Behind the Gold: Learning to Thrive
November 4, 2015
As Bryan Fletcher battled for the lead at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships last March in Sweden, his mind kept racing back to the day as a six-year-old cancer victim in Steamboat Springs when he finally convinced mom to let him ski jump. Fletcher finished fifth in Falun — another milestone to go with his 2012 King's Cup win, the 2013 World Championships team bronze and competing at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
As proud as he is of those accomplishments as a Nordic Combined athlete, it pales when he thinks of it in perspective to his being a childhood cancer survivor.
"Personally I think my whole career to me has been a question of 'how far will I be able to take this,'" said Fletcher, now 29. He remains cognizant every day that 15,000 more kids will be diagnosed with cancer this year. Somehow, through years of treatment, he was able to beat it and become a best-in-the-world Olympic athlete.
"It is tremendously humbling, because I know when I was going through cancer, all I wanted to be was a normal kid," said Fletcher. "To see where I am today makes me realize that I got so much more than to be just a normal kid. I was lucky to grow up in Steamboat where the community is so supportive, where one of the best winter sports clubs in the world is based. I was lucky to have the family that worked so hard to allow me the opportunities to enter skiing."
Now, Fletcher wants to give back. This summer, he and another childhood cancer survivor, Gavin Shamis, a junior luge champion, have formed ccThrive, a non-profit designed to build awareness that childhood cancer survivors can, indeed, thrive.
"ccThrive is about keeping the passions and ambitions alive in all children with cancer and helping these kids realize their full potential once off treatment," said Fletcher. "It doesn't matter what their dreams are. We are here to help kids who want to do their best."
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In 2011, eight-year-old Gavin Shamis was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia — the same disease Fletcher survived. That began more than two years of daily chemo. Shamis swam to remain active. Then, he found luge, and last year, he was named to the USA Luge Junior National Team. He has his sights set on Beijing 2022.
In summer 2014, Fletcher met Shamis, and the idea for ccThrive was born.
"A few months after making the luge team, I met Bryan, who also had leukemia when he was a kid," said Shamis. "We decided we wanted every kid who survived cancer to have the opportunity to thrive."
Shamis and Fletcher were then joined by two more amazing childhood cancer survivors: Lacey Henderson, an adaptive track and field athlete, and Melinda Marchiano, an accomplished dancer.
ccThrive launched this summer offering three elements — the inspirational stories of ccThrive to build advocacy, mentoring to help kids achieve goals and a grant program to help those with financial needs to achieve their dreams.
As a skier, Fletcher knows full well the importance of raising money for a cause — his own athletic career. Now, he's added the passion of fundraising to help kids.
A lot about life emanates from fate.
"If I was not in the right place at the right time, who knows where I would have ended up after my cancer diagnosis," said Fletcher.
His mother, Penny, also loves to tell the ski-jump story. Sure, the doctor said young Bryan shouldn't be undertaking the risk of ski jumping. But every day on the way to chemo, they drove by the jumps. And as important as his health and well-being were, so was his happiness.
Ski jumping put a smile on his face.
In a few weeks, Fletcher will join younger brother, Taylor, in packing his bags for the winter — off to Ruka, Finland, to start the World Cup tour. Still, every time he slides out onto the bar at the top of a ski jump and looks out over the frozen tundra, he will think to himself, 'What a lucky young man I've been.'
Ski jumping still puts a smile on his face. And, thanks to ccThrive, it will put a smile on the faces of thousands of other childhood cancer survivors.
ccThrive was established this summer through the Tides Foundation in San Francisco to help childhood cancer survivors. Each day, dozens of children are diagnosed with cancer, and their worlds are shattered. The reality of childhood cancer is that some children will not survive, but the vast majority who will survive have the potential to lead amazing lives. There is no reason for them to lose the fire to try. To learn more, visit ccThrive.org.