In 1988, a motorcycle accident halted Army veteran Geoff Hopkins’ plans to complete ROTC and reenter the Army as an officer. But it was in that accident that Geoff found his new life’s purpose – a career in recreation therapy that helps disabled veterans and others with disabilities to find hope, health and passion through sports.
Geoff on the course for the Paralyzed Veterans Racing Team
Geoff with his son after a race. Photo credit: Heather Hopkins
“Obviously, the motorcycle accident changed my plans,” Geoff says, “but it forced me to regroup and figure out what I wanted to do.”
Geoff continued his studies at Marshall University in Huntington, WV, completing his Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice while also attending rehab at the VA hospital in Richmond, Va. It was at the rehab center where he met a recreational therapist named Mike Cook, who introduced Geoff to wheelchair sports and wheelchair racing.
In 2001, after wheelchair racing for more than 20 years, Geoff found a new passion in handcycling. He now actively participates in Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Racing Team and has just bought a new racing chair in hopes of competing in his first triathlon this fall.
“I want to prove that I can do it and do it well,” Geoff says. “I just want to continue to be better, compete at handcycling and beat the people I know I want to beat.”
Aside from serving on the racing team, Geoff also worked for Paralyzed Veterans in the national office for almost 16 years, primarily in the Sports Department.
Geoff also is active in other sports, including tennis, water skiing, golf, scuba diving and skydiving. “I just want to experience everything that’s available to people with disabilities,” he says. “It’s really unlimited. You can do anything you want, you may just have to do it a different way.”
That’s the same sentiment he’s trying to communicate to newly injured veterans and others with disabilities, Geoff says. He now has a Master’s Degree and works as a certified therapeutic recreation specialist – a career that helps him coach newly injured veterans that you can still live an active and quality life despite a disability.
“I remember when I was six months injured and met this guy who had been in a wheelchair for 30 years, and he was zipping up and down the hallway at the Richmond VA,” Geoff says. “I thought, I hope I’m like that in 30 years, and now, it’s always great to help those younger folks who really are still processing what just happened to them.”
And it’s the participation in and commitment to sports that have helped Geoff, not only physically but also mentally and socially, he says. Sports have brought him the confidence to pursue his advanced degree, land some great jobs, get married, buy a home and raise a son – all of which “are proof that life goes on,” he says.
Geoff also tries to use his platform as a non-service connected veteran to help others like him who may not be aware of the benefits they are entitled to under the VA system, such as vehicle adaptations, stairlifts and prosthetics.
“To help veterans and other people with disabilities is what I’m here for,” Geoff says. “The purpose of my life and the purpose of my injury is to help other people. I want to show them that life goes on and that you can be an active participant in life.”
Read more about Paralyzed Veterans of America members and adaptive sports
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.