Picture Me Rollin’

Robert Thompkins' wheels of steel can't stop, won't stop.

Photo by Ryan Bregante

Robert Thompkins is a rarity in today’s age of saying a lot and doing a little. His dedication hails from a time before trendiness, where skateboarding was considered “counter-culture” and becoming a skater meant signing up for ostracization from the ordinary nine-to-five lifestyle. This ethos molded him into the man he is today. When a spinal-cord injury gave him the ultimate excuse for stopping his passion, he refused to surrender.

Mass Appeal: Who is Robert Thompkins?

Robert Thompkins: I grew up in San Diego skating. I wasn’t the best. You know, I had my tricks, but it’s always been a passion of mine. And then I broke my back nine years ago cliff-jumping near where I live. I still had the passion in me to push the limit, but I could no longer do it with my skateboard. I’d be on my way to work and I’d see handrails or stair- sets and I’d just be in my head saying, “This is possible. This is what I got to do.” And rather than think more and more about it, I pursued it with actions.

Who were some of the people who helped you make it a reality?

Honestly, my biggest inspiration has been my younger brother Charles. He gave me the inspiration to try and skate with my wheelchair.

Where did that learning process begin?

Memorial Skate Park, Ocean Beach Skate Park, the streets. Obviously, dropping in on a skateboard is completely different than dropping in on a wheelchair. Doing a 50/50 on a stair handrail—it’s all-different. When I first started doing this, there was no special wheelchair. We couldn’t go out and buy these wheelchairs that had all the necessary stuff to make it a reality. A friend of mine I grew up with welds, and I said, “Yo, this is what I’d like to have done.” And that’s how I started, just with my basic rigid wheelchair.

There were a lot of face-plants. On a wheelchair, unlike a skateboard or bike, when you know you’re going to fall, you can’t bail out. In a wheelchair, you’re taking all of the impact with you, so you pick your battles and cross your fingers it works out the way you’d like it to.

What were some of the reactions like the first time you went out to the park?

People were in shock. In the beginning, when I was talking to friends and family about it, they said, “Ahh… we’d rather you not. You’re already hurt, and we don’t want to see you get hurt any more. We don’t think this is possible.” And that’s all realistic concerns. But at the end of the day, you have to do what makes you happy. Life itself is a chore. Life itself is one of the biggest chores there is. Either you live your life the way you want to, or you live life in a cocoon. And I can’t do that, nor do I think anyone else should.

Do you feel that’s a mantra you’ve learned from the skate community?

Skateboarding has changed a lot since I was a kid. It’s accepted now, but when we were kids it wasn’t as accepted. When you were skating in the streets, you kind of felt like a rebellion ’cause the general community didn’t accept it. Unless you actually put your foot on a skateboard, then you’ll never know the feeling that it gives you—and it’s the same thing with my wheelchair. Skateboarding and what I do with my wheelchair, I don’t consider it a trend—I consider it a lifestyle, a brotherhood. When you land a trick, the feeling that it gives you… that’s what I do it for.

How do you intend to give back to that community?

I have a lot of goals. This past year, I started the organization Looking Beyond the Wheels. We go out to public skate parks throughout San Diego and we open it up for other people in wheelchairs. I want to give as much to the participants and the parents as I can. I don’t want to get all the glory out of what I’m doing.

It’s hard to explain the feeling that giving back brings. It makes you want to cry, because the parents, they don’t know what their child is going to be capable of. Because when you find yourself in a situation like this, it scares you—it scares you a lot. You don’t know what you’re going to be capable of any longer.

I wasn’t born with my disability…It’s something I did to myself; it’s something I can only blame myself for. The kids that are out there pushing themselves and going for it, it brings a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. I’m not selfish, dude. I didn’t learn how to drop in just to keep all of the lessons to myself. It should never be about that. The only way that our sport is going to grow is by putting yourself out there and making yourself available for the parents and the children, and the others who had spinal- cord surgery or had to have an amputation. That’s the whole point of living: actually living and showing others that they can still live too.

This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 56, which is available for purchase here. Read more stories from the issue here.

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