DENVER - Skiing is freedom to Joe Tompkins and Chris Devlin-Young, a chance to climb out of their wheelchairs and regain some of the self worth lost in accidents that swept away the use of their legs.
But personal fulfillment is only part of the joy. By racing a high-tech chair strapped to a ski at speeds up to 70 mph as part of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, mono-skiers Tompkins and Devlin-Young are spreading a message of hope.
"The main reason we're in it is to touch other guys and gals who have disabilities, to show them that life isn't really over, like I thought it was for a few years," Devlin-Young said.
Like most members of the team, Tompkins and Devlin-Young use off days and breaks in their schedule to visit schools, hoping their stories can provide a lift to kids who are down or an inspiration to those who need a little nudge in the right direction.
Tompkins, of Juneau, also is heavily involved in junior racing and constantly trying to recruit new skiers, hoping they can get the same joy from it that he does.
Devlin-Young offers advice and inspiration at every turn, working with instructors and coaches to give people with disabilities an outlet for their frustrations.
"They definitely enjoy what they do and they like to pass it on to other people," coach Kevin Jardine said.
"All the athletes on our team have different reasons for doing it, and Chris and Joe are old enough and mature enough and been involved in the sport long enough that they really enjoy that side of it. The fact that they have been through what they've been through and have such a positive attitude about it is really key."
And they have been through a lot.
A surfer growing up in Santa Cruz, Calif., Devlin-Young was partially paralyzed below the waist in 1982 when he was on a rescue mission with the Coast Guard and his plane crashed into a mountain in the Aleutian Islands. For two years, he grappled with feelings that he was half a man, raging and drinking to the point that he wondered if he'd see his next birthday.
"I got seven speeding tickets in one month and talked my way out of two others when I was drunk," said Devlin-Young, who now lives in Campton, N.H. "I'm luckier to be alive from the two years after the disability than I am after the plane crash."
Convinced by a friend to check out a weeklong disabled veterans ski clinic, Devlin-Young figured he had nothing to lose. Now he's coming off the best of his 11 seasons and ready to make a run for a medal at the 2006 Paralympics in Turin, Italy.
"Right away, I got hooked to skiing, got hooked to racing and unhooked to being angry," said Devlin-Young, who turns 43 on Sunday. "Skiing really changed my life. It gave me back adrenaline, it gave me back control of my life, over my parts that I'll never being able to control ever again."
Tompkins knows all about losing control.
He was injured in 1988, when as a 19-year-old he hopped into the front seat of a car being driven by a drunken friend. The driver crashed into a tree, killing one of the passengers and leaving Tompkins with a broken back and paralysis from the waist down.
Like Devlin-Young, he fell into depression, recklessly using drugs and alcohol to fight his inner demons. Skiing later became a way to break free of his wheelchair, but it was a pair of beaming eyes - those of his son, Donald, born a month before the accident - that made him realize life wasn't over.
"At 21, I took a look at my son and said, 'That boy is never going to call anybody dad, besides me,"' Tompkins said. "And from then on I quit drinking and doing drugs and started to live my life again."
Tompkins, 36, got into skiing after a friend at a wheelchair basketball game asked if he had tried it. Tompkins made the U.S. Disabled Ski Team's "C" team in 1999 and even won the first official Disabled World Cup ski race, a two-run downhill in December 1999. He was tentative for a few years after watching a friend's fatal crash into a tree in 2000, but Tompkins won a World Cup super-G race last year and was bumped up to the "A" team this season.
"If you've seen a bald eagle up there soaring around, just letting it go, that's exactly how I felt," Tompkins said of his first time out. "I felt like I was untouchable, I was just going to glide around that snow."
It's a feeling Tompkins and Devlin-Young believe everyone should experience, whether they're in a wheelchair or not. That's why they spend so much time promoting the sport they love.
"It's not just disabled people, it's people who start feeling down because they lose a girlfriend or a boyfriend, a husband or a wife or they're going through the 'poor-me' phase when they lose their house," Tompkins said. "Chris and I went through that same thing after our accidents for about two years and something finally clicked for both of us.
"We want it to click for other people, too."
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