Walsh waits: COVID test results nearly leave Paralympian contender at home
Vail skier will head to Beijing for his second career Paralympic Games
VAIL — On the same day Jared Polis declared Coloradans can “live life normally,” amidst declining COVID concerns, one of his state’s young ski stars waited to see if his life would be considerably altered by the virus.
While Thomas Walsh was named to the 14-member U.S. Paralympic Alpine team slated to compete at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games March 4-13 in Beijing, the 27-year-old Vail skier almost got left at home.
“Right now I feel sad, angry, and confused. I am Team USA’s and our country’s best standing Paralympic skier and am also one of our few medal contenders,” he wrote on a Feb. 23 social media post.
“But instead of traveling to team processing and to China, I find myself still praying that I get the opportunity to compete at the Paralympics. My COVID test results have been wavering between negative and positive which means I have been pushed back to the latest possible moment to make it in time for all of my events.”
Fortunately, he got the green light a few days later.
“To make the team two times in a row is an honor,” he said.
“I’m going to really soak it all in and do my best to perform and really have fun at these Games.”
Despite battling back from injuries to start the season, Walsh has skied well in the 2021-22 campaign. After earning a slalom bronze in St. Moritz in December, his confidence was budding.
“The skiing was coming along and surpassing what I had before the injury last December,” he recalled.
At this year’s world championships, he just missed the podium in the men’s standing super-combined event, finishing fourth. Four days after returning stateside, he on his back with COVID. After a full recovery, he was amped and ready to make his final Beijing preparations when an asymptomatic positive test prevented him from traveling to Sun Valley for a pre-Paralympic training camp starting Feb. 13.
For the next two weeks, each day was spent testing and stressing.
“Emotionally and mentally, it has been a very challenging toll,” he admitted.
“I’ve trained for four years for this one event, and to have this happen right before I was supposed to go has been something that’s been very difficult to deal with.”
Still, the cancer survivor is staying positive.
“All I can do now is look ahead and prime myself to do the best I can when it comes time to race.”
Specifics regarding the complex COVID protocols between the USOPC and China were too much for Walsh to keep track of. Following the directives from his medical liasons, he officially needed three consecutive days of negative tests before he could depart from Los Angeles on March 2. His first competition is the super-G on March 6.
Para Alpine skiing consists of downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and super-combined in the sitting, standing and visually impaired categories. In the 2018 Games, Walsh was fifth in slalom, seventh in giant slalom and 13th in super-G. The LW4 category skier is focused on the technical events, but believes he can contend in everything.
“I believe I have skills in all events,” he said, noting that his small frame does make speed a challenge. However, he’s looking to use his super-G momentum from Norway and St. Moritz to propel him in the super combined event on March 8.
“That’s something I’m looking towards,” he said.
On May 29, 2009, Walsh was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of cancerous tumor that grows in the bones or soft tissue surrounding them. He spent the next 14 months fighting for his life, undergoing chemotherapy and having some pelvic bones and wedges of his lungs removed. His final radiation treatment was in June of 2010.
His extensive medical history has impacted the level of his COVID fatigue.
“The question of mortality is something I dealt with at a very young age. So, knowing that when I got COVID, and the fact that this is a struggle right now for me, I’m very blessed by the fact that I’m still alive,” he conveyed in contextualizing his frustrations over the virus.
“Knowing I’m healthy and survived is one thing. Now, past that, yes, I’m frustrated that I’m not sick, didn’t have symptoms after the initial onset, I’ve felt fine and have been ready to go and wanting to go — it is frustrating.”
Walsh stated that now he is trying to “reset, refocus and think about skiing.”
“Really at this point, I just want to charge, go as fast as I can,” he stated.
“Obviously, my dream is to go get medals, but I really just want to ski the best that I can to represent our country, our valley, and our town the best that I can.”
A return to his sketchbook calmed his mind during the stressful run-up to the Games, as did a return to his roots: shredding powder in this week’s fresh Vail snow.
“I think that really brings it home for me and reminds me that ‘yes, I’m living this dream of a high-stress pro athlete traveling the world and trying to go fast,’ however, at the end of the day, I really just love skiing and I love making turns in fresh powder and being outside,” he said of the afternoon spent with friends.
Walsh holds a BFA in Performing Arts from Savannah College of Art and Design. He also recently completed his MBA with a concentration in marketing.
“I love those aspects of my life and I hope to utilize them someday,” he said.
“I’m not sure what skiing will hold for me in the future — that’s a question for another day — but I guess right now I just got to focus on the task ahead.”
Go ahead and count them. With his win Sunday in the men’s snowboard slopestyle final, Mark McMorris was able to break his tie with Jamie Anderson for the most Winter X Games medals ever won with 22 — and counting.