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Life of US Alpine skier has been an uphill battle

Nathan Fenno, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Olympics

The diagnosis arrived the day before Thomas Walsh left for a ski academy in Vermont.

For months, the rising star on the U.S. junior skiing circuit dismissed the ache in his right hip. After all, a snow-covered future beckoned. Walsh, then 14, planned to follow the example of Mikaela Shiffrin, his close friend since preschool in Vail, Colo., and move East to focus on skiing. They expected to compete in the Winter Olympics one day.

But doctors discovered a rare bone and soft tissue cancer, Ewing's sarcoma, had invaded Walsh's pelvis and spread to his lungs. The odds for survival were so low that he still refuses to name them.

"From there, everything changes," said Walsh, now 22. "I was fortunate to be young enough to not understand what was going on. Cancer was just a word to me. It wasn't an experience yet."

Almost nine years later, the ravages of treatment have faded. The cancer is gone. He is an up-and-coming U.S. Paralympic Alpine skier who doesn't think of himself as disabled.

The bond with Shiffrin remains. Perhaps the best female skier alive, she already owns a gold medal from the Sochi Games and ranks as the world's top competitor in the slalom and giant slalom ahead of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month. But she is awed by her friend.

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"He's one of the most talented athletes I've ever known," said Shiffrin, 22, the winner of 41 World Cup races. "Sports, in a lot of ways, is like art. It's very much an expression of your personality, your work ethic, your mentality. It's amazing for him to be able to find that expression."

It almost didn't happen. Not after chemotherapy and radiation blasted Walsh's slight body for 13 months at the Denver Children's Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. His weight plunged to about half of his current 130 pounds. The vibrant kid who once won a national triathlon, took skiing lessons from Shiffrin's mother, Eileen, at the Vail Ski and Snowboard Club, participated in ballet, acted and played several instruments eventually resembled a walking skeleton.

Walsh underwent more than a dozen surgeries. Shiffrin's father, Jim, sometimes served as one of the anesthesiologists. Surgeons removed part of Walsh's pelvis and lungs. They almost took his right leg. Shiffrin visited her weak, atrophied friend as much as her burgeoning skiing career allowed. Doctors told Walsh he wouldn't ski again.

Word of Walsh's fight reached three-time U.S. Olympic Alpine skier Steven Nyman. He gave Walsh his bib from the Torino Games. He wrote Walsh's name on the back of his helmet. They struck up a friendship that helped Nyman through a difficult stretch when he was hobbled by a series of injuries.

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