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

2014 Paralympic Winter Games - Day 7
Bibian Mentel (center)/Getty Images

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.'”

Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)

Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze

Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!