Cancer, late career changes and car crashes - the most inspirational stories of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games
While it is normal and necessary to shine a light on the sporting success of the Games, this year's Winter Olympics has also featured a number of athletes battling against adversity just to get to Beijing. Ibrahim Mustapha looks at some of the most inspiring stories of bravery and courage from the Games' unsung heroes.
'Absolutely incredible' - Morgan analyses cancer-beating Parrot's golden run
The Canadian’s journey to glory came with one of the biggest obstacles in the road when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma just months after winning slopestyle silver in Pyeongchang in 2018.
After going through 12 rounds of chemotherapy, Parrot was given the all-clear and was able to return to action in late 2019.
Slopestyle and big air success in the Winter X Games followed but his crowning glory has undoubtedly come in Beijing, where, in addition to his gold, he also added big air bronze to his medal collection.
Although his slopestyle success came with some controversy after a missed grab during his routine wasn’t spotted by the judges, nothing will ultimately detract from his remarkable story.
“It was never an option for cancer to beat me,” Parrot said, after a score of 90.96 points was enough to claim gold in the slopestyle.
“But, for sure, I was scared a lot of the time. You don’t know how the treatment is going to work. You don’t know what life has got in store for you.
“I am much more mentally stronger, especially after my battle with cancer. Going through 12 treatments of chemotherapy over six months makes you a lot stronger.”
In 2016, Stevenson was involved in a horrific car crash after falling asleep at the wheel of a friend’s truck, leading to the vehicle rolling multiple times and leaving him fighting for his life.
Shattering his skull in 30 places and suffering brain injuries, Stevenson was forced into a medically induced coma having also broken his eye-socket and ribs.
Stevenson later revealed he was in the “one percent” of people who have had his head injury and not suffer from brain damage.
Following his recovery, the American said he was determined to get back on the slopes.
“I didn’t have a back-up plan other than to be a professional skier,” he told the My New Favourite Olympian podcast.
Five months after the crash, he was back in action and although he missed Pyeongchang in 2018 with an unrelated injury, X Games and World Cup success in 2021 effectively secured his place in Beijing.
Stevenson went on to claim a silver medal after producing jumps worth 91.25 and 91.75 points.
BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 09: Colby Stevenson of Team United States reacts after winning the silver medal during the Men's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Final on Day 5 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on February 09, 2022 in
Image credit: Eurosport
The German speed skater proved that age was nothing but a number as she competed in the 3000m and women’s mass start events.
Competing in her first Games back in Albertville in 1992, Pechstein took bronze in the 5000m before upgrading to gold in Lillehammer in 1994, a feat she would go on to repeat in Nagano four years later as well as silver in the 3000m.
She completed her 5000m hat-trick in Salt Lake City in 2002, before securing a then-record fifth gold medal in 2006 in the team pursuit in Turin – as well as another silver in her favoured 5000m.
However, Pechstein was handed a two-year ban for doping in 2009, based on irregularities in her blood rather than a positive test – a first for any athlete and something she continues to deny and contest in various courts to this day.
“It’s for me more than the gold,” she said of her historic time-defying appearance.
Puerto Rico is not exactly the first, second or even 10th country one would think of when it comes to producing Olympic alpine skiers, yet this isn’t even the most remarkable aspect of William Flaherty’s story.
At the age of just 3, Flaherty from Cincinnati, Ohio was diagnosed with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis - a rare, and often fatal condition in which the immune system aggressively attacks the body’s organs.
Given just a 10% chance of survival without a bone marrow transplant, his older brother Charles stepped in as a doner.
Health issues would, and will continue to impact William throughout his life but not enough to quell a passion both he and his brother shared for skiing.
Image credit: Getty Images
Despite having to move to the Caribbean island for their father’s work during childhood, the two continued to pursue their dream culminating in Charles competing in Pyeongchang in 2018 having qualified for Puerto Rico through residency.
William has followed suit this year in what is likely to be his only, but wholly memorable Olympic experience.
The teenager requires more surgery after competing at the Games with a benign tumour in his jaw.
"Skiing for me is almost a stress relief," William said earlier this year. "My decision to keep going through all the medical side effects ... how many people can say they've had the opportunity to go to the Olympics?"
Even in the days leading up to the Games, Belgian skeleton racer Meylemans’ participation was in serious doubt after a positive Covid-19 PCR test upon her arrival in China.
Having been kept in isolation for three days after touching down in Beijing, the 25-year-old was then moved to another facility where she was told she would have to stay in quarantine for a further seven days, impacting her training for her event.
Meylemans tearfully took to social media bemoaning her treatment by the authorities, prompting the IOC to intervene ‘swiftly’ and move her to the Olympic Village as originally intended.
“I am now in a wing that is just isolation but at least I’m back in the village,” she said in an update. “I feel safe and I will be able to train a little better here so thank you all.”
When she finally made it to the iced track, she was met by a familiar face, that of girlfriend and Brazilian slider Nicole Silveira.
The two were among a number of LBGT athletes at the Games but the only ones in a couple going head-to-head in direct competition.
Meylemans finished 20th overall while partner Silveira was 13th.
Not every journey to the Games has taken a conventional route.
While most athletes in Beijing have dedicated their whole lives to their discipline, Benjamin Alexander stands out as a notable latecomer to his chosen sport.
As the Vancouver Games were taking place in 2010, Alexander was taking up a career as a professional DJ – a world away from winter sports.
In fact, it would still be another six years before he would even strap up his first ski boots as a 32-year-old still more concerned with the white sands of Ibiza than the white snow of the Alps.
The UK-born Alexander developed a passion for the sport and after starting to ski competitively, opted to represent Jamaica - the nation of his father - in an event in which they previously never had anyone compete.
'Hardest thing I've ever done' - Jamaica skier Alexander on 'inspiring others'
“For me it was never about winning,” he said afterwards. “I don’t want my achievements or my qualification to take anything away from the people who have been doing this for their entire life.
“But I want people to understand that you don’t have to come from wealth, you don’t have to be of a certain ethnicity, and you don’t even have to be born near mountains.
"I had none of the things that a normal ski racer has and I speak to you today as an Olympian who made history.”
For the snowboard cross legend, Beijing was an opportunity to make amends for a past mistake that has haunted her for years.
Multiple X Games and World Cup medals are more than enough to highlight Jacobellis’ status in the sport but few will forget her horrendous faux pas to miss out on gold in Turin in 2006.
In one of the most shocking moments at a Winter Games, the American had streaked clear of the rest of the field and looked to be cruising to a historic first gold medal in the event before attempting a celebratory grab on the penultimate jump and falling flat on her face.
This allowed Tanja Frieden of Switzerland to overtake her and win the race as Jacobellis could only finish second.