A group of little kids on razor scooters swarms around Robert Thompkins and Angelo Sanchez. Even with the abundance of wheeled apparatus zipping around the new Lakeside Skatepark, they're the only two in wheelchairs. Their helmets and gloves indicate that they won't be sitting on the sidelines.
"Are you gonna drop into the bowl?" one curious youngster asks.
"Is that a special wheelchair?" another asks.
Thompkins answers the questions without a hint of annoyance. Yes, he'll likely drop into the steep skate bowl. And, yeah, he's in a special prototype chair, one he's helping a company design specifically for the emerging sport of chairskating, or adapting skateboard tricks and riding techniques to wheelchairs. Sanchez is just 5 years old, so he shyly stays to himself and lets Thompkins, his chairskating mentor and coach, field the questions.
The two guys are at the skate park to protest a rule that states the park is just for skateboards.
"Park is for skateboarding only," reads a big green sign that's already been defaced by those who disagree with the rule. "Bicycles, rollerskates, scooters, motorized vehicles or other wheeled devices are not permitted in the skate park," it continues.
Thompkins says he heard about the skateboard-only rule on KUSI-TV and immediately wanted to ride the skate park despite the risk of being cited.
"I find it ridiculous," Thompkins says, pointing out the obvious mixed traffic at the park and the gobs of local kids on bikes and scooters who seem to agree with him. Thompkins plans to hold a chairskating-awareness event at the park, located on the southwestern edge of Lindo Lake County Park, at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, June 14. The event is part of an ongoing series he calls "Looking Beyond the Wheels." He's held about a half-dozen similar events across the region in hopes of inspiring kids and other folks in wheelchairs to take up the sport and push their limits. This one will also advocate for opening public skate parks to wheelchair athletes.
"I mean, I no longer have the privilege to get on a skateboard or a bike or a scooter and say, 'OK, I'm going to do this,'" he says. "The wheelchair is it. And for someone to tell us we're not allowed in a public skate park is unjustifiable."
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose district includes Lakeside, is currently working with the community to make the park more inclusive. The rule, however, was put in place due to a recommendation from the County Counsel's office, which cited two state health-and-safety codes that create liability issues when it comes to people riding anything other than skateboards. Jacob would like to have at least one of the codes amended. For now, though, the rule stands, and wheelchairs, along with wheeled devices other than skateboards, aren't allowed.
"I'm committed to working with the community to come up with solutions to broaden the use of Lakeside Skate Park," Jacobs says in a written statement. "I'm certain those discussions will include bikes, scooters and even wheelchairs."
Thompkins rolls his way to a set of stairs in the skate park; it takes him just a few seconds to decide that he'll be able to build up enough speed to jump them. He unbuckles his seatbelt and pulls himself out of the chair, scooting up the steps one by one and picking up the chair and moving it to the top of the steps.
"I get along with skateboarders, bicyclers, scooters," he says as he reaches the top and lifts himself back into his chair. "It's a community. I mean, skateboarding is a brotherhood, and I want Lakeside and the county to know, hey, I'm here to fight it. You want to tell me I'm not allowed to skate in your park? Well, here I am. I'm going to, and I'm not going away, and I don't think anyone else is, neither."
Thompkins was confined to a wheelchair after breaking his back in a cliff-jumping accident at a swimming hole on the outskirts of Julian. The date—Sept. 10, 2005—is burned into his brain as the day everything changed, but details are vague. He was 23 at the time and out partying with friends. He did a cannonball into what turned out to be very shallow water and woke up in a hospital, unable to move his legs.
"I don't even remember jumping," he says. "But I'm grateful things turned out the way they did. If I had dived in head-first, I'd be dead."
The tattooed, 32-year mechanical-engineering technician grew up in San Diego. He started skateboarding when he was a kid, mostly taking advantage of the street-skating spots in North Park. He kept skating until the day at the swimming hole. He's says the sport in his blood, and there's no way he could quit.
Two years after the accident, he took up chairskating, something only a handful of folks were doing worldwide back in 2007. Even now, he says he's one of just a few athletes serious about the sport. He's the first chairskater he knows of to do both a 50/50 grind on a stair handrail and a manual 50/50 grind, essentially balancing and sliding along a thin rail in his wheelchair.
"The popularity is growing," he says. "But when I started doing what I do, I was the only one in San Diego."
Through his chairskating, Thompkins has garnered multiple sponsorships from skateboard shops, shoe and clothing companies and Colours Wheelchair, the manufacturer he's working with to design a chair better suited for the sport.
But even if he isn't able to carve out a full-time career in chairskating, he says the sport will always remain his passion and the best way to keep him from feeling sorry for himself.
"For me, it's how I find my peace," he says. "It's my meditation. It's how I get away from it all... Finding yourself in a wheelchair not thinking you'll be able to do what your passion was, and then finding out you can—it's heartwarming, it really is."