Sochi-bound: How an accident changed a Juneau man's life and set him on track for the Olympics

Tompkins ready to teach the Russians a thing or two

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Part two will run in Friday’s Sports section.


A downhill skier is perched atop a snow-covered mountain.

His equipment is held together with duct tape.

A ski pole is broken.

There is no place multi-year Paralympian Joe Tompkins would rather be.

“I just look at my surroundings,” Tompkins said. “I am very thankful with the view I have.”

That view will change as Tompkins competes in the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia from March 7-16.

Tompkins leaves today and will meet team members in Munich, Germany before arriving in Sochi on March 2.

He will have a training run on March 6-7 and his one medal run in the Men’s Downhill will be March 8.

“I am just going to tell them I am from Old Russia,” Tompkins said. “We were owned by them way back. It is going to be cool. ... My only ‘to do’ list is to give everything I have in my downhill and then go from there. The experience. I mean, Russia, come on. First and foremost I get to represent my family. I get to represent my state and I get to represent my country.”

The burden of how he became a paralympian defined how he became a man.

Tompkins, 45, was born in Seward to William “Bill” and Betty Tompkins.

Bill, who passed away in 2001, was known for his athletic talents; he was the first Native to play in Minor League Baseball. Bill also carried the Alaska flag at the first Arctic Winter Games in 1970, and he played with the Arctic Lights and Klukwan. He was an active member of the Lions Club’s Gold Medal Committee and in 1978 was inducted into the Gold Medal Hall of Fame. He coached Little League, American Legion Baseball, men’s and women’s basketball and softball.

Tompkins went to Capital Elementary School and Marie Drake Middle School and carried his father’s athletic tradition.

As a sophomore at Juneau-Douglas he differed in opinion with his basketball coach and switched to Metlakatla.

As a junior for the Chiefs, he started on a team that took the 3A Southeast Region V crown and finished third at state. The team was the first 3A squad to beat JDHS on their home court.

“Oh my God, that was so sweet,” Tompkins recalled.

Among his teammates were George Blandov, Shawn Enright, Bill Alsup, Greg Buxton and Stan Patterson.

Tompkins got in trouble drinking on a preseason trip, scouting colleges in Anchorage.

He dropped out, got his GED, and followed his girlfriend to college in LaGrande, Ore.

Tompkins decided he wanted a high school diploma and went to LaGrande High School. He made the starting five for the Tigers, earned first-team all-conference honors and graduated in 1987. His grades were good enough to get by, but not good enough for the colleges that recruited him.

Tompkins returned to Juneau. He worked hard at Whitestone Logging in Hoonah and partied hard in Juneau.

That stopped in January 1988, at Horseshoe Corner by Auke Bay.

“The three of us were drunk passengers,” Tompkins said. “We were looking for the next party. We took a ride.”

The accident left him paralyzed, his best friend dead and another friend injured. None of the three were driving, yet they were as drunk as the driver, Tompkins said.

The accident left him paralyzed below the waist and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

“My first thought was I was going to go walk,” Tompkins said. “I was going to play baseball again. I don’t think that realization has set in yet. I still have my hopes and dreams that one day I still will, but it is not going to change who I am now. Before there was a lot more stuff involved.

“I was a rowdy kid,” Tompkins said. “With my accident I put my family through hell. I was a promising baseball player that could have went somewhere with the right guidance. I gave all that away when I got into a car with a drunk driver. I never tapped into my full potential, I guess that is why I coach so much now.”

The first three years after the accident were not smooth.

“Survivor’s guilt,” Tompkins said. “I worked on that with drugs and alcohol. The accident was hard. The self-pity and drugs and alcohol was harder on those around me. I was on a downward spin and nobody could do anything about it.”

Three years of abuse and, in his own words, a “pity party,” came to an end when his son Donald, born one month after the accident (now 26), ran out to greet his hungover father after an outing.

“I grumpily yelled at him,” Tompkins said. “Then asked him what he wanted. He turned with a tear in his eye and said, ‘Nothing. I just wanted to say I love you.’ That was the biggest eye opener there ever was for me. I was showing that kid how not to live, not how to live.”

In the 24 years since, he has had no drugs or alcohol.

Tompkins now preaches a life lesson to his charges and those who take the time to know him.

“Set your goals and stay away from drugs and alcohol,” Tompkins said. “I have been ski racing for 18 years and never failed a drug test. I never compromised that.”

Tompkins’ no-compromise road now takes him to Russia.

Photo: Snow Joe
Joe Tompkins teammates
Juneau's Joe Tompkins heads to US Paralympics qualifying races


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