Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Juneau’s Joe Tompkins, 53, is taking a seat to watch the 2022 Douglas Fourth of July Parade at 2 p.m. Monday at Sayéik: Gastineau Community School… not from the sidelines where he is usually found as a coach and mentor to youth, but from inside a classic vehicle as the grand marshal.
“I’m pretty taken back by it,” Tompkins said. “I think there are more well-deserved people than me, so I’m kind of embarrassed I think… It is pretty nice to be asked, it’s nice to be recognized. I definitely wasn’t expecting it…”
The honor reflects the sentiments of young athletes who have grown into fine young men under his tutelage, young athletes who may have just started under his guidance in multiple sports and, well, this "older" young man who has had the pleasure of his prompt information, friendly banter and like-mindedness in wanting sports to benefit all who participate.
He said his biggest message to youth is “to never give up, never give up on yourself…”
Tompkins said he gave up on himself one year after his 1987 LaGrande (Oregon) High School graduation. Up to that point he was college athlete material. He became the proud father of son Donald on Dec. 17, 1987. On Jan. 23, 1988, life changed.
He was a skier and multi-sport athlete capable of playing in college when he and two friends, all inebriated, climbed into a Volkswagen Scirocco driven by an acquaintance, also drunk.
The car sped into a tree. The driver broke a collarbone, Tompkins broke his back, another friend was injured and his best friend died.
For two years drugs and alcohol consumed him. One day holding his young son, Joe changed.
“I just decided at one point when he came up to talk to me I needed to change my life,” Tompkins said. “Because I was showing him the wrong way to live. Even though he was two I needed to show him a better way of life, be a better example in his life…”
That example included speeches at graduation ceremonies and DARE classes and to kids from elementary through high school. The multi-sport athlete became a multi-sport coach and mentor while also becoming part of the USA Paralympics ski team.
I remember the first time I met Joe Tompkins.
He was prepared to launch from the top of Ptarmigan, over Sailors Rock and down Hilary’s at Eaglecrest.
He was in some type of contraption held together with duct tape and had a broken ski pole but there was no place he would rather be.
He said “follow me.”
And I did. My snowshoes kicking up snow to reach the next spot he perched to wait and guide me down.
The journey of how Joe Tompkins became a Paralympian defined how he became a man.
Tompkins was born in Seward to William “Bill” and Betty Tompkins.
Bill, who passed away in 2001, was known for his athletic talents; he was the first Native to play in Minor League Baseball. Bill also carried the Alaska flag at the first Arctic Winter Games in 1970, and he played with the Arctic Lights and Klukwan. He was an active member of the Lions Club’s Gold Medal Committee and in 1978 was inducted into the Gold Medal Hall of Fame. He coached Little League, American Legion Baseball, men’s and women’s basketball and softball.
Tompkins went to Capital Elementary School and Marie Drake Middle School and carried his father’s athletic tradition.
As a sophomore at Juneau-Douglas he differed in opinion with his basketball coach and switched to Metlakatla.
As a junior for the Chiefs, he started on a team that took the 3A Southeast Region V crown and finished third at state. The team was the first 3A squad to beat JDHS on their home court.
“Oh my God, that was so sweet,” Tompkins recalled.
Among his teammates were George Blandov, Shawn Enright, Bill Alsup, Greg Buxton and Stan Patterson.
Tompkins got in trouble drinking on a preseason trip, scouting colleges in Anchorage.
He dropped out, got his GED, and followed his girlfriend to college in LaGrande, Oregon.
Tompkins decided he wanted a high school diploma and went to LaGrande High School. He made the starting five for the Tigers, earned first-team all-conference honors and graduated in 1987. His grades were good enough to get by, but not good enough for the colleges that recruited him.
Tompkins returned to Juneau. He worked hard at Whitestone Logging in Hoonah and partied hard in Juneau.
That stopped in January 1988, at Horseshoe Corner by Auke Bay.
“The three of us were drunk passengers,” Tompkins said. “We were looking for the next party. We took a ride, we were as drunk as the driver.”
