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Getting to Sochi

Joe Tompkins had rarely skied before the accident

Posted: February 28, 2014 - 12:03am
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Thunder Mountain High School assistant coach Joe Tompkins and head coach Matt Greely last season.  KLAS STOLPE | JUNEAU EMPIRE
Thunder Mountain High School assistant coach Joe Tompkins and head coach Matt Greely last season.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series. Part one ran in Thursday’s Empire.

After the incident with his son, Tompkins quit drugs and alcohol for good. He started working odd jobs and was playing wheelchair basketball one day when a friend asked if he wanted to go skiing.

Before his accident, Tompkins had skied fewer than a dozen times.

“I was horrible,” Tompkins said. “I could go up to Ptarmigan but I definitely should not have been up there. My father did not think it would be good for my sports.”

Tompkins decided to try the sport again, and with the help of Juneau Lions Club member Bob Janes he used Eaglecrest’s Aurora sled. He next tried a bi-ski, a bucket-style seat atop two skis.

“Then Scott McPherson went flying by in a monoski,” Tompkins said. “Bob said that was what I would be using next. I was too large and broke the bi skis. I was scared though.”

Janes and the JLC helped send him to the Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colo. Hosted by Disabled Sports USA, the event brings together first-time disabled skiers and Paralympic team members.

Tompkins was encouraged to try racing while there.

“I didn’t come in last place, so that kind of got me excited,” Tompkins said.

He started asking questions but his exuberance was pushed away by a USA Team member.

“I said when I make the U.S Team I will never do that to anybody,” Tompkins said. “Eighteen years later, I haven’t done that to anybody.”

He then turned to Paul DiBello, coach of the Winter Park Disabled Ski Team, who heard Tompkins’ questions and said simply, “Get your butt down here.”

While practicing at Eaglecrest to join DiBello, Tompkins fell out of a chairlift and spent a year recuperating.

In 1996, he enrolled in Winter Park’s disabled ski program and three mono-ski classes at Vail, Colo., run by retired Paralympians Chris Waddell and Sarah Will. Tompkins was their first “graduate” to make the United States Disabled Alpine Men’s Ski Team in 1999, just in time to win the downhill at the inaugural World Cup in Breckenridge, Colo.

He followed that with first place in downhill and seventh in super-G at the World Cup in 2000. Other top finishes followed: sixth at the 2002 Salt Lake City Paralympic Winter Games in both the downhill and super-G; first in the 2004 World Cup in super-G and fourth in downhill; and first in he downhill at the 2005 IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup finals.

At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, he held a one-second lead before crashing in the downhill.

At Turin, he also placed 28th in super-G and 37th in giant slalom.

At the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, he competed in the downhill, but his mono-ski seat split in half and he crashed.

“That is all you get, one race,” Tompkins said at the time. “If you win, you race again. If you are going for number one you race all out and sometimes you crash.”

At the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup Finals in 2010, he finished first overall in the downhill. At the 2012 NorAm Copper Mountain he was eighth in the super-G, and at the 2012 NorAm Winter Park he placed 13th that event. Tompkins finished sixth in downhill the 2014 NorAm and in the U.S. National Championships in Aspen, Colo..

One of his most memorable trips was to Japan.

“The free skiing was on the best snow in the world,” Tompkins said. “It was perfect conditions, and there were snow monkeys out, sunshine and three feet of powder. The monkeys hung out at the hotel and would mess with my teammates prosthetics.”

Tompkins is rated 22nd in the world for Men’s Downhill Sitting (fifth in the US) and 40th in the Super-G Sitting (seventh in the U.S.).

“I don’t race against competitors,” Tompkins said. “I race with the mountain against time. I know if I race my race, I will do well. If I put my race together without a lot of mistakes, then I will do fine.”

Tompkins almost declined the Sochi Games. The invitation from Team USA was on short notice; he didn’t have time to prepare and he hadn’t skied a day in the past season.

When the invitation came roughly three weeks ago, Tompkins told his mother he didn’t think he wanted to go.

She replied, “What would you tell your boys?”

That struck a nerve. Tompkins has been a baseball coach with the Gastineau Channel Little League the past 18 years and the Thunder Mountain High School Falcons baseball team the past five.

“By my boys she meant my kids, the people I coach,” Tompkins said. “That pretty much gave me a reality slap in my face. Of course I would tell my kids they were going. I would tell them to swing for the fence, give it everything you got and whether you strike out or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s that you were there and you went for it.”

Tompkins said this is his last Paralympics as a ski racer and he wanted to thank everybody who has sponsored or donated to his career. He has been approached by Team USA curling and sled hockey members and that intrigues him.

“I want to thank all the people who have wished me well also,” Tompkins said. “People who have congratulated me and followed my career over the years. People don’t know how much it means when they come up to you and say, ‘Good luck,’ even total strangers. Even the naysayers, I use that for fuel to keep going on, to keep trying.”

On Monday, Tompkins prepared to launch from the top of the Ptarmigan, over Sailors Rock and down Hilary’s at Eaglecrest.

He has his regrets, but they always fall away in the snow.

“I can’t say there are no regrets but I can’t think of them,” Tompkins said. “I think I live my life and I think I enjoy life. I live it to the fullest. I would tell anybody that woke up paralyzed or found himself or herself paralyzed that life is not over. It is just beginning. It is going to be tougher, but it is going to be better in the end.”

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Dan Fabrello
Dan Fabrello 02/28/14 - 09:12 am
Love this

Thanks Joe, you are such an insipration!

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