Bibian Mentel, first European female snowboarder invited to X-games and Paralympic games gold medalist. In-between she experienced a lot in life: on the point of qualifying for the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, a minor ankle injury proved to be bone cancer, leading to amputation of your lower leg. Today her Foundation helps disabled children to enjoy life fully as their peers without disabilities. Just a 20 minutes interview with her was such an inspiring experience for me that I will remember it for the rest of my life.
What sport in general means to you?
Sport is a red line of my life. It is my life. Sport gives me everything, my energy, and I can put everything in sport: my frustration, my anger, joy and happiness. I just need to play a sport. I try to do it everyday. For example, last two weeks were quite busy for me and I was really grumpy. I just grabbed my mountain bike. In Holland, we cycle a lot, and I have my mountain bike and road bike, so in those moments, I just grab one of my bikes and go for an hour and a half and put all of my energy out.
How do you choose sport regarding your mood?
If I am sad and I feel a little bit down, I usually grab my bike. It helps me to clear my mind and also to focus. If I have to give a speech, I go on a bike to clear my mind and to talk to myself. I don’t really change my sports disciplines in last 20 years, but I like to try new sports. My passion is board sport, like wake boarding, snowboarding, I like skateboarding too, but I am hardly able to do that, although it is fun. Those kinds of sport give me a lot of energy. I also do fitness for the strength.
How can sport help people to focus on possibilities and not limitations?
Sport is such a lesson of life. By just exploring if you are capable of. It makes you realise that in my case if I am capable of snowboarding, I can grab something from a shelf in a kitchen as well. Sport shows you that you are capable of so many things. Within sport you learn how to win and lose, make new friends, and it really is such a big lesson of life.
What is the role of snowboarding in your life?
Snowboarding is my passion. I just love it. I love the feeling of making turns and that special feeling of standing on my snowboard brings me really positive energy.
When your passion with snowboarding started?
My parents took me to ski when I was three years old. I skied for about 16 years. I had a boyfriend at that time and he never went on a winter sports holiday until then. After his first winter holidays where he tried snowboarding he came back to Holland and told me: “It was fantastic, you should try it. It is a way much better than skiing.“ We were never fighting except for that. Then we made a deal: if he goes for a skiing for a week with me, I will try snowboarding. When I tried it, I never went on skies again. He is still making fun of me. He always says to me: “Oh, you are that skier, aren’t you?”
What happened with your passion for snowboarding when you were diagnosed of bone cancer?
I’d never thought I would never snowboard again. Last season I was competing in professional snowboarding, I was first Dutch invited to X-games in the US and during my training in the US, I met really good snowboarder, kicking really big jumps. He came down, took off his snowboard and he walked away and I saw he was not walking correctly. You know injuries are quite often in snowboarding. Later that evening he came sitting next to me in the hotel and he just pulled off an artificial leg and put it next to the couch. I was really surprised. I was just totally amazed. After that he explained me how he lost his leg in a snowboarding accident. This was approximately 8 or 10 months before I lost my leg. Meeting him I never doubted that I would snowboard again. If he can do it, I can do it as well. If I am honest meeting him was like a message for me. I needed to meet him.
People are unsatisfied with many little things in their every day instead of being grateful for the things we have. What would be your advice to focus on good not bad things happening around us?
You can always see a glass half empty or half full. I always see it half full. Life for me is a true inspiration. I love life so much that I will never quit. There are so many beautiful things in life. If it doesn’t go on the left side, I will try on the right side and in some way, I will make a progress. If you follow your passion, you will manage to find your way somehow.
Where do you find your motivation for going through hard times?
I was raised by a very positive mum and she always told me how to see the sunshine behind the clouds. I think that is the most she gave to me. I love life so much that I will never quit trying. There are too many beautiful things in life that I want to experience. In some way, I will find the path to bring my passion out.
You achieved one of your biggest goals, winning the gold medal in Sochi. What are your plans for the future?
A couple of months ago I confirmed to IOC that I am going to continue for Paralympic games inPyeongchang in South Korea. I also hope we will have a lot of children at our camps. This is my the most important mission in my life.
The feeling among Paralympic athletes seems more relaxed than between Olympic athletes. What can the later learn from Paralympics?
That is the hardest question I think. We all know that Olympic athletes earn much more money and in the whole machinery of the sport, it is much more money involved. Paralympic athletes do sport because we just love it so much. I believe Olympic athletes love the sport as much as we do, but they need to think about many other things as well. The level of competition at Paralympic disciplines is getting higher and higher. With that, the pressure becomes as well. For the future time, I believe Paralympic athletes will become more similar to Olympic athletes, but it will take a little while to come there. Olympic athletes know how to suffer for the sport, but they struggle more with facing other challenges in life.
