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After beating cancer, snowboarder Max Parrot is back on the mountaintop

Max Parrot X Games Aspen 2017 Slopestyle Credit Phil Ellsworth ESPN Images (1)

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images

It’s hard enough to do a cab triple cork 1620 — a snowboard trick in which the rider, with his switch foot forward, spins four-and-a-half times and then adds three off-axis dips — with daily practice.

What about doing it after never setting foot on a snowboard at all in eight months?

That was the astonishing outcome of 25-year-old Canadian pro snowboarder Max Parrot’s return to competition at X Games Norway in August 2019, just eight months removed from a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis and only two months after his final chemotherapy treatment. Not only did it look like Parrot hadn’t missed any time at all, throwing down a cab triple cork 1620 on his first jump, but he went ahead and won his sixth X Games gold medal to boot. 

Even for a fellow pro snowboarder, it’s a feat that’s hard to put into perspective. 

“To not snowboard for eight months — I’m not even talking about going through chemo, or having cancer — but just not snowboarding for eight months and then going to an event and winning it … it’s truly one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in person,” said X Games and CBC snowboarding analyst Craig McMorris. 

“I can only imagine … that’s got to be one of the gnarliest, most heinous experiences a human being can go through.”

Parrot’s diagnosis in December 2018 at the height of his career upended his world, of which snowboarding is the absolute center. “It was a shock because I had been a pro snowboarder for seven years. This was maybe the only thing I knew how to do,” Parrot says. “Everything I was thinking was always about snowboarding, and it was hard to take because my career is my passion.” 

The news — that Parrot would have to undergo 12 chemotherapy treatments over six months — also came at the worst possible time, right in the middle of the snowboarding competition calendar. Parrot had X Games Aspen 2019 on the docket in January, and he assumed he would also have to miss the Norway iteration, which had been held in May the year prior. Then there are the various International Ski Federation (FIS) events throughout the year, including the FIS Snowboard World Cup (where Parrot won Big Air gold in 2018) and the annual Air + Style Beijing FIS event in December. 

In fact, after receiving the diagnosis, the thought of missing a snowboarding season was so hard to bear that Parrot asked his doctors if he could postpone treatment until the summer.  

“I was feeling energetic, I was feeling fine, and they were like, ‘You have to stop everything and go every week to get treatment,’” he recalls. “If I wasn’t feeling good at the time, I would have wanted to do it, but I was feeling like I could compete. But at a certain point, it’s cancer, and if you don’t treat it you can die, so when I understood that I wanted to start treatment as soon as possible.”

Six months later, in June 2019, a body scan revealed that Parrot was 100% cancer-free. What’s more, he had learned that the 2019 iteration of X Games Norway wouldn’t be held in May, but in August, giving him a little less than two months to get back in shape and enter his first contest post-chemo.

Was he up for it?

If you have to ask, you don’t know Max. 

Max Parrot X Games Aspen 2018 Big Air Gold Medal

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images

In the spring, summer, and fall, Parrot typically goes to the gym three times a week, mostly to maintain his form and build muscles around the places that are most subject to injuries, like his shoulders and knees. Near his home in Bromont, Québec, there are facilities with an indoor trampoline and air bag that he can use to develop tricks when he’s not on the mountain. 

But when he decided he was going to enter the field for X Games Norway immediately after finishing chemotherapy, Parrot’s training became considerably more intense

“I was training six days a week, going to the gym four times and doing the trampoline two times,” Parrot said. “In the end, it’s mainly in your head. If you have the motivation, you can pretty much accomplish anything. At that time I had the huge motivation to go back to X Games and compete.” However, by the time the event arrived, he acknowledges he still wasn’t back to 100%. 

X Games Norway, August 31, 2019: Parrot’s cab triple cork 1620 on his very first jump in the Big Air final was good enough to earn him a score of 47 out of a possible 50. No one could match it.

The zeal with which Parrot chased his goal of returning to his board following chemo borders on the extreme. But it is how he has approached the sport since he first stepped on a board at age 9. It actually stays in line with how he approaches everything in life, really. An admitted thrill-seeker, Parrot chases adrenaline in the form of mountain biking, fast cars, motorcycles, wakeboarding … 

“I’ve been like that my whole life. It’s just so fun to get those little rushes,” Parrot says. “I tried once to just do road biking. I feel like it’s so boring,” he adds, laughing. 

Parrot’s father, Alain, is a former Canadian water skiing and alpine skiing champion. His parents started him skiing when Parrot was 3. However, when he wanted to make the switch to snowboarding, his parents refused to buy him a board.

“Their goal wasn’t for me to do the same sport as my dad,” Parrot explains. “They wanted me to find my own passion. I tried all the sports; I played golf, I played soccer. But when it came down to snowboarding, it was just too extreme for them. They wanted to protect me from getting hurt.”

No matter; to afford his first board, Parrot mowed lawns and began honing his skills on his home mountain, Ski Bromont. He won his first amateur contest, Rodeo Fest in Québec — and a snowboard, too. By the age of 16, he understood that he could compete with the best snowboarders around the world. He turned pro a year later, in 2012. 

However, actually getting himself around the world for contests proved to be difficult. Early on, Parrot didn’t have funding from the Canadian Snowboard Federation. His parents had set aside money to send Parrot and his two sisters, Sérissa and Naomie, to college. They struck a deal; he could use his university money to fund his snowboarding career. If it didn’t work out and he then wanted to go back to school, he had to pay for it. 

His parents needn’t have worried. 

Parrot broke out in 2013 when he won the O’Neill Evolution Big Air. He took silver in Slopestyle at his first X Games, and won the Monster Shred Show Big Air in Whistler. He followed it up with double gold medals at X Games Aspen 2014 in Slopestyle and Big Air. Parrot and Mark McMorris are the only snowboarders to win double gold at X Games Aspen since Shaun White (2009). 

Later that year, Parrot qualified first at the inaugural Olympic Slopestyle event at Sochi in 2014; he finished off the podium. In 2018, he returned to the Olympics in Pyeongchang and took silver in Slopestyle. 

Max Parrot X Games Aspen 2018 Big Air Credit Phil Ellsworth ESPN Images (1)

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images

He was at the apex when he almost lost it all. Now, Parrot is just grateful he’s been given another chance to live out his passion. 

With Parrot back in the mix, the field for X Games Aspen 2020 once again feels complete. “You notice when a superstar isn’t there,” Craig McMorris said. Parrot is unquestionably among snowboarding’s heaviest hitters, and a contest without him is that much easier for everyone involved. 

“There’s just a select group of guys, when they enter a contest, that if they land their run it could be anybody. He’s always been part of that group: Mark (McMorris, Craig’s brother), Seb (Toutant), Red (Gerard). He’s always been in the upper echelon.”

“I have a run in my mind; I know that if I put it down perfectly, I’m supposed to win,” says Parrot. It’s the same for his good friends and fellow Canadians, Toutant and McMorris; a friendly competitive drive that keeps them pushing, keeps them progressing the sport. “In the end, it’s not about beating Mark or beating Seb or anyone else. It’s just about putting down the best run you can.”

Parrot’s going for history, too. The newest trick in his bag is the frontside triple cork 1620. He claimed this trick for the first time in competition in Beijing in December. It has never been thrown down at an X Games and it’s likely to win him gold if landed perfectly. It’s just the latest trick Parrot can stamp his name on. He also was the first in history to land a quad cab underflip and a double backside rodeo 1440.

You can watch Parrot go for gold in men’s Big Air and Slopestyle at X Games Aspen on Saturday, January 25.