‘Courage means to go beyond your comfort zone’

Last edited: 26 February 2016

What does the definition of ‘courage’ mean to you? Meet the Dutch Paralympic snowboarder who is returning to top-level competition four months after cancer surgery and has won a BP award for her courage over many years

As a mother, professional snowboarder and charity founder, Bibian Mentel-Spee is a busy woman. After eight years championing her sport for inclusion in the winter Paralympic programme, she scooped the first ever gold medal for snowboarding in 2014 at the Sochi Paralympic Games. 

When she set out on her career though, Bibian expected to compete at the Winter Olympic Games. That all changed when she received news that a seemingly minor ankle injury was, in fact, bone cancer. As a result, Bibian underwent the amputation of her lower leg in 2001 and 15 years later, she has been treated seven times for the disease.

While recovering from surgery to remove cancer from her lung, Bibian won the Courage Award presented by BP at the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) Sport and Media awards. Now, less than four months later, she is back competing on the IPC Snowboard World Cup circuit and has won six competitions out of six.

I simply love snowboarding – that’s what keeps me motivated through the setbacks...

All the other riders are an inspiration to me as well; everyone has their own story. I like to compete and push myself to the next level. That’s what keeps me going – progression, not just in my own skills but in the sport itself. It’s important to encourage others to ride, or do anything that they think they’re not capable of after an injury or due to a disability.

For me, courage means to go beyond your comfort zone...

That’s not always just about yourself either. You can push yourself for the sake of others as well. It’s about daring to improve beyond what you believed possible. I say, 'let’s look at the possibilities, instead of the disabilities'. I’m really honoured to receive the BP Courage Award from the International Paralympic Committee.

After my amputation, I never considered quitting...

It didn’t cross my mind to give up snowboarding. I competed at the X Games in 2000. There, I saw a guy riding jumps and doing incredibly well. Later that day, he happened to sit down beside me, rolled up his pants and removed a prosthetic leg. My jaw dropped; I had no idea. That episode turned out to be eight months before my own amputation. Afterwards, I remembered the moment – it was as if I was meant to see it.

Four months after losing my leg, I got back on a board...

Honestly, it was painful. I was still in my rehabilitation programme and walking with crutches, as I’d only just had a prosthesis fitted. My former teammates invited me to join them in Switzerland. One day, I was dropped off at the bottom of the half-pipe and someone asked if I wanted to try. I hadn’t even brought my board – I remember thinking, this is crazy, but I strapped on the bindings and just went a little way on the flat. The next day, I climbed up a bit, and the next day, further still.

I had won the gold medal before I even raced in Sochi...

It had nothing to do with beating the competition, but we’d spent eight years trying to get snowboarding into the Paralympic programme. To finally have our sport on show to the world meant even competing was such a delight. Winning the gold was like the cherry on the pie – that will always be amazing for any athlete, but when it all came together, it was the absolute highlight of my career.

There is a lot to juggle with my sport, health, charity and family...

I’m always a mum first – I want to be there for our kids and spend as much time with them as possible. There’s lots of planning involved with being an athlete and I find the work of my charity, the MentelityFoundation, so inspirational that I make time for it. My husband, Edwin, is my coach and manager, so that makes things easier, as the two of us try to squeeze everything in.

I’ve never found anything that I wasn’t capable of doing because of my leg...

Often it’s other people who tell you that you’re not ‘able’ to do things. I set up my charitable foundation in 2012 to encourage as many children and young adults as possible with a physical disability to compete in sport. They have their whole lives ahead of them and need to know there are no restrictions.

I’m back competing now and my focus is to defend my Paralympic title in 2018...

For the first six weeks after my lung surgery, I stayed in bed recovering from the operation. I was invited to the X Games in Aspen at the end of January, as the only woman competing against the guys but although I did the training runs, I wasn’t ready to go for it. I’m really excited to be back on snow and all paths head towards the Winter Paralympic Games in two years’ time. You need to have a dream!

In the spotlight: supporting Paralympic sport

BP is an international partner of the International Paralympic Committee, the global governing body of the Paralympic Movement. The business also partners National Paralympic Committees in 10 countries and supports 26 world-class athletes.

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