For the last few years, Joe Tompkins' dream has been to compete in the Winter Paralympic Games.
That dream will become reality this weekend, as the Juneau monoskier competes in the downhill race on Saturday and the Super G on Sunday.
The Paralympics opening ceremonies are tonight in Salt Lake City and the Games run through March 16. The opening ceremonies will be broadcast on NBC, and event highlights will be broadcast on the cable television station A&E.
As the athletes arrived in Salt Lake this week, Tompkins said he can feel the excitement of a big event growing. He said there are 236 male skiers entered in the alpine events alone, and all of them were on the slopes during Tuesday's downhill training runs.
"I can feel it, especially when I'm wearing all this U.S. Ski Team swag," Tompkins said by phone Tuesday night from his hotel room in Ogden, Utah. "When we got here they gave us our uniforms and we've gotten our pictures taken, so it's been hectic. I'm just soaking it all up. I'm not in a hurry for it to get over."
Tompkins, 33, had his first training runs on the course on Tuesday, the same course used by able-bodied skiers in the Olympics last month. Tompkins didn't want to say how he did in the training run, which was timed. But he was feeling optimistic about his chances for strong performances this weekend.
"I did better than planned," said Tompkins, who was paralyzed below the waist by an auto accident involving alcohol when he was 20 years old. "I did well. But I don't want to say what my time was. I don't want to jinx myself."
In preparation for the Paralympics, Tompkins recently received a new monoski from his main sponsor since he started skiing, Suparna at Juneau Sports Fishing. The monoski Tompkins had been using was falling apart after three years of heavy use, breaking skis because of bad shocks and repaired welds not holding anymore.
"This is only the second week on a new monoski," Tompkins said. "It's handling way different, and I'm still adjusting to the new shocks. But I already have more confidence in this model. This is more like a Cadillac than a Volkswagen, the ride's so smooth."
Tompkins took the new monoski for a test ride last weekend at a series of Disabled World Cup races in Kimberley, British Columbia, where he competed in a giant slalom race and two Super Gs.
"I felt good about it, actually," Tompkins said of his performances. "It was a World Cup, so there were a lot of the other competitors doing a run before the Paralympics."
Tompkins finished 18th in last Thursday's giant slalom, posting a two-run raw time of 3 minutes, 3.46 seconds and an adjusted time of 2:32.19 (times are adjusted to equalize the various levels of disability). Ronny Persson of Sweden won the giant slalom in the monoski division, posting a raw time of 2:49.67 and an adjusted time of 2:14.92.
In Friday's first Super G, Tompkins took 12th place in a single-run raw time of 1:43.71 and an adjusted time of 1:25.88. In Saturday's second Super G, Tompkins was 24th with a raw time of 1:42.98 and an adjusted time of 1:25.27. Martin Braxenthaler of Germany won both Super Gs in the monoski division, posting a raw time of 1:37.48 and an adjusted time of 1:17.97 on Friday while clocking a raw time of 1:34.36 and an adjusted time of 1:15.48 on Saturday.
Tompkins said he hadn't planned to enter Thursday's giant slalom, since it's not one of the events he's competing in at the Paralympics. But his coaches entered him as a warmup race.
"I was skiing on a Super G ski because I didn't have any GS skis with me," Tompkins said, explaining that a Super G ski is a lot longer than a giant slalom ski. "You use shorter skis for quicker turns. I was just having fun, and I still beat some people.
"In the first one (Super G) I felt real good, but in the second one I had a couple of errors," he added.
Even though he didn't go to Europe to compete in World Cup races earlier in the season, Tompkins' performances over the weekend moved him into 39th place among monoskiers in the Disabled World Cup overall standings.
Tompkins competes in the LW-11 class, which is one of the three divisions for monoskiers, usually athletes who have been paralyzed below the waist. The LW-10 division is for monoskiers with the least mobility and the LW-12 class is for those with the most mobility, while the LW-11 class is in the middle of the two.
In World Cup races the three divisions are grouped together, but in the Paralympics each monoski division competes on its own. Tompkins was sixth among LW-11 monoskiers in the giant slalom and first Super G, and was ninth in the second Super G at Kimberley.
Buoyed by his new monoski, his results from Kimberley and his training run time, Tompkins said he's feeling confident about this weekend. But whether or not he wins a medal, Tompkins said he plans to enjoy the moment, especially since his family (including 14-year-old son Donald) and friends will be there to watch him compete.
"The dream is being here, to actually be good enough to be here," Tompkins said. "It's just amazing. I'm just soaking in the moment."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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