No Mountain High Enough: Laurel Springs Student and Transplant Survivor William Flaherty Takes Alpine Skiing to Olympic Level
Whether things happen due to fate, randomosity, or luck will depend on who you ask. A person of faith may liken their good fortune to prayer and miracles, while others may grant good karma the credit for theirs. Others yet may accept their highs and lows as complete rolls of the dice, while their counterparts believe their ebbs and flows were an etched-in-stone destiny since the day they were born.
Despite whatever it is that determines the way the cookie crumbles for you, everyone faces a common challenge when the going gets tough: staying positive. And the Flaherty family has that down pat.
December 31, 2007
It was a typical wintry day in Boston: mid-30s, gray skies, a blustery 20 mph wind. Future Laurel Springs School student and Olympic athlete William Flaherty was a toddler on vacation with his family for the holiday when his mother, pediatric nurse Ann Flaherty, noticed yellowing in the corner of William’s eyes.
The Flahertys rushed home to Ohio to go to a familiar hospital, battling flight delays and a broken-down car to get their youngest son to the emergency room. William’s symptoms were puzzling: blood work indicated leukemia, but with unexplained jaundice and liver damage. In the middle of the night, the toddler was admitted to the hospital, where he would remain for many battles to come.
William spent six weeks hospitalized, dependent on transfused platelets and red blood cells to survive. During his stay, he was diagnosed with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), a rare, aggressive, and often fatal disease where the immune system attacks the body’s organs. In William specifically, his immune system targeted his liver and bone marrow.
William was put on a slew of steroids, antivirals, antibiotics, and antifungals, as well as chemotherapy. During a clinic visit, he was overdosed with a nearly-fatal amount of Amphotericin, an intense antifungal medicine that almost destroyed William’s kidneys.
The young boy nearly needed a kidney transplant, for which his older brother, Charles, was the prime candidate to donate. While William’s kidneys healed enough on their own to avoid transplant, the 3-year-old still needed his older brother’s help.
William was given a 10 percent chance of living if he didn’t receive a bone marrow transplant. Potential donors are tested on 10 different criteria, with at least eight of the 10 needed for a match. Charles’s bone marrow matched in all 10 categories.
Without Charles, Ann recalls, they would have had to try to find a stranger through the bone marrow registry, a process that relies on hope to find the appropriate match.
“There are some very successful survivors after non-family transplants, but there’s a lot of ones that don’t survive. I don’t want to think about what could have happened if we didn’t have Charles,” Ann says.
Charles and William’s transplant went without a hitch in April 2008, but new challenges for William were only just beginning.
The Boy in a Bubble
William needed chemotherapy and steroids. But, after his transplant was successful, his immune system had been devastatingly compromised by the treatments. It took months for his immune system to fully recover, and during that time Ann says her son had “bubble boy disease,” where he would have a hard time fighting off even small viruses on his own.
A decade and a half later, William has had to fight harder than most for good health. He’s battled scoliosis, celiac disease, benign tumors, and holes in his bones. He will forever be missing one-third of his immune system. Common viruses that cause sniffles and coughs in immunotypical people almost always require medical assistance for William. He struggled with chronic fatigue and was osteopenic (loss of bone density) in the years after his transplant. He was also in full isolation during the worst of the COVID pandemic.
So how do you overcome obstacles when they’re literally a part of you—a part of your body? After all his medical challenges, William hardly sounds like a person suited to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics next month in Beijing—but here he is, defying odds, and representing one of the nations least likely to send an athlete to Beijing for alpine skiing: Puerto Rico.
The Move to Puerto Rico
The Flahertys moved to the island territory when William was six for his father’s work. Puerto Rico’s white sand beaches and bathtub temperature waters are far from the ideal place to train as a skier, which is where Laurel Springs School comes into play for William. He tried to attend local Puerto Rican schools for two years but, needing flexibility, switched to Laurel Springs halfway through third grade.
Laurel Springs provides us the flexibility to travel back and forth between Colorado and Puerto Rico,” William explains. “During the winters for about five to six months every year, we go to Colorado so I can train.”
