Bibian Mentel, a Dutch snowboarder who lost her right lower leg to cancer, returned to the sport a few months later and dominated it for the next 16 years, died on Monday at her home in Loosdrecht, the Netherlands. She was 48 years old.
After Ms. Mentel lost her leg, she continued to struggle with cancer throughout her career. In March she announced that it had spread to her brain and was no longer operable. Her death has been confirmed by a representative of her nonprofit, the Mentelity Foundation.
Ms. Mentel, a steely-eyed competitor who won gold medals at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Paralympic Games, was widely recognized as one of the best snowboarders in the world. She was also a celebrity in the Netherlands, where her athletic accomplishments, inspiring life story and natural sense of poise and glamor made her the subject of fashion magazine covers and TV profiles.
“Thank you for everything you have given and shared with us,” wrote Prince Constantijn, the younger brother of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, on Twitter. “Everyone you have touched with your optimism and persistence has become a better person.”
Ms. Mentel was a six-time Dutch champion at the halfpipe and snowboard cross events when she injured her right ankle while training for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Doctors found a tumor on her tibia – a recurrence of a cancer that first appeared in 1999. In 2001, they removed her right leg from below her knee.
She was told she would not snowboard again. But she was soon back on the slopes and competed against capable snowboarders. Seven months after her operation, she won a gold medal at the Dutch Snowboard Championships.
Ms. Mentel went on to participate and win in para-snowboarding events even when her cancer recurred in 2004, this time in her lungs. Over the next 11 years, doctors performed five operations, each of which removed a piece of the lung.
Together with several other para-snowboarders, she successfully campaigned for the International Paralympic Committee to add her sport to the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. At the opening ceremony she carried the flag of the Netherlands and won a gold medal in the snowboard cross.
Her cancer returned in 2016; This time the doctors said there was nothing they could do. She went home and told her husband Edwin Spee and their children that she was going to die soon. Mr. Spee began looking for alternatives and soon found a doctor with more advanced treatment.
It worked, but the next year doctors found cancer again, this time in her neck. Although she was able to put it into remission, the treatment severely weakened her cervical vertebrae, and one of them had to be replaced with a titanium prosthesis – “my permanent jewelry,” she joked.
Successive battles with cancer kept her out of the competition for many months, and she dropped most of her sponsors. She had to rely on crowdfunding to get to the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
At the opening ceremony she again carried the Dutch flag and won gold again – twice, in slalom and again in snowboard cross.
“I’ve heard a rumor that she has 128 gold medals in her house and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” said Amy Purdy, an American para-snowboarder, in a podcast interview with Ms. Mentel. “I’ve traveled the world and had my entire snowboarding career with her and she has won gold every time.”
Bibian Karina Mentel was born on September 27, 1972 in Utrecht, Netherlands, as the daughter of contractor Theo Mentel and Maude Meijlink.
She is survived by her mother; her husband; a son from a previous relationship, Julian van de Kamp; two stepdaughters, Laila and Annabella Spee; and a half-sister, Jody Mentel.
Ms. Mentel studied law for a year before becoming a professional snowboarder. In 2004 she received a degree in Sports Management from Randstad Topsport Academy and in 2014 a Masters in Sports Management from the Johan Cruyff Institute. In 2018, she retired from snowboarding to focus on her non-profit organization that helps children with disabilities survive in sports.
Ms. Mentel lost feeling in her lower body during surgery after cancer recurrence in 2018. She started using a wheelchair – and a few months later took part in the Dutch version of “Dancing With the Stars”.
“As an athlete, it’s a fun thing – people look up at you, put you on a pedestal and think you can do anything,” she said during a TEDx conversation in 2018, just before her surgery. “A week later you suddenly became disabled and now people were telling me what I couldn’t do. And that really made me rebellious. Because let’s be honest: the more people told me what I couldn’t do, the more I wanted to prove them wrong. “