types.

“Male coaches, including Foley, would slap female athletes’ butts when they finished their races, even though the coaches would not similarly slap the butts of male athletes,” the lawsuit said. “Physical assault did not stop with slapping butts. Notably, a female athlete once spilled barbeque sauce on her chest while eating and a male coach approached her and licked it off her chest without warning or her consent.”

The USOPC and USSS knew of Foley’s behavior but did nothing to stop it, the lawsuit said. It depicted Foley as an all-powerful coach who could make and break athletes’ careers on the basis of how they got along off the mountain.

Foley’s attorney, Howard Jacobs, did not immediately return requests for comment from The Associated Press. Jacobs has previously said allegations of sexual misconduct against Foley are false.

In a statement, the USOPC said it had not seen the complaint and couldn’t comment on specific details but that “we take every allegation of abuse very seriously.”

“The USOPC is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Team USA athletes, and we are taking every step to identify, report, and eliminate abuse in our community,” the statement said.

It wasn’t until the Olympics in Beijing last year that allegations about Foley’s behavior and the culture on the snowboarding team started to emerge.

Allegations posted on Instagram by former team member Callan Chythlook-Sifsof — who, along with former team member Erin O’Malley, is a plaintiff along with Fletcher — led to Foley’s removal from the team, which he was still coaching when the games began.

That posting triggered more allegations in reporting by ESPN and spawned an AP report about how the case was handled between USSS and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is ultimately responsible for investigating cases involving sex abuse in Olympic sports. The center has had Foley on temporary suspension since March 18, 2022.

The AP typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they have granted permission or spoken publicly, as Fletcher, Chythlook-Sifsof and O’Malley have done through a lawyer.

USSS said it was made aware of the allegations against Foley on Feb 6, 2022, and reported them to the SafeSport center.

“We are aware of the lawsuits that were filed,” USSS said in a statement. “U.S. Ski & Snowboard has not yet been served with the complaint nor has had an opportunity to fully review it. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is and will remain an organization that prioritizes the safety, health and well-being of its athletes and staff.”

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages to be determined in a jury trial.

Oleksandr Abramenko, Ukraine’s top Winter Olympian, tears knee, career in question

Oleksandr Abramenko
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Aerials skier Oleksandr Abramenko, who won both of Ukraine’s medals over the last two Winter Olympics, is out for the season after a knee ligament tear and said he might not return to competition at all, according to Ukrainian media.

Abramenko, 34, won gold at the 2018 Olympics — Ukraine’s second-ever individual Winter Olympic title after figure skater Oksana Baiul in 1994 — and silver last year.

He competed once this season, placing 10th at a World Cup in Finland on Dec. 4, and then flew with the Ukrainian national team to stay in Utah ahead of World Cups in Canada in January and at the 2002 Olympic venue in Park City this weekend. The area also hosted many Ukraine winter sports athletes this past summer.

Abramenko missed the competition in Canada two weeks ago due to injury and then wasn’t on the start list for today’s aerials event in Park City. He is set to miss the world championships later this month in Georgia (the country, not the state).

Abramenko said he needs surgery, followed by a nine-month rehabilitation process, similar to an operation on his other knee six years ago, according to Ukraine’s public broadcaster. He said he will see how the recovery goes and determine whether to return to the sport at age 35, according to the report.

Abramenko is already the oldest Olympic men’s aerials medalist and come the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games will be older than all but one male aerialist in Olympic history, according to Olympedia.org.

At last year’s Olympics, Abramenko, Ukraine’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, was hugged after the aerials final by Russian Ilya Burov, who finished one spot behind Abramenko for a bronze medal. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

A week after that, Abramenko posed for a photo sitting on a mattress in a Kyiv parking garage with his wife and 2-year-old son published by The New York Times.

“We spend the night in the underground parking in the car, because the air attack siren is constantly on,” Abramenko texted, according to the newspaper. “It’s scary to sleep in the apartment, I myself saw from the window how the air defense systems worked on enemy missiles, and strong explosions were heard.”

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