In fight with rare cancer, Vail’s Campbell Sullivan just wants to ski
VAIL — With Ski & Snowboard Club Vail alumni regularly making headlines on the World Cup circuit, you may think the program’s main goal is to churn out professional athletes.
But that’s just a byproduct of its true focus — instilling character, courage and commitment in young people.
Spend a little time around the Ski & Snowboard Club Vail ranks and you’ll see a group of coaches who are just as satisfied in preparing young people for the challenges of life as producing top-level athletes.
And in life, no challenge is more difficult than the prospect of an untimely death. Facing that challenge requires every skill at one’s disposable, and often times that simply isn’t enough.
Less than one year ago, 17-year-old Campbell Sullivan was forced to meet that challenge after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as CIC-DUX4. Similar to Ewing sarcoma, CIC-DUX4 attacks the body’s soft tissue and is often fatal.
Sullivan left a training camp in Mount Hood in August thinking she had pulled a muscle in her calf. Instead, she was told she had a cancerous tumor the size of a potato in her leg, and it had metastasized into her lungs.
“We had to tell a 16-year-old that just got her driver’s license, just going into her junior year … that she had Stage IV cancer,” Campbell’s mother, Gibby Sullivan, told the Vail Daily. “She was super upset, like ‘Why me?’”
The Sullivans visited Dr. Nathan Donaldson at Children’s Hospital, who examined Campbell and told her she could beat it.
“That was all she needed to hear,” Gibby Sullivan said.
Campbell Sullivan was still upset, but not so much at the fact that she had one of the world’s most unusual forms of cancer. She had just finished working hard all spring and summer to earn an invite to the coveted Saas-Fee ski camp in Switzerland, a difficult achievement.
“It was something I had been looking forward to for months, and when I learned I couldn’t go, I think that really pushed me to wanting to come back even stronger,” she said. “My goal was just to get through all my 14 rounds of chemotherapy and all my radiation and if possible, ski well, while still going through treatment.”
MASTER OF GOAL SETTING
Good goal setting has always been one of Campbell Sullivan’s strengths.
Ski & Snowboard Club Vail operations manager Chris Ogilvie said Sullivan even taught him a thing or two about goal setting.
“She wrote (her goals) down, she put them right next to her bed table … and reminded herself daily of what she wanted to accomplish,” Ogilvie said of Sullivan. “Rarely do we see our athletes do that.”
And that was before she was diagnosed with cancer.
Campbell Sullivan has been a master of goal setting for years, starting with her pathway to Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. As a young teenager, the family was commuting from Denver to be a part of the club part time.
“She decided that she wanted to be here full time, so she moved in with my dad, who lived in Eagle,” said Gibby Sullivan. “He died when she was with him, she was physically with him and he had a pulmonary embolism and collapsed in the kitchen, getting ready to take her to school.”
Campbell Sullivan lost not only her grandfather, but her connection to Eagle County. Gibby told Campbell that she no longer had a way of being in Ski & Snowboard Club Vail full time.
Campbell Sullivan told her mother she wasn’t moving back to Denver.
“She chose to live with a host family in Leadville and commute with another family from Leadville so that she could go to school,” Gibby Sullivan said. “She did it on her own — she set an alarm, made herself breakfast, got ready for the car pool, got down to school and got back.”
Campbell Sullivan was 13 at the time.
‘I JUST WANT TO SKI’
The Sullivans have since found a way to become Eagle County residents, but things never really got easier for Campbell Sullivan.
She did, however, catch a lucky break when she was accepted into the Shaw Cancer Center.
They usually treat adult cancer patients, but the hospital board gave her special permission to be treated as a pediatric patient at the Shaw Center.
She went the outpatient route for most of the 14 rounds of chemotherapy.
“One round was two days, one round was five days,” Gibby Sullivan said. “So when you have your five-day round, you basically start right back up.”
Campbell Sullivan followed that up with five weeks of radiation on her calf, and five weeks of radiation on her lungs. For most high school students, that would have resulted in so much time away from school that passing classes would not have been possible.
The Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, however, was set up as a public school with a goal of providing a curriculum to traveling students who are trying to juggle the competitive circuit, which often means traveling away from Eagle County for entire semesters at a time.
“If she didn’t go to Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, it wouldn’t have been possible,” Gibby Sullivan said. “She would have had to do an online school, and it’s hard to stress how important it is to be around your friends, and have a normal schedule.”
On May 14, Ski & Snowboard Club Vail presented Campbell Sullivan with the Walter Kirsch Award for character, courage and commitment.
“She has been committed to the treatment, but it hasn’t stopped her from getting out on the hill,” said JC Cole with Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, who presented the award.
Campbell Sullivan said moreover, getting out on the hill is what keeps her committed to the treatments.
“I want to set goals that I know I can achieve, but are also hard for me,” she said.
And most of all, “I just want to ski,” she added.
Gibby Sullivan said ski racing is what gave her daughter the tools to get through the treatments.
“She’s used to being uncomfortable, she’s used to putting herself out there, she’s used to working her butt off, she’s used to competing,” Gibby Sullivan said. “And this was basically a competition.”
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