By Jeongyoon Han
In September, MPH parent Jill Walsh won two silver medals at the Rio Paralympics.Yet Walsh doesn’t flaunt her status. In fact, she keeps her medals in a closet. “She is not one to put things about herself,” said daughter Julia, a senior. “She’s one to focus on us.”
But when Walsh was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in fall 2010, life changed for the entire Walsh family. After months of ENT exams, MRI scans and other tests, doctors finally diagnosed Walsh’s vertigo, dizziness, and slight numbness in her limbs as relapsing-remitting MS. The disease can have mild to devastating impacts on the central nervous system and currently has no cure.
Walsh had played sports since high school and, as an adult, played club soccer and competed in triathlons. She was determined to continue.
“Initially, I just thought I would go on with my life,” Walsh, 53, said.
And for a while, she did, running with friends and training for her first Ironman triathlon. But her symptoms worsened when a major relapse in 2011 left her with bilateral foot drop, the inability to fully control both feet.
Other side effects ensued, such as difficulty with temperature changes, fatigue, hip pains, left-sided weakness and proprioception, or not being able to sense parts of her body in relation to the rest of it.
For Julia, watching her mother tackle these challenges was difficult.
“You don’t want to think of your parents as being anything besides super healthy,” said Julia, the youngest of three. “Sometimes it was kind of hard to see because she would get discouraged.”
But Walsh never stood idle in the midst of problems.
“Whatever situation is handed to me, I think I’m going to handle it with the same set of rules … the same criteria I used to handle things: ‘Okay, so this isn’t working; what do I have to do now?’ ”
With this mentality, she used different treatments for the symptoms: electric simulators, numerous leg braces, wearing a different shoe on each foot. Eventually, however, Walsh had to give up activities that became too difficult, such as triathlons. She continued cycling but struggled with balance: every time she slowed down to stop her bike, she fell over.
“I was pretty miserable because I thought my time riding a two-wheel bike was over,” Walsh said.
But at the 2013 Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Million Dollar Bike Ride in California, Walsh saw Paralympian Steven Peace riding an upright trike, a three-wheeled bicycle with a conversion axle in the rear. They got in touch, and Peace urged Walsh to race competitively in the parasport circuit. (“Para” stands for sports made “para”-llel to able-bodied athletics through adjustments).
With teenagers still in the house, Walsh was hesitant, but eventually gave it a try. After taking her last ride on a two-wheeled bike a few months earlier in the fall of 2013, she switched to trikes that following spring. Soon, Walsh was medalling in the Para National Championships and then at the World Championships.
By 2015, Walsh had already qualified to be part of the U.S. Rio Team; she prepped for the competition as she does for any other event, attending Rio training sessions, cycling four days a week, and spending two days each week working on core strength, balance and swimming.
And in the end, the work paid off, as she stood proudly during the medal ceremony after winning silver medals in the Rio Road Race and Time Trial events.
“When you have the Team USA uniform on,” she said. “and you’re standing there and you see our flag go up, you just feel so proud. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
Walsh’s trainer Ed Ten Eyck said she is one of the most humble yet competitive people he knows.
“Her work ethic and desire to not give in to MS and always find a way to stay active is amazing and inspiring,” he said in an email.
As is tradition, Walsh and the rest of the Olympians traveled to the White House after the Games. She got teary-eyed before it was her turn to shake hands.
“The President said, ‘Oo, you got a lot of bling,’ ” Walsh said. “Michelle gave me a great big hug, and of course, with Joe Biden, I said, ‘I’m from Syracuse,’ and he gave me a really big hug.”
But with the excitement from Rio starting to simmer down, Walsh is currently focusing on her activities in Syracuse: biking with local bike clubs and volunteering, including at the Campus Shop.
It all ties into her mantra to “live in the moment,” since she doesn’t know how MS will impact her life in the future.
“It’ll be a day [when] I can’t do this, but today’s not that day,” she said, “so I’m going to take advantage of it.”
With that, maybe she’ll take another spin at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.