William is not the first Puerto Rican to make it to the five-ring level in alpine skiing; in fact, he’s not even the first Flaherty to do so. His older brother Charles competed in PyeongChang’s 2018 Winter Olympics for the same sport.
“During the time Charles was preparing for the 2018 Olympics, I was just training for the fun of it,” William says. “And then when he went to the Olympics, I was like ‘oh yeah, that looks really cool. I want to do that.’”
There are two alpine ski categories at the Olympics: speed and technical. Within each category are two events: Super G and downhill in speed, and slalom and giant slalom in technical. William is participating in the two technical challenges.
During ski season, training is a full-time job. Even with training as his focus, William finds time for homework and tutoring throughout the day; the deal in the Flaherty household, after all, is to maintain straight A’s to keep skiing, which William has done since his first day at Laurel Springs.
Between training and school, it gets hectic, and I don’t really have time for much else,” William confesses. “It gets hard to balance because it takes a lot of self-discipline working on your own time. That has probably been the hardest thing [about training for the Olympics], just the sheer amount of time needed for school. AP Calc BC is no joke. Even if it's an online school, it’s just as hard as any other normal school, just as academically challenging.”
William hopes to graduate in the late summer of this year. With the time he has to take off for training, Laurel Springs instructors— like AP physics teacher Kevin McReynolds, says William—have been crucial in keeping him on track.
“He (Kevin McReynolds) helped me a lot when I was in a tight spot with physics,” William says.
After Laurel Springs, William plans to take a gap year to recover from a surgery that will mend a hole in his mandible. He then hopes to attend college for aerospace engineering.
William Flaherty is Skiing Downhill While Looking Up
There were many instances in the months that followed her son’s diagnosis when Ann didn’t know if the next 24 hours would hold life or death for her youngest. Time and time again, William looked death in the eye and fought for life.
While Charles doesn’t tease his brother anymore about being his literal lifesaver—the Flaherty parents shut that down quickly when, the day after William’s transfer, the two boys were arguing over a Nintendo and Charles played the “but-I-gave-you-my-bones” card—William will always remember his elder brother’s sacrifices, both physical and intangible.
“My parents were very focused on me, so he didn’t get a lot of attention at that time, but he got over it,” William says with a chuckle, “He did go to the Olympics, so he’s had time to shine.”
While William was the one fighting for his life 14 years ago, he knows it was his parents who felt the most hurt. Being sick at a young age with parents that had an earth-sized love for him meant that William only remembers the good times during his sickness, never having seen the fear and pain his parents experienced behind closed doors. The way his father used to make him smile, William said, worked miracles.
“[My dad] was part of the reason why I was able to survive,” he says. “I just remember having a bunch of laughs with my family and my nurses.”
Dennis Flaherty played a crucial role in getting his sons to the Olympics, from qualifying to establishing the Winter Sports Federation to working with the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee. William and Charles lost their father suddenly in September of 2018.
“It was very sudden,” William says, falling quiet. “No one saw it coming.”
His dad may only be watching in spirit, but Ann Flaherty, glowing with pride as she spoke of her second child to compete in the Olympics, is William’s biggest fan.
“There were times I didn’t know if he would live to see age 4, and now he’s 17,” she says. “Every little bit is amazing to me, every milestone.”
William chimes in over his mother’s shoulder that he “hasn’t kicked the bucket quite yet,” and the two share a laugh.
“A good sense of humor is necessary,” says Ann.
Skiing was an unexpected remedy to some of the lasting effects of battling HLH; the G-forces experienced in the sport improved William's osteoporosis. Skiing also brings William peace, in the sense that when he is skiing it’s impossible to think of anything else. Alpine skiing has a sort of rhythm, he explains, and dancing on his skis to that rhythm clears his mind. Skiing is more technically difficult than other sports, he says, because 80% of your success is technique and mental strength.
The adrenaline you get from speed, it’s very enjoyable. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s relaxing, it’s quite the opposite,” he laughs. “But it’s a way to leave my worries behind. I have one thing to focus on.”
Watch William's feature on the Olympics Channel.
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