From The Ski Slopes To The Sketch Pad, Paralympian Thomas Walsh Is Ready For Winter Games Success
by Stuart Lieberman
Thomas Walsh poses for a portrait during the Team USA Beijing 2022 Olympic & Paralympic shoot on Sept. 12, 2021 in Irvine, Calif.
BEIJING — When Thomas Walsh boarded a plane headed for China’s capital city on Wednesday, five days later than planned, he was ready.
The U.S. Para alpine skier had his bags packed full to the rim of items to keep him mentally fresh and stable while competing at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
Included in his suitcases was a putter, which he uses at the end of each day in his room while reflecting on his ski runs. He also brought along a sketch pad and a sudoku book to serve as his stress-relief companions at his second Paralympics.
“You have to have something when you’re on the road and at such a big event, because if you’re so hyper focused on skiing 100 percent of the time you’ll go crazy,” said Walsh, who recorded two top-10 finishes in the men’s standing classification at his Paralympic debut in PyeongChang 2018.
The 27-year-old graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design calls himself an “eclectic thinker and artist,” often cracking open his sketch pad to draw landscapes — mostly mountains and palm trees — when he needs to relax.
“I’m by no means a fine artist, but it keeps me busy,” said the Vail, Colorado, native and cancer survivor.
Any distraction was welcome for Walsh last week.
He needed to fulfill COVID protocols to be able to travel to Beijing, and after missing the Team USA charter flight last Friday, he finally completed all the necessary tests five days later than he had originally anticipated. He arrived just a day prior to the Opening Ceremony.
“It’s a little unfortunate that I’m cutting it this close and I’m not able to get acclimated,” Walsh said, “but at this point just the opportunity to be able to compete and get over there and say I’m a two-time Paralympian is a huge thing.”
Walsh expects to compete in four events at the Games: super-G, super combined, slalom and giant slalom. The technical races are more of his specialty, but he should be within striking distance of the podium in all four events and hopes to follow American Ryan Cochran-Siegle’s super-G silver from the Olympics with a podium performance of his own in that event.
Four years ago in PyeongChang, Walsh finished fifth in the slalom and seventh in giant slalom, while also racing to 13th in the super-G.
“I have a positive mental attitude and I feel like I’m in a good space mentally, but physically I’m just going to dive right in,” he said. “I’m optimistic that I can trust my training. All I can do now is focus on honing in to the hours and years of work I’ve done to try to get on the podium.”
The slopes have been home to Walsh since he was 5 (ski school was his day care), and as one of the more experienced athletes on the team with two world championship bronze medals, he’s been through the ups as well as the downs of the sport by now.
Within the last Paralympic cycle, he went nearly a two-year span without competing on the world cup circuit, owing to surgery to repair the labrum in his left hip. He came roaring back with a bronze-medal slalom finish to kick off the 2021-22 season at December’s competition in St. Moritz, Switzerland, before placing fourth in the super combined at January’s world championships in Lillehammer, Norway.
“I was pretty happy with the direction I was skiing in,” he said. “I’ve not only gotten older and matured more as an athlete, but also found my place in the circuit, knowing my abilities and where I stand. I somewhat have a better idea of what to expect regarding pressures and the international stage and how big of a deal it is. Having that one Games under my belt gives me more ease coming into this.”
Last month, Walsh watched his lifelong friend and former prom date, two-time Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, persevere following a few difficult days on the slopes during the Olympics.
“I can’t speak much to what Mikaela went through or how she processed that, but ski racing is a challenging sport,” Walsh said. “We have DNFs — people who won’t finish. It’s not an easy sport, and I think it’s impressive about how she took away the positives and how she continued to compete in her events.”
Watching the Olympic alpine skiing competition provided Walsh a moment in time to reflect on his own mental state and his own place in the sport. Being based in Colorado and having skied in Vermont during his high school years, he recognized he’s exceptionally adaptable when it comes to fluctuating snow conditions — a factor that could play a big role in Beijing. He trusts himself, no matter the environment.
“Knowing that I’ve prepared for the various challenges that others have faced allows me to really just focus on my own performance and trust what I’ve been working on,” he said.
“I’m going to be overall grateful to be in the environment in Beijing. Holding onto the memory and knowledge that I was able to travel to China and compete in the Paralympic Games during a pandemic is going to be big.”
Stuart Lieberman has covered Paralympic sports for more than 10 years, including for the International Paralympic Committee at the London 2012, Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.