The accident left him paralyzed below the waist and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He said his first thought was that he would walk and play baseball again and “I still have my hopes and dreams that one day I still will, but it is not going to change who I am now.”
“I was a rowdy kid,” Tompkins said. “With my accident I put my family through hell. I was a promising baseball player that could have went somewhere with the right guidance. I gave all that away when I got into a car with a drunk driver. I never tapped into my full potential, I guess that is why I coach so much now.”
The first years after the accident were not smooth.
“Survivor’s guilt,” Tompkins said. “I worked on that with drugs and alcohol. The accident was hard. The self-pity and drugs and alcohol was harder on those around me. I was on a downward spin and nobody could do anything about it.”
Two years of abuse and, in his own words, a “pity party,” came to an end when his son Donald ran out to greet his hungover father after an outing.
“I grumpily yelled at him,” Tompkins said. “Then asked him what he wanted. He turned with a tear in his eye and said, ‘Nothing. I just wanted to say I love you.’ That was the biggest eye opener there ever was for me. I was showing that kid how not to live, not how to live.”
In the years since, he has had no drugs or alcohol and preaches a life lesson to his charges and those who take the time to know him. He never failed a drug test as a ski racer.
“Set your goals and stay away from drugs and alcohol,” Tompkins preaches.
After the incident with his son, Tompkins quit drugs and alcohol. 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 with friends.
“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 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, Colorado. Hosted by Disabled Sports USA, the event brings together first-time skiers who are disabled 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 US team I will never do that to anybody,” Tompkins said. And he has never ignored any athlete's question since.
Paul DiBello, coach of the Winter Park Disabled Ski Team at the time, invited Tompkins to join them.
While practicing at Eaglecrest to join DiBello, Tompkins fell out of a chairlift and had to recuperate for a year.
In 1996, he enrolled in Winter Park’s disabled ski program and three mono-ski classes at Vail, Colorado 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, Colorado.
He followed that with first in downhill and seventh in super-G at the World Cup in 2000. Other top finishes followed: At the 2002 Salt Lake City Paralympic Winter Games he placed sixth in both the downhill and super-G, in the 2004 World Cup he finished first in super-G and fourth downhill, in the 2005 IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup Finals he placed first in downhill.
At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy he held a 1-second lead before crashing in the downhill.
“That is comparable to having a 12-point lead in a basketball game in the fourth quarter,” Tompkins said. “Yeah, I like to go fast.”
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; at the 2012 NorAm Winter Park he placed 13th in super-G; and at the 2014 NorAm Aspen he finished sixth in downhill and repeated that in the US National Championships in Aspen.
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 has been rated 22nd in the world for Men’s Downhill Sitting (fifth in the US) and 40th in the Super-G Sitting (seventh in the US).
His final race ended before it started. Tompkins crashed in a training run at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. His first training run showed potential for a medal stand. The second involved a crash at 60 miles per hour along a distance of 60 yards, off an edge and into a bowl.
He stayed conscious while being transported by helicopter to a Russian hospital. The United States Olympic Committee moved him to another hospital in Germany. He had a broken femur and hip and had a hip replacement procedure while there.
In his hospital bed he said he was “taking up finger painting now so I don’t have to worry about any more crashes…”
He almost didn’t travel to those Olympic games as the invitation from Team USA was on short notice and he hadn’t skied the past season.
He told his mother he didn’t think he wanted to go.
She replied, “What would you tell your boys?”
That struck a nerve. Tompkins had been a baseball coach with the Gastineau Channel Little League for 18 years at the time and the Thunder Mountain High School Falcons baseball team for five seasons. Those years have since multiplied.
“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 is that you were there and you went for it.”
When Tompkins was selected as grand marshal for Monday’s parade he at first declined, but again, his mother reminded him of who he is and what he stands for.
Joe Tompkins may have regrets, but they always fall away in the snow or disappear over an outfield fence or get lost in a crowded gymnasium.
“I can’t say there are no regrets but I can’t think of them,” he 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.”
The first time I met Joe Tompkins was atop Eaglecrest.
“Follow me,” he said.
And I have tried ever since.