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‘Until next time': A snowboarding champion’s life of fight, gratitude and love

2014 Paralympic Winter Games - Day 7

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MARCH 14: Gold medalist Bibian Mentel-Spee (C) of the Netherlands poses with silver medalist Cecile Hernandez Ep Cervellon (L) of France and bronze medalist Amy Purdy of the United States during the flower ceremony for the Women’s Para Snowboard Cross Standing on day seven of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center on March 14, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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Bibian Mentel, a Dutch Paralympic champion snowboarder who repeatedly beat cancer while the eminent figure of her sport, shared an update through her foundation on March 5.

The cancer returned, this time in her brain, and no treatment was possible. Doctors advised her to say goodbye to her loved ones.

“I still like to take every day as a beautiful moment,” Mentel, 48, said at the beginning of a national television interview last week, according to a translation. “That sounds cliché, but we’ve had -- in the past two weeks -- a lot of time to speak about everything with family and friends, and eventually you reach a point where you wonder, ‘Are there still things that need to be said?’ And I’m happy that I have not been taken from life from one day to the next, and that I have the chance to say those last things that you want to say to each other to my family and friends. Because of that, everything has actually been said. Now every day is a gift.”

In 2000, Mentel, a former law student, was on a path to making the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. It ended when bone cancer was found in her lower right leg, just above the ankle joint. Her leg was amputated below the knee.

“Although the doctors told me I would never snowboard again, I was determined to pick up my passion,” Mentel said in a 2018 Ted Talk. “And only seven months later, I was back on my snowboard, competing at the Dutch Championships and winning myself a gold medal.

“That day I did not only win a gold medal. No, I thought I had beaten cancer. But boy was I wrong.”

The cancer returned, again and again, and would not respond to chemotherapy. Mentel, in that Ted Talk, showed a timeline on a screen that listed five lung surgeries and two neck operations, plus radiation in her neck and rib areas.

Her husband, Edwin Spee, recently said she’s a 15-time cancer survivor who had 128 radiations (128 is also the number of gold medals she won, Mentel said in that Ted Talk.)

In 2016, doctors sent her home to her husband and three children with the message, “You’re probably going to die within a couple of years, and there’s nothing, really, we can do for you.”

“I had to tell my children that I was going to die,” she said in 2018. “But we always tell our children, no matter how bad the situation might look, never, ever let it ruin your future. That evening, we had a good cry. And we ended up in a restaurant celebrating life, and the next two months, I slept amazingly well, but my husband didn’t. He searched the internet for hours and hours trying to look for a solution. He found out there was a new way of radiation therapy. I underwent that therapy, and, look, I’m still here.”

She always returned to her passion in dominating fashion. In 2014, Mentel became the first Paralympic snowboarding champion, winning snowboard cross gold in Sochi.

It was a culmination after Mentel led the fight for the sport’s Paralympic inclusion, writing letters to the International Paralympic Committee and traveling the world with other riders to get the word out. During that time, Mentel started the Mentelity Foundation to create opportunities for young people who live with a physical or mental challenge.

“Let’s be honest, if I didn’t become sick [in 2000], if I didn’t lose my leg, I would never have been in para sports,” she said. “The fact that I gave others strength makes me proud.”

In 2018 in PyeongChang, she swept both snowboard events, snowboard cross and banked slalom. Those triumphs came two months after 16 hours of surgery to replace vertebrae with titanium to keep her from being paralyzed from the neck down.

“We all know you’re going to come back strong. You always have. You always do,” friend Amy Purdy, an American who shared the Paralympic podium with Mentel in 2014, said in her “Bouncing Forward” podcast interview with Mentel taped in December and published this week. “That just right there proved how badass you are.”

Mentel retired from competitive snowboarding in 2018. In 2019, she woke from a back surgery with no feeling in the lower part of her body. She couldn’t move her legs.

Bibian Mentel, Amy Purdy

Bibian Mentel (left) and American Amy Purdy. (via Amy Purdy)

Mentel was due to participate on the Dutch version of “Dancing with the Stars,” inspired by Purdy, who in 2014 became the first Paralympian on the U.S. version of the show. Mentel improvised, reaching the finals as the first-ever competitor in a wheelchair.

“The more and more people were telling me what I could not do, the more I wanted to prove them wrong,” Mentel said in 2018. “I still have never found anything yet [that] I cannot do because of the fact that I’m missing a leg.”

Mentel and Purdy are not only friends and competitors, but they also authored parallel lives.

Each cried watching the other on “Dancing with the Stars.” They both fought for Paralympic snowboarding inclusion, albeit based from different continents -- Purdy with her organization, Adaptive Action Sports. They both faced recent life challenges. Purdy underwent nine surgeries since 2019, when a massive blood clot was found in an artery in her left leg.

Mentel and Purdy, and their husbands, spoke for more than an hour in a WhatsApp video chat on Wednesday, sharing memories, laughs and tears.

“It’s hard to believe how incredibly grateful and positive this woman is, no matter what she’s facing,” Purdy said. “It doesn’t matter if she’s on the top of a Paralympic podium, she’s grateful and positive. It doesn’t matter if she has just weeks left to live. She literally has the same attitude and perspective on life.”

Mentel cherished that she wakes up with the warm sun on her face. Wakes up to her husband. And to hugs and kisses from her son and daughters every morning. She abides by the mantra, collect memories, not possessions. She was asked in the TV interview what she considered the meaning of life.

“That’s simple for me,” she answered. “It is love. Love in any form. For those close to you. For nature.”

A pier was named after her in the Netherlands. Mentel told Purdy that she is most proud of a playground, also named after her, that was built specifically for children with disabilities.

"[Mentel] said, ‘You know we’re still making memories, and I’m grateful for that,’” Purdy said. “Bibian reminded us, all that matters is what we have today. She said, ‘Look at us right now. I have love in my life. You guys have love in your life. We love each other. We’ve lived this incredible life side by side. What more can we ask for?’”

Purdy and her husband, Daniel, didn’t know if the conversation was a goodbye. They made sure to say everything and thank Mentel for being a role model in sport and outside of it. A Dutch reporter wrote last week that Mentel’s first name is derived from a word that means “life,” which she didn’t know until her husband recently mentioned it to her.

"[We] thanked her for being such an example of how to live and how to love and how to even die with grace,” Purdy said. “I think we should all aspire to live life in a way that she has.”

Purdy will never forget that hour together. Particularly the end.

“We don’t know how to say goodbye, and we don’t want to say goodbye,” she said. "[Mentel] said, ‘Well that’s why I don’t say goodbye. What I say is “until next time.”’ It was so fantastic. So that’s how we ended the conversation. ‘Until next time.’”