Juneau mono-skier Joe Tompkins is ready to take off as the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team opens the 2004-05 season.
Tompkins, who was promoted from the C Team to the A Team at the end of the past season, competes in the Hartford Ski Spectacular this weekend in Breckenridge, Colo. He competes in a slalom race today and a giant slalom on Friday at the annual event, which includes a conference on living with disabilities.
As the season opens, Tompkins said he's ready to justify the promotion. But he feels it was earned through five years on the team.
"It's definitely a natural progression," Tompkins said when he was in town for the Thanksgiving holiday. "I don't feel any pressure. As long as I keep improving, I don't feel any pressure."
The 2003-04 season featured mixed results for Tompkins, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1988 auto accident involving alcohol that killed one of his friends. Tompkins had trouble finishing some of his races, but when he did complete the course he had some of the best results of his career.
The highlight for Tompkins came in January in Abtenau, Austria, when he won a Disabled World Cup super giant slalom (super-G) race. It was the second Disabled World Cup victory of Tompkins' career, with the other coming in the first official World Cup race - a December 1999 two-run downhill held in Breckenridge. His other big victory last year was in the giant slalom race at the U.S. Championships in Vail, Colo. - his first national title.
"I'm getting better at the slalom and GS (giant slalom)," said Tompkins, who until last year was known more for his speed events (downhill and super-G) than for the technical ones (GS and slalom). "I'm going to keep doing them. It adds to my confidence and it helps with the balance."
In addition to his World Cup victory and national title, Tompkins also posted several top-10 performances in the World Championships in Wildschoenau, Austria. Tompkins finished fourth in the downhill, sixth in the super-G, ninth in the giant slalom and ninth in the slalom.
He also finished seventh in a World Cup super-G at Wildschoenau, plus he was eighth in a giant slalom and 10th in a slalom in World Cup races in Kimberley, British Columbia, and he was 10th in a World Cup giant slalom in Tignes, France.
His success last year was helped by the addition of a new sponsor. Tompkins has been sponsored by Juneau Sportsfishing and Sightseeing (his summer employer) and by the Juneau Lions Club for several years, but last year he picked up DST Innovis as his helmet sponsor.
"It's alleviated all the pressure on travel," Tompkins said, adding that his sponsors also help keep him in skis, which frequently break under his 6-foot-5, 226-pound frame. "I don't have to worry about how I'm going to get to my next race."
During the off-season, Tompkins started training with his handcycle (a four-wheeled cart propelled by hand cranks) but started to develop tennis elbow. The tennis elbow was cutting into his golfing, so Tompkins said he stopped riding the handcycle.
"I had to give up one or the other, and I love golf," Tompkins said. "I was out golfing every day this summer."
Tompkins was on the golf course as recently as last month, when he was invited to participate in the annual Abilities Foundation Celebrity Golf Tournament in Seminole, Fla. The tournament helps the Abilities Foundation raise funds for housing, health, employment and independent living arrangements for people with disabilities. Among the celebrities at the event were Tampa Bay Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella and longtime major league coach Don Zimmer.
"I was a celebrity at a celebrity golf tournament, can you believe it?," Tompkins said about the tournament, which earned him a feature story in the St. Petersburg Times. "That's pretty crazy. I don't think of myself as a celebrity. I'm not used to signing autographs, especially in the United States."
Tompkins already has started his countdown for the 2006 Paralympics, which take place in Torino, Italy. Tompkins competed in the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City, placing sixth in his LW-11 division in both the downhill and the super-G races.
"I have about 15 months," Tompkins said. "After the first one, I considered 2002 a warmup."
This year there's a change to the division structure used for the Paralympics, with the old batch of 13 divisions being condensed to three - standing, sitting (mono-ski) and blind. The World Cup races already combined the divisions, but in the Paralympics there were three divisions (based on range of motion) for mono-skiers, with Tompkins in the middle division.
"In my mind, I shoot to be the best of the best, even the stand-ups," Tompkins said. "It's going to be a lot harder. It'll make it easier to follow, but we'll have to try a lot harder."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.