Max Parrot was gearing up for another season at the top of snowboarding when he felt the lump in his neck.
“I had to stop everything to fight,” he said.
That was three years ago.
On Monday, the 27-year-old Canadian slopestyler’s ride back to the top ended with an Olympic gold medal — capping the sort of stirring comeback that reminds us why we forgive so many of the Olympic world's sins to get to the drama the Games inevitably deliver.
A few weeks after first feeling the lump — and 10 months after finishing second at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics — Parrot was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He underwent 12 chemotherapy treatments over the span of six months.
“I went through hell," said Parrot, who started riding when he was 9. “It was the first time I ever put my snowboard in the closet. I felt like a lion in a cage.”
Clearly, for an athlete of his caliber — this was his 15th title at the Olympics, World Cup or Winter X Games — getting back to snowboarding meant more than gentle rides through the backcountry. In the sport’s biggest contest on one of the biggest courses these riders had ever seen, Parrot showed he could handle the best of the best.
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His victory run was a unique ride through the rails buffeted by ice-formed replicas of sections of the Great Wall, followed by three straight triple-corked jumps off the massive kickers. The highlight was the second jump. He approached the kicker from an angle instead of straight on — nobody else tried that — and flipped backward for 1440 degrees of spin, then stomped the landing.
“By far, the biggest run of my entire career,” he said.
The little extras — longer hand grabs, that cool angle — earned him a score of 90.96 and was enough to separate him by a narrow 2.26 points over 17-year-old Su Yiming of China. Su threw the day's biggest trick — a triple cork 1800 — and turned a home game into a celebration for the first Chinese man to win a snowboarding medal.
“I thought, the dream just came through and here I am on the podium with my idols,” Su said. “I can’t believe this just happened.”
His other idol was Mark McMorris, the Canadian snowboard star who finished third and now has three bronze medals — “rose gold,” his brother, Craig, calls them — in three Olympics.
McMorris went into his final run in fourth place, and when he finished — a big-and-smooth trip except for a tiny bobble at the top on the rails — he threw his board to the ground in a “job-well-done” sort of fashion.
Two minutes passed and the score came up, and McMorris jammed the board into the ground, this time more irked than happy. He was on the podium, but not where he thought he’d be.
“The three of us rode the best today. Where are those positions? I need to watch all the runs back and then I'll be able to make a better call,” said McMorris, who nearly died five years ago in a backcountry snowboarding crash. “But a lot of times there are mishaps. I’ve won when I shouldn’t have, and I've been in third and second when I should have won.”
McMorris’ run knocked the defending champion, Red Gerard, off the podium completely, extending a miserable day for the United States on the mountain. Gerard’s fourth-place finish came a few hours after Mikaela Shiffrin missed a gate and was disqualified from her best event, the giant slalom, on the Alpine course.
“There’s nothing you can really complain about and I don’t want to be a judge or anything,” Gerard said. “There were a lot of landed runs out there, and it’s hard. But yeah, I would’ve liked to have been up there for sure."
But all agreed — it was hard to begrudge Parrot this one.
“Max beat (expletive) cancer,” McMorris said, “and it’s pretty sick to see him do well. And he didn’t come to any slopestyle this year. It’s not his strong suit. Big air is, and he just won slopestyle today."
Of Parrot’s 15 major titles, 11 have come in big air. He’ll have a chance for another medal in that event on Feb. 15.
Slopestyle, big air — doesn't matter to Parrot. The main point: He's out there riding again.
According to the American Cancer Society, nearly nine in 10 people diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma have a five-year survival rate. As a young, healthy elite athlete, it's no miracle that Parrot not only survived, but is thriving again.
Still, there's a lesson in his journey — and the gold medal is almost a sure guarantee that more people will be listening.
“It definitely changed me as a person, and as an athlete, as well,” Parrot said. “As a person, I used to take life for granted before and I don’t anymore. So, every time I strap on my snowboard, I appreciate it so much more than before. I appreciate being able to do my passion every day.”