Pursuing golden dreams

Joe Tompkins makes drive for Salt Lake 2002 Paralympics

Posted: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

Joe Tompkins is the kind of guy who wears his dreams on his sleeve, or at least on his back bumper where his license plate reads, "SKI 02."

Tompkins, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1988 car wreck, is a member of the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team's C Team squad. The Juneau resident is hoping his performance this winter lands him a berth in the 2002 Paralympics taking place March 7-16 in Salt Lake City.

"You've got to dream," Tompkins said about his license plate after a recent training session. "You've got to have incentive, and if you're going to be putting something like that on your license plate you'd better be working."

Tompkins, 33, said he's been working harder than ever this summer on his training, something he admits he's neglected in the past. Even though some monoskiers have competed at the national and international levels into their early 40s, Tompkins feels his window of opportunity is closing.

"I don't know if I'll be able to go another four years," Tompkins said. "I've been goofing off in the summers, and that's been a lot of it. This year everything else is secondary after skiing."

"I'd like to see him winning some races this year, but it's entirely up to him," U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team coach Ewald Zirbisegger said. "It sounds like he did make some changes in his training. This is an individual sport and how successful you are depends on how much work you put into it. The more you work, the better you do."

This year with the help of his main sponsor, Juneau Sportfishing and Sightseeing, Tompkins acquired a handcycle and he's been riding it about 20-30 miles a day. A typical workout for Tompkins is to ride from his parents' house in downtown Juneau or his own house in North Douglas to Mendenhall Glacier and then on to the Mendenhall Golf Course, where he'll meet his brother or sisters or friends for a couple of rounds of golf. After anywhere from nine to 36 holes of golf, Tompkins rides his handcycle back home.

Tompkins said the handcycle, which is like a three-wheeled bicycle except it's powered by a hand crank, gives him a nice aerobic workout. But it's when he gets back into his wheelchair to get around the golf course that the real workout begins. The golf course gets as much as two inches of standing water on its fairways during high tide, so it takes a bit of effort for Tompkins to maneuver his wheelchair around.


Tompkins is hoping the extra training will help prevent some of the injuries that have plagued him during his career with the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team.

Last February, Tompkins broke both legs during a wreck at the Huntsman Cup races, but returned to action in late March with both legs in casts. In April 1999, he skied in the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Championships with an arm broken in two places less than a month earlier.

"I need to stay stronger," Tompkins said. "If I stay in shape, I'm not as prone to accidents. I'm going to need that if I'm going for the gold, especially this year since I have to go all out."

"Injuries happen all the time," Zirbisegger said. "The more you train in the summer the better chance you have of avoiding them. Preparation is critical. It's good to see him healthy. Joe's had an awakening, and he doesn't like to lose."

While Tompkins has battled injuries during his three years on the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team, he's also shown flashes of brilliance.

In December 1999, Tompkins won the first official Disabled World Cup ski race, a two-run sprint downhill race at Breckenridge, Colo. But a few weeks before that victory, one of Tompkins' training partners -- Steve Ricci -- was killed in a monoskiing accident after crashing into a tree. The day after his World Cup victory, Tompkins wrecked while competing in a World Cup super-G race and he said the wreck spooked him for the rest of the 1999-2000 season.

"I didn't know how to take it," Tompkins said.

"The last few years, Joe's had some challenges," Zirbisegger said. "He has a lot of potential. He's a big guy who likes speed and it seems like he's working harder this year."

Tompkins was a recreational skier before his accident, and he didn't really learn how to use a monoski until seven years ago when he joined the Juneau Lions Club's Disabled Ski Program. As he improved, he went to a camp run by U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team members Chris Waddell and Sarah Will.

Waddell, who has won just about everything there is to win in disabled skiing, became Tompkins' mentor, and Tompkins likes to say, "Chris taught me everything I know -- but he hasn't taught me everything he knows."

Competing on the disabled ski circuit can be an expensive venture, especially since Tompkins has just one main sponsor. He spends much of the winter training in Colorado, and he has extensive travel expenses. Tompkins' size -- 6-foot-5, 226 pounds -- also means his monoski breaks a ski about every week or two (it uses normal alpine skis that run about $700 a pair).

Tompkins said he's unsure if he'll have a spot on the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team when the U.S. Team is announced for the Paralympics. There are currently 28 members of the U.S. Team and about 25 spots in the Paralympics, he said, plus there are several non-U.S. Team members who might earn berths. That uncertainty is one reason he stepped up his training this summer.

But Zirbisegger and U.S. Disabled Ski Team program director Sandy Metzger both said Tompkins should earn a spot in the Paralympics if he has a good season.

The U.S. Team has to be announced by Jan. 27, so there are only two main qualifying events before the Paralympics -- a giant slalom race at the Breckenridge Ski Spectacular on Dec. 7, and a series of super-G, giant slalom and slalom races at the Huntsman Cup on Jan. 4-6 in Park City, Utah. Even though Tompkins' main event, the downhill, doesn't have a qualifying race, Zirbisegger said Tompkins should show enough to qualify for a spot in the speed events.

Competitors also have to meet certain Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) and International Paralympics Committee (IPC) points requirements, but Tompkins has already met those standards, Metzger said.

"I see him qualifying for the Paralympics," Metzger said. "If Joe's having a good season, if he's training and healthy, from his past results I think he'll make the team."

Charles Bingham can be reached at cbingham@ juneauempire.com.

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