Imagine life as a young child living in Puerto Rico and taking family ski vacations two weeks each year to Beaver Creek equipped with a private ski instructor. These are certainly the moments that dreams are made of, exchanging sand castles for a snowy slope for family fun. But fast forward not once, but twice for the Flaherty family, who splits their life between their full-time residence in Puerto Rico and a home in Edwards, Colorado to take these precious memories, dream big, and produce two sons who represent who represent the US territory of Puerto Rico at the Olympics! That is the story for Charles Flaherty who paved the way to an appearance at Pyeongchang in 2018 and his younger brother William who is heading off to Beijing, China to represent Puerto Rico in 2022.
For Charles it was an extraordinary path. But for William the journey is riddled with so many more twists and turns that most of us cannot even imagine overcoming, and is truly beyond extraordinary. To take you back quite a few years, a typical Midwestern family is tackling the day-to-day joys and challenges of raising two young sons in suburbia. A day comes along when Ann Flaherty notices that the whites of her 5-year-old son William’s eyes have gone yellow. On a moment’s notice, life takes an unexpected turn with William facing a life threatening illness that will alter his life and the life of each member of his family from that point forward.
Older brother Charles steps forward to donate the much-needed bone marrow transplant that saves William’s life. William lives on, embracing what the cards of life have dealt him. This article could dwell on the trauma of this life changing childhood illness, but it will not, because William does not and nor does his family.
Fast forward to the winter of 2014-2015, with William in remission, and the Flaherty family finding themselves spending five months living in the Vail Valley and William and Charles joining Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. They had learned all that they could from Mike Williams, their long time ski instructor in Beaver Creek, (and ironically the grandfather of an SSCV ski racing alumna) who encouraged them to take on ski racing as their next on-snow challenge.
Charles went on to train with a private ski coach after a year in SSCV’s Youth Ski League Program to more quickly close the skills gap that exists when someone takes on ski racing at an older age than the typical SSCV athlete. But William was only 10 years old at the time and he fully embraced his experience as a first year U12 at SSCV, making many new friends and growing stronger and healthier with each dryland session and each turn on snow. “The physical impact that the sport had on Williams’ still healing body was incredible, with bone marrow densities skyrocketing, William’s stamina coming back and his mental fortitude an inspiration to the entire family”, said William’s mom Ann.
The Flaherty family took well to mountain living, and William and his brother Charles began to dream beyond the two week ski vacations in Beaver Creek. They dreamed the biggest dream one can dream in the sport of ski racing, to represent Puerto Rico, in the pinnacle of their sport at the Olympics.
However, please know that just because you live in Puerto Rico and you ski race does not mean you get to compete in the Olympics. There are FIS points to be chased and criteria to be met. There are Olympic federations to be formed. And these are just tip of the iceberg of what every member of the Flaherty contributed to in the boys competing in the Olympics. More importantly, there are years and years and hours and hours, beyond counting, to the work that needs to be put in to becoming an Olympian, regardless of where you are from. Charles and William did just that. William was a spectator at the last Olympics, cheering Charles on from the sidelines. Now William is about to be on the big stage.
If you know William, you know that he is a kind, levelheaded, quiet leader who balances life between two countries, two homes, two sets of friends and the lingering physical side effects that crop up from the things his body fought off as a child. Corrective surgeries are not foreign to Will nor are ongoing measures to keep his energy in balance and his mental state positive. The family has gone through a lot, including losing their dad suddenly a few years back. But William’s constant smile and that trademark, playful giggle, whether working hard to maintain his straight A average in his online school (which he supplements with Winter Tutorial while in Vail in the winters), beating down gates on Golden Peak or working hard in the gym, are the signs of a true winner.
William stated, “A lot of what I have accomplished in life is about “stick-to-it-ness” as he phrased it. I have made great friends both here and in Puerto Rico and they have supported me in every step of my journey and for that I am very grateful.”
When asked what is next after the Olympics, William stated, “I will do a few more races, including Junior Worlds, finish off my senior year, have another surgery that was delayed until after the ski season because it involves removing a bone from my leg and relocating it to my jaw, take a gap year and then head off to college.”
Oh, is that all one might ask? Well, no, not really. “My goal is to become an aerospace engineer. I have developed a love for skiing and it will always be a passion of mine, but it will be time to hang up my GS suit and race skis and join the world of recreational skiers.”
William and his mom have spent the past several weeks sequestered to avoid the risks of contracting COVID-19 before the Olympics. “With William’s compromised auto-immune system this has been a challenging couple of years to navigate, but we are almost at the finish line, heading off to Beijing, China in a few short days.”
Regardless of the results in Beijing, William is a gold medalist in every sense of the word!