Thomas Walsh, who last month “unpacked the bags,” pessimistic that he would be able to travel to the Paralympics, earned a giant slalom silver medal on Thursday, the first U.S. Alpine medal of these Games.
Walsh, a 26-year-old from Vail, Colorado, had the fastest first run and the fifth-fastest second run, overtaken for gold by .04 by Finland’s Santeri Kiiveri.
“My life experiences, surviving pediatric cancer to dealing with COVID days before I was supposed to be at the Paralympics, god I’m just lucky to be able to compete,” Walsh said on USA Network. “Earning a medal is only a bonus.”
The U.S. entered these Games with the most Alpine skiing gold medals in Paralympic history, and the second-most Alpine medals of any color behind Austria. But more than halfway through these Games, no American had made an Alpine podium.
Andrew Kurka, the only U.S. Alpine gold medalist in 2014 or 2018, was fourth defending his title in the opening downhill. Just before that race, heavy winds put him into a fence, so he competed with a broken humerus and thumb.
Walsh, too, would have been a medal contender earlier in these Games under normal circumstances.
But he tested positive for COVID last month, at least clearing protocols to arrive less than 48 hours before his first race, the super-G, where he finished 15th. Then came the combined, in which Walsh took bronze at the 2019 World Championships. He placed fourth, missing a medal by 11 hundredths of a second.
“No struggle, no progress,” Walsh put in his Instagram bio.
Walsh harbored Olympic dreams, skiing by age 2 and racing at 5. His first coach was Eileen Shiffrin, who coaches her own daughter, Mikaela, a childhood friend of Walsh.
Walsh was awarded a full scholarship to Green Mountain Valley School, a ski academy in Vermont. The day before he was scheduled to leave for school in 2009, Walsh was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that developed in his pelvis and lungs.
He spent the next year undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and pelvic resection treatments. He was declared cancer-free after 14 months. While Walsh was in the hospital, Olympian Steven Nyman gave him one of his bibs from the 2006 Torino Games. Shiffrin said she visited for weeklong stints, according to The New York Times.
“Once I finished treatment, it was such a shot in the dark to try to ski race again,” Walsh said, according to TeamUSA.org. “I was so bent out of shape, and my life was in shambles. I could hardly walk, never mind put a pair of skis on.
“But coming back to skiing was a no-brainer. It was the reason why I lived.”
Walsh did enroll at Green Mountain Valley School, where he took Shiffrin to prom and graduated in 2013. Then he attended the 2014 Sochi Olympics, watching Shiffrin win slalom gold through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Walsh then researched Para Alpine skiing. He discovered he was eligible to compete in the standing classification due to a limb deficiency. He made the 2018 team and had a best finish of fifth in the slalom in PyeongChang. The slalom is the last event at these Games, on Sunday.
“I’ve ski raced my whole life. I always wanted to be an Olympian,” Walsh said Thursday. “Now I’m a Paralympian, and now I’m a Paralympic medalist.”
NBC Paralympic research contributed to this report.
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