Eric Thompson is on the go, in more ways than one.
A native of Tucker County, West Virginia, an area known for its wide array of outdoor recreation activities, Thompson grew up very active—a trait that continued into adulthood.
After graduating from college and working a few “office jobs,” Thompson wanted to spend his time outside and pursue a career in the outdoor industry. Somewhere in between raft guiding in Alaska and ski patrolling in Oregon, he decided to earn his Wilderness EMT, which brought him to yet another destination: Lander, Wyoming.
“It was definitely a very high level, professional course that was not only technically accurate but also engaging in a fun way,” he says of his time here in 2008. “We got to do the full immersion which was really advantageous. Whenever you couple that with the hands-on scenario training for wilderness, it definitely prepares you much better than a lot of more traditional EMT classes would.”
Thompson says that his completion of the WEMT course helped him with his career as a commercial raft leader, making it easier to get new interviews for jobs, move to various places throughout the United States, and to act as medical personnel on trips.
Then, on November 12, 2012, Thompson’s world took a turn.
He was in a car accident that paralyzed him from the waist down. He says his training and career as a WEMT helped him overcome the accident and be optimistic about the situation.
“Working as a wilderness EMT, working on the rivers in remote locations with injuries, or working, in particular, as a ski patroller, you end up in a lot of those challenging positions where there’s never enough resources available to make it right,” he says.
“The situations can be very challenging—and very messed up—at times, but the fact of the matter is you don’t have time to be concerned about what you don’t have, it’s more about being prepared and figuring out how to make the most of a situation.”
Make the most of a situation he has, indeed. These days, Thompson is an athletic public figure and an advocate for the disabled community. He continues to explore and adventure through adaptive ice climbing and rock climbing with Paradox Sports, cross country skiing and downhill mono-skiing, handcycling, and mountain biking.
Thompson still pursues his passion for rafting, too. He’s designing a concept for an adaptive oar rig platform that not only helps him enjoy one of his favorite activities, but also has the potential to pave the way for others with disabilities to go whitewater rafting.
When trying to find a way to get back in the rapids after his accident, Thompson found that existing kayaking adaptations weren’t a good option for his needs, but that rafting could work with extra stabilization to immobilize his back and upper body. With that in mind, he and his friends designed and tested a raft prototype featuring a high-back seat with a customized strapping system to stabilize his torso. Initially designed for personal use, he is now in cahoots with Creature Craft to make the concept available to the public.
“I’ve created a system that allows me to access substantially bigger whitewater than pretty much anyone else with my injuries, that I know of, is doing independently,” he says. “We’re trying to see if we can really take adaptive rafting to a whole new level.”
Yes, this guy is basically Superman.
When he’s not out and about and pushing boundaries in the outdoor industry, Thompson works as an advocate for the disabled community by promoting ADA compliance to allow disabled individuals to safely access public establishments.
“For a number of years I worked in outdoor education and adventure sports and patrolling,” he reflects. “Very shortly after my accident I realized that the region I live in in West Virginia is terribly inaccessible and non-compliant with general universal accessibility, and no one was really doing anything about it.”
He aims to change that, promoting places that are accessible and using direct advocacy to implement changes and make it possible for disabled individuals to have better access to certain places in West Virginia. Currently, he is working on building up his nonprofit, WVOnTheGo, whose mission is to help local businesses better serve clientele of all abilities and grow the local sustainable economy. The nonprofit’s website will feature the “Accessible Adventure Guide,” a Yelp-style guide where people can rate and review businesses throughout the entire West Virginia region (and wherever else users want to add) based on accessibility.
“If someone from D.C wants to come visit the area ... they’ll have actual pictures and honest reviews so they can figure out if it’s able to meet their needs or not,” Thompson explains.
“By promoting the area as an accessible destination, to bring people in and be able to share what we really like about the area with people of all abilities, we’re also growing the customer base—it’s financially advantageous for our local businesses.”
To quote a visitor’s post on Thompson’s Facebook page: “One of the most resilient people on the planet represented here. Listen well, the words he speaks carry a message most deep.”
That, in itself, says it all. Eric Thompson’s message is one of resilience, optimism, and determination. He is an inspiration—as a WEMT graduate, an athlete, an advocate, and as an unstoppable individual. As he would put it:
“‘Handicap’ just means you work harder, not that you're dis-abled. The adventure rolls on.”
About the Author: Sarah is a Wyoming native, recent Wilderness First Responder graduate, and Marketing Coordinator for the NOLS Wilderness Medicine. When she’s offline she enjoys running, singing and playing guitar, and playing in the mountains.