Bryan Fletcher traveled long, winding road from cancer survivor to Sochi Olympian

Bryan Fletcher traveled long, winding road from cancer survivor to Sochi Olympian

The drive from Steamboat Springs to Denver is winding and beautiful. Down from the mountains along Rabbit Ears Pass and into the city, it's a three-hour trip U.S. Olympic skier Bryan Fletcher made with his parents countless times as a child. They drove before dawn, through blizzards, and after nightfall.

"I can do that drive with my eyes closed," he said.

So can his father Tim.

For Tim, the drive is even more meaningful and poignant. There were many times he and ex-wife Penny took the family Ford minivan from Steamboat to Denver, parked in a familiar garage and coaxed their little boy into a building where there would be grownups in white coats and needles and pain.

Bryan was 3 when he started getting headaches. He started bruising easily, too. Penny worried the symptoms might be from roughhousing with his dad. His parents took Bryan in for tests and Tim will never forget getting the call at the cement company where he worked summers.

Bryan had a blood disorder, the doctors said, and Tim made that long drive from Steamboat to find out what was going on. Penny and Bryan flew in ahead of him. Tim took the elevator to the fourth floor of a medical building and the doors opened to reveal a sign he didn't expect to see: "Oncology."

"That," Tim said, "was a rough night."

Bryan had leukemia and would need chemo treatments for many years. And that was in the best-case scenario.

"When I first found out about it, I thought it was a death sentence," Tim said.

Bryan doesn't remember much from that time. Not long after he began treatment, he had a stroke that took a chunk of his memory.

"Just bits and pieces," Bryan said by phone. "I remember walking in the hospital corridor behind my parents and the doctors. I remember trying to hear what they were saying to each other, and wondering if it was good news or bad news."

For a while, there wasn't much good news. Bryan needed grueling procedures, including spinal taps, as he grew older.

"It was just excruciating," Tim said. "You'd hang onto him as he screamed. The pain was so severe."

One night at home, with Bryan "full of steroids," according to Tim, the boy ate a big dinner, went to bed and woke up with most of his hair missing.

"What can you tell your kid," Tim said, "other than you love 'em?"

Bryan had to go to his first day of kindergarten with a bald head, and that made him nervous. But everyone he knew loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so he went to school with his head painted green and an outfit to match. The other kids loved it.

Throughout the ordeal, the Fletchers had some important things going for them: They had good attitudes, they had good care and they had skiing.

Tim has worked ski patrol at Steamboat for decades, and he put both Bryan and little brother Taylor on the mountain very early in life. They both loved it. For Bryan, skiing was an escape and a reward for those long trips to Denver for treatment. Even in the worst of times, Bryan was on his skis, slathered in the thickest sunblock, per doctor's orders.

There were extended stays at the Ronald McDonald House in Denver, but whenever the Fletchers got back to Steamboat, they got back on the mountain.

"I don't think he ever stopped skiing," Tim said. "It was a nice release for him."

Doctors were concerned about Bryan being too fragile to ski, but it was the sport that kept him going.

"Whenever I got into the car, I just thought about listening to the doctor," Bryan said. "So I knew what I had to do to get healthy and get back to skiing."

The sooner the drive to Denver was over, the sooner the drive back to the mountain could begin.

Eventually, Bryan got healthy. And he got very good at skiing. Specifically, jumping.

Steamboat has one of the country's few jumping facilities, and Bryan's parents enrolled him and Taylor in the town's learn-to-jump program even before they started grade school. Tim was no world-class ski jumper, but every year at the local winter carnival, he would take off down the jump and leap through a flame-lit loop at the end. He would hold highway flares as he did it, too.

"For a few seconds," he said laughing, "you can't see a thing."

Bryan would eventually do the same thing, but he spent his time jumping for more than just entertainment. By age 16, only six years after his cancer went into remission, he was good enough to compete at an elite level in Nordic Combined. The training – 30 hours per week that included long cross-country runs – was nothing compared to those drives to Denver.

By 2010, Bryan had a shot at the Olympics, but an injured ankle cost him his chance at Vancouver. There was a sweet twist, though – the last spot ended up going to Taylor, who brought home a silver medal in the team event. Bryan spent the next four years recommitted to making the U.S. team and speaking to children with cancer about having a positive attitude and chasing goals.

This week, Bryan qualified for the Sochi Games. So did Taylor. Bryan is one of the world's top jumpers and Taylor is a cross-country standout. They are the seventh set of siblings on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, and their parents (now divorced) are overwhelmed.

"To have both your kids as Olympians, you can't be more proud," Tim said. "In your wildest dreams, would you ever think I'd even be traveling to Russia? That in itself is crazy."

Not as crazy as the winding road the Fletchers took to get there. Next week, Tim Fletcher will get in his car in Steamboat and make that three-hour drive to Denver. After so many miles of dread, with a hospital waiting in the distance, this trip brings an airport and the kind of excitement only an Olympic parent can know.