Possibility not disability: the freedom of adventure

Topher Downham is a Colorado park ranger, a skier, a downhill mountain biker and a serial adventurist. He’s also quadriplegic, but that never stopped him. He tells Aaron Millar his inspiring story

Topher Downham: Nineteen years ago I was in school at the University of Colorado. I was 26 years old. I was kind of an athlete. I was into climbing, mountain biking, ice hockey. Then one night a few buddies and I went out drinking and ended up deciding to go for a swim. They walked into the pool: I dived in. I thought I was doing a shallow dive so I put my arms to my side, thinking I would just cruise to the other side, but I ended up smacking my head on the bottom of the pool. I immediately became paralysed in the legs and the arms, my buddy had to save me. After that it was three months in the hospital – I eventually got my arms back, but I was paralysed from the waist down. While I was in there I saw a video about four-wheel mountain biking for people with disabilities and thought to myself I’ve got to do that. And I’ve been going on adventures ever since – at least one a year.

Aaron Millar: What happened next?

I focused on what I needed to do to heal. I turned healing into a sport. I just kept telling myself I could get through this. I think that helped with the whole process of grievance. For the most part I had a pretty positive attitude. I just channeled all my energy into recovery and finding out about other sports I could do, irrespective of my disability. Adventure has always been a part of my life, but I had to learn to reframe it. I try and look at possibilities not disabilities.

“I turned healing into a sport. I just kept telling myself I could get through this.”

How did you do that? How did you reframe your mind?

I just found a way to centre myself to my new situation and figure out my abilities. Then I wanted to know how I could push it. Once you’ve had freedom it’s hard to lose it so you do anything you can to get it back. You can accomplish remarkable things if you put your mind to it. But they have to be accomplishments that you want, not that someone else wants for you.

Can you tell us about a few of the adventures that you’ve had?

I travelled across Sweden, Norway and Denmark on my bike last summer, we managed about 35km a day. My buddy carried most of my gear on his bike and I carried my wheelchair on the back of mine. It was something I’d always dreamed of doing and I managed to make it come true. I also went solo camping, carried my sleeping bag, tent, backpack – everything – on my lap. I figured out how to set it up myself. It was beautiful. I’ve done skydiving and I’m signed up for a scuba diving trip in Mexico later this year. I also do the adaptive team challenge every year: it’s a race up here in Colorado. Every team has to have two disabled people and three able-bodied people. One of those disabled people has to be in a wheelchair. It involves white water rafting, hiking, zip lining, and orienteering. You have two days to get through as many checkpoints as you can, and you have to all finish together. We’ve won the last two years.

And why do you do it – how does it make you feel?

It’s all about freedom. The skydiving you’re just falling – you’re not any different from anybody else – you’re just floating through the air and flying. That’s why I got into downhill mountain biking too – going down a mountain on these four-wheel bikes it felt just like regular mountain biking: dropping off of rocks, dodging trees, feeling the speed. It’s freedom from being in the wheelchair. But freedom from the mind also: freedom from being human when you can just attach to a Zen moment. Like when you’re skiing and you forget about your equipment, the mountain, the chance that you might fall. You just think I am the mountain, I am the skis, I am everything. It all synchs up. It puts life in perspective. It teaches you to embrace the simple things, the quiet things. You grow a lot when you push your edge and are trying things that you’re not necessarily comfortable with. But that’s also when the good stuff happens. It’s also about the people. You have to rely on the generosity of others, and that can be wonderful. In the end it’s not the journey or the destination, but the people you meet along the way that matter the most.

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Do you see yourself as an example to other people who are going through similar things?

I just try and live my life how I want to live it, but I’d love to have other people learn from that. Anything I can do to help other people reach their potential, I will. I feel like it’s also my responsibility to show able-bodied people a little about what it’s like to be disabled. I hope I’m pushing against some of the negative stereotypes. People can feel discomfort when talking to people with disabilities – a lot of people don’t know how to react or what’s politically correct. But I just want people to get past that.

Do you have a message for anyone that might be in a similar situation, or perhaps is able-bodied but never really challenged themselves in this way before?

We’re all dealt the cards we’re dealt, and you’ve only got one life to live. So you’ve got two choices: love life or fizzle away and hate life instead. I don’t have time for the second choice.

Topher recommends the following adaptive adventure organisations for people with disabilities:

And for some options closer to home try:

Visit Topher’s YouTube Channel to see videos of his adventures.

Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar. He writes about adventure travel, and personal development through exploring the world, at The Blue Dot Perspective.