A quiet calm follows Liam Thomas as he glides out onto the ice of RDV Sportsplex on a chilly Thursday morning. The steel blades of his skates skim effortlessly over the surface as movements flow together faster, faster, building to a spinning, gravity-spurning leap into the air. Then he flies away.
In his head, he’s not here anymore. He doesn’t notice the empty stands surrounding the rink. He doesn’t see his mother, Jan, mirroring his infectious smile as she watches from just off the ice.
“When I’m out there, I’m flying,” he said. “I could be flying with birds, other skaters. I could be at the Olympics. I use my imagination.”
To many of his coaches — he’s on his 13th — Liam shouldn’t be training for the Winter Olympics. He doesn’t have the mind for it. Creative, mischievous, artistic — yes. But ask the 15-year-old to do something that requires more than three steps, and he’ll forget step four.
Born with a combined symptom list that baffled doctors, Liam was eventually diagnosed with more than a dozen physical and mental disorders from stunted growth to autism.
“He was a train wreck,” Jan said. She jokes about their combined struggles now, because that’s been their life. Standing rink side watching her son pursue a dream, she’s hoping to be alive to see it. Six months ago she was diagnosed with advanced peritoneal cancer. Doctors told her she had three months to live.
A lifetime of struggle
Liam’s life from birth played out in the hallways and offices of hospitals and doctors struggling to determine how a boy could become allergic to his own blood and spinal fluid.
Jan started working with physicians, trading her time for doctors’ services.
With his mom helping find him new treatment, he struggled through it, eventually learning to suppress or live with a myriad of illnesses in search of a normal life.
It started with little challenges. An uncoordinated child with severe muscular deficiencies, Liam was so small he wore toddler clothes until age 6.
“I felt like a failure most of my life,” Liam said. “Friends could throw a baseball and I couldn’t catch it. I couldn’t do anything normal.”
Then he stepped onto the ice. At age 6, he found the sport that made sense.
“It was something that clicked for me,” he said.
Out there, he was an athlete. On the ice, he could be Liam.
Hands press a pair of tiny headphones into ears, and everything goes silent. Then Liam presses play and Owl City’s “Gold” sends him into his own world as he glides into the distance.
“I feel the ups and downs in the music and put it on ice,” Liam said. That’s when he really shines. One day he was skating, dancing, having a good time, then he went for it, leaping into the air to try a triple loop jump. He landed it.
But free-spirited Liam doesn’t do well with rules, coaches Bryan Kader and Jill Pittman said.
“Once he’s out there, he’s not skating, he’s not competing — he’s performing,” Kader said. “He looks at it as a show. Which is why I think he skates very well.”
“And which is why he terrorizes his coaches,” Pittman said, jokingly.
Coaches can’t push Liam, Jan said. He has to want it. So ever gingerly they’ve found secrets to getting Liam to skate organized routines.
The trophies began piling up, at rinks around the country, as his career has built with his mother’s sacrifices and his endless days on the ice. Five to six days a week he’s practicing, sometimes from sunrise to sunset. This year he’s eyeing regionals, then sectionals, then nationals. It’s all building to that crescendo moment in South Korea in 2018.
Jan started having abdominal pain near the end of 2011 and went to the hospital for tests.
“They came back to me and said you have three to six months, so start making plans,” she said. The blow was all the more devastating after Liam and Jan had watched two of Liam’s grandparents die within three months.
Active members at Storehouse Family Worship Center in Casselberry, the duo have found fast friends. Little did they know that, combined with friends in the skating community, the church would form the backbone of their fight for survival.
“The entire church fasted for me in January,” Jan said. “I didn’t know I had that many friends. I’ve had literally thousands of people all over the country praying for me.”
A friend in the skating community began paying her rent so that the pair wouldn’t become homeless.
They also found an unlikely friend in Maitland — their bank. Officials at Seacoast National Bank organized a fundraiser with the Maitland Chamber of Commerce on June 6 to raise money for Liam’s skating.
“As soon as I and our regional manager heard about this, we just knew we had to do something,” client relations specialist Rachel Helm said. Then they gave Liam a debit card — in his stage name (his full name is William) — and started helping pay for competitions.
“It makes you feel good to know you’ve made a difference in their life,” Helm said.
Though Jan has beaten her original timeline, she still has a long way to go to beat cancer.
“Peritoneal cancer is never really cured,” Jan said. “It’s always there.”
She still has more operations ahead of her, more chemotherapy and more uncertainty. But she has something to look forward to. Liam, on the ice, flying.
They’ll both struggle in the meantime.
To donate to help Liam reach his Olympic dream, visit “Liam’s Edge” on Facebook or send a check to Seacoast National Bank payable to the Liam Thomas Skate Fund.
“Everybody sees the pretty stuff,” she said of her son’s performances. “They don’t see the 700 falls. He comes home black and blue and I say, ‘Oh. He looks like how I feel.’”
But they both have a dream to look forward to, starting here and now, ending in South Korea in 2018. He’s already seen it in his head, he said. He’s already won. He just hopes that his mom will see it too.
“I want her to be there with me,” Liam said. Just like she always has. “I just want to go out there and know she’s smiling out there somewhere.”