Bibian Mentel-Spee got a hug from her mom, who turned to others nearby saying “that’s my baby.”
Her son shed tears watching from the stands.
Mentel-Spee’s accomplishment at PyeongChang 2018 left her family proud. And that family extended to the snowboard community.
They knew about her cancer return prior to the 2017-18 season beginning, her radiation therapy and neck surgeries before the Paralympic Winter Games began in March.
Knowing that and watching Mentel-Spee come back to win two gold medals in the women’s SB-LL2 class left other snowboarders in awe.
“Bibian is such an amazing person,” US snowboarder Amy Purdy said. “She has gone through so much. She has fought through so much adversity. And she has been a leader in the sport.”
Purdy and Mentel-Spee were among the first field of riders to race at Sochi 2014, where the sport debuted in the Paralympics. Both are known as pioneers in growing the sport from the grass-root level.
“She has been able to hold on through everything she has been through,” Purdy said. “Whether she’s been her strongest or her weakest, she’s been able to represent the sport so beautifully. She is a good friend and I could not be more proud that she got those medals. She deserves it.”
Almost every off-season has been the same story for Mentel-Spee. In July – after she won double gold at the 2017 World Championships in Big White, Canada – her cancer returned again. It would mean another round of radiation therapy.
Unbeknownst after the therapy, there was a tumour in her neck that she would need surgery in January, less than two months of training for PyeongChang.
Purdy herself understands the difficulty in returning to a high level after long stays in the hospital. In late 2016 she was hospitalised due to rhabdomyolysis — a breakdown of muscle tissue that releases a damaging protein into the bloodstream — but returned in time for the 2017 Worlds.
“No idea [how Bibian pulled it off],” Purdy said. “She just had neck surgery. And I thought you have to have confidence, and we’re all scared to fall but then she’s still healing from her neck surgery.
“But she told me she a lot of people are asking me why on earth I would want to come out and do this after neck surgery and she said well I needed to do physical therapy anyways so why not come out and ride. And she’s also said to be that snowboarding keeps her alive.”
Mentel-Spee returned to training with her team that include Finnish snowboarder Matti Suur-Hamari in February.
“She has been going through so many rough things through the season,” Suur-Hamari said. “this is amazing for Bibian. This is just amazing. Two gold medals after all those things.”
Dutch rider Lisa Bunschoten, 22, was Mentel-Spee’s strongest competitor in PyeongChang, taking silver in snowboard-cross and bronze in banked slalom, and reflected a similar amazement.
“Her comeback is really strong,” she said of Mentel-Spee. “I think it is good for the sport to show that everything is possible.”