How have your fans changed after you became Paralympic athlete?
I think there is not such a big difference. Snowboarding, in general, is more than a sport, it is more lifestyle. It is a bit rebellious, living life to the edge. I had that lifestyle when I was competing in snowboarding before and it helped me a lot during my illness.
All my friends who supported me before, are still my fans. Many friendships I made before and today we don’t compete at the same places are still alive. Although we don’t see each other so often, we support each other. When we ride together, it is not about that I am disabled and they are not, it is just about enjoying the riding.
Did your illness also shape your business career?
Yes, absolutely. The way I live my life and how I look on the bright side of life help me in my business life as well and helping me to make right decisions. Basically, I try to follow my heart and my passion. I learnt that any decision I make, it is a good decision.
Why did you decide to create your own Foundation?
I realised that sport is a really important and positive thing in my life. With the experiences, I had as an athlete and also as a handicapped person I can help other people. Then I decided to set up my own foundation. A lot of people were asking me how did I rehabilitate, how I came back to snowboard and also how I can wear flip flops in summer. Really basic things. For me, those things were really easy to achieve, but I realised it is not the same for all people facing similar problems.
The main goal of my foundation is to inspire and stimulate kids and to show them they can have much more in life. We change their perception that they can do sports, especially board sports: snowboarding, wake boarding etc. We organise clinics and a lot of them come to us with words: We saw that on TV, we are not sure if we can do that, but we just want to try it. At clinics, they don’t feel awkward and they try it for a half an hour, make their first turn on a snowboard or few metres on a wakeboard. They smile all the time and it is so great to see that. The funny thing is when they realise that if they can snowboard or wakeboard they can also climb the stairs at home or get something from the top shelf. For me to see other people grow is the biggest reward and gives me so much energy. That’s why I love my work.
Do you also work with adult disabled people?
Yes, we do, but most of the time we work with children. I have a friend who became disabled when she was 7 years old. And all her family always want to protect her. That’s normal, but it was not always good for her. You know they always wanted to do it instead of her: let me do it that and that for you, maybe it is dangerous etc. Now she is 24 years old and we started to train for the Paralympic games and she barely missed it. When we started to train I showed her an exercise, squad exercise, because you need your legs to be strong. The first thing she told me was “I can’t do a squat, because I am in a wheelchair.” I said I can do it, so you should be able to do it as well. Then she tried and after 5 minutes she was doing it. And then at home, she tried to do other stuff as well. She is not only progressing as an athlete but also as a person.
We start with children because they are at the beginning of their life. The whole life is in front of them. The adult are also welcome and we do clinics with them, but our focus is on children.
Is it harder to work with adults than children?
Yes, sometimes really. You know why? Because they already know: I can’t do that, that’s too hard for me. And they are so convinced by themselves that it is hard to change their mind. And children are just like: OK, we will try. And when they try, they know that they can do so much more.
It is 14 years since I lost my leg and in that time, I haven’t found a thing that I can’t do because of missing my leg.
You lost your leg when you were 27 years old. You were an adult at that time.
When I lost my leg I already knew who I am and how to handle and cope with it. And as I said I have a really positive mum. She always accepts my choices and she is always there for me. That’s the reason I was able to develop myself and be convinced that nothing really changed. In my opinion, when I was amputated I thought: this is what happened to me, I wouldn’t choose but I still want to enjoy life. And the only way I can do that is to accept myself. And to accept the fact that I lost my leg. So, I started just trying. And it turned out that I can still snowboard and all other things I love doing.
About Bibian Mentel:
Babian Mentel started her snowboard career in 1993. She gave up her law school study in Amsterdam to focus on snowboarding entirely. Is 1996 she participated in her first FIS Snowboard World Cup competition.
During a practise run for the championships in Breckenridge, she suffered an injury to her ankle. She completed the season, however, the ankle remained a source of concern. X-rays showed a spot on her tibia which was diagnosed as a malign bone tumour. The tumour was removed and Mentel started training for the 2002 Winter Olympics for which she was qualified. Soon it became clear that the tumour had regrown and had a chance of spreading to the rest of her body via her blood. She chose to agree to have her leg amputated.
4 months after the amputation she was able to ride a snowboard again, despite being unable to walk using crutches. The following January she was asked to present the trophy at the Dutch championships halfpipe. She decided to join the Dutch championships snowboard cross which she won.
In 2013, Bibian Mentel qualified for the 2014 Winter Paralympics. At the opening ceremony, she was the flag-carrier for the Netherlands. She won the Paralympic gold medal in the snowboard cross event.