A FOUNDATION FOR A FUTURE OF SUCCESS AT THE PARALYMPICS – FACT 46 OF 50
Nancy Gustafson ’82, Sarah Billmeier ’95 and Thomas Walsh ’13 represent all that makes GMVS the unique place that it is as they each have overcome adversity, pursuing goals and dreams along the way, and displaying the type of grit, perseverance, and athleticism that is at the core of the GMVS student-athlete.
Gustafson began racing at age six near her home in Pittsfield, MA. When she was 19, she struck a lift tower during the 1985 NCAA Championships, partially paralyzing her left arm. The following year she won three races and the combined at the World Disabled Championships. Gustafson continued to pursue her passion and went on to win eight Olympic medals in four disciplines, at three different Olympic games: Albertville, France (1992), Lillehammer, Norway (1994), and Innsbruck, Austria (1998).
Gustafson went on to graduate from Colorado State University’s (CSU) College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999 before completing an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Her chosen career in Radiation Oncology led Gustafson back to academia in 2000 where she pursued advanced training at CSU. In 2003, she completed her residency training program in Radiation Oncology as well as receiving a Master’s degree (Mammalian Radiobiology). In 2004, Gustafson was an Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine while simultaneously spending additional time studying medical oncology. Gustafson then received her Master of Science in Medical Dosimetry from the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse. After a long career as a Veterinary Radiation Oncologist, she joined the Huntsman Cancer Hospital at the University of Utah in 2019 to treat humans. Gustafson met her husband in Park City, Utah and they were married in Nepal at the Tengboche monastery on their trek to Mount Everest Basecamp.
Each Paralympian has a unique story. For Sarah Billmeier, it started at the age of five when her left leg was amputated above the knee as a result of bone cancer. With bone cancer defeated, she learned to ski, on one leg, at age eight; she was racing by ten. Now, somewhere in the bottom of her closet, there is a shoebox containing 13 Olympic medals (seven Gold, five Silver, one Bronze) earned in four Paralympic Games (she shares the record for most medals won in four games; Billmeier earned hers in France, Norway, Japan and Salt Lake City). No doubt there is other hardware in the box as well, from her six World Championship titles, the first of which she won at age fourteen.
After graduating from GMVS in 1995, Billmeier went on to Dartmouth College, continuing to compete (and win), and developing herself as a whole person – recognizing that ski racing was just one temporary aspect of her life. She started whitewater paddling and rock climbing; she took art and literature classes. She traveled. In 2001, Billmeier graduated cum laude from Dartmouth, and, in 2002, she retired from ski racing in order to pursue the medical career she had long been planning at Harvard Medical School.
Billmeier is now a surgeon out of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center specializing in minimally invasive surgery.
Sarah Billmeier not only pursued her own dreams, but she also paved the way for others in similar situations. Eighteen years after Billmeier graduated from GMVS, Thomas Walsh did the same.
Walsh’s journey was a bit different, as he was scheduled to enter GMVS in the fall of 2009 at the age of 14, but days before he began, he was diagnosed with stage IV Ewing Sarcoma, a rare cancer in which cells are found in the bone and soft tissue. For the next year, Walsh endured countless surgeries going under anesthesia at least 30 times which included lung resections where tumors were removed from both of his lungs, as well as a pelvic resection where his primary tumor was removed. His pelvic resection is ultimately what classified him as an adaptive athlete due to his limb impairment.
After surviving cancer, Walsh, who thought skiing was a thing of the past, realized that his dreams of ski racing and attending GMVS were still alive when Headmaster Dave Gavett welcomed him in. Despite his physical limitations – reduced lung capacity and an impaired right leg – Walsh did all the things other kids did. He acted in three GMVS theater productions and competed against able-bodied athletes.
Walsh graduated from GMVS in 2013 and headed off to Savannah College of Art and Design to study performing arts, but he soon realized he could ski as an adaptive athlete. After a year of school, Walsh went on to continue to follow his ski racing dreams. Lessons of perseverance, determination, and grit learned from his time at GMVS served him well as he went after his dreams of becoming a professional ski racer. During his first year on the Paralympic circuit, he earned a spot on the US Paralympic Alpine National Team and has since earned multiple World Cup wins, a SL Crystal Globe, two World Championship bronze medals, and competed at the 2018 and 2022 Paralympic Games, earning a Silver Medal in 2022.
While continuing to primarily focus on his racing career, Walsh holds a BFA in performing arts as well as an MBA with a focus in marketing. He looks towards the coming seasons and aims to compete in the Milano-Cortina 2026 Winter Paralympic Games.
Together, Nancy Gustafson, Sarah Billmeier and Thomas Walsh are the epitome of what GMVS student-athletes can achieve with dedication, determination, and dreams. They each truly represent the very best of Green Mountain Valley School.