Facing Your Fears: Bob Vogel

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on February 25, 2022 # Lifestyle

Bob at the beach[I’ve been in a chair for 25 years and often wonder how other old-timers have navigated their way through decades of living with paralysis. So occasionally, I’m going to locate them, ask them, and write about them.]

Bob Vogel – writer, former professional freestyle skier/stuntman, 37-year T-10 paralytic – recently sent me a photo now fixated in my brain. Taken exactly a year after his injury in 1985, he is soaring above the ocean in a self-designed hang glider, equipped with landing wheels, his body stretched out, his wheelchair resting on the ground. Not only is he as free as a proverbial bird, he got there on his own – he took a non-adaptive sport and adapted it. I can’t imagine the thrill of that first flight. It must have been heart-stopping.

But to hear Bob’s story of almost four decades in a chair, hang gliding – not to mention snow skiing before mono-skis or water skiing or sailing in a self-adapted catamaran -- was far from the most frightening feat he attempted post-injury.

That was going to college.

A high school dropout with only a GED in hand, Bob was freaked out by all the stares and sad faces and even more so by math and science classes, going in, he says, at a fifth-grade level. But persevering and getting a BA was the key to everything. He had conquered his greatest fear.

Growing up in the Bay Area, Bob’s dream since age 12 was to be a professional free-style skier or a ski aerialist, leaping, flipping, and corkscrewing from up to 40 feet in the air. This is years before the Olympics added aerials as a medal sport in 1994. Scratching out a living, he made it to the top US amateur circuit in freestyle and then turned pro to perform in ski shows, both at resorts and also “dry land shows,” doing double somersaults off of an artificial indoor AstroTurf ramp and landing on an airbag.

Bob VogelHe then added Hollywood stuntman to his resume. His greatest film exposure was the 1983 snow romp, “Hot Dog – The Movie.” Okay, it wasn’t academy material – one review tagged it as “an odious sexploitationer… against a background of skiing at Lake Tahoe” – but Bob talked his way into being the main stuntman, got his SAG union card, and soon joined the world’s most elite eight-person ski show team that, courtesy of Volvo, traveled the planet wowing the weekend snow warriors (and bunnies). “Every day,” he says, “was a sports hero/rock star fantasy.” Remember, Bob was all of 24-year-old.

Then he, in his words, “blew it.” Doing a test run of an 80 foot back somersault, like a thousand times before, he went too high and too fast off the ramp, landed on his shoulders, and fractured his back.

Severely depressed, he says he had two things going for him. One, he had no one else to blame; he couldn’t act out his rage on, say, a drunk driver. More importantly, the lightweight wheelchair, invented only a few years before, saved his life. “I got to say, that was massive for me, for those people who don’t remember the dark ages of clunky hospital chairs.” Slipping into that Quickie, Bob was an athlete using a chair, not a hopeless cripple wasting away. “It was like a racing bike. It was cool.”

Of all things, a blockbuster action movie helped bring him out of his depression. Strongly identifying with the Mel Gibson character in the original “Lethal Weapon,” a borderline suicidal in deep emotional pain, Bob decided to take the same devil-may-care attitude toward life and do the things he most feared, like math class.

There is much more to the story of Bob Vogel, but take this from one survivor. Nothing many of us take for granted – disposable catheters, portable ramps, 14 lb. chairs – existed 40 years ago. Things got a lot better, and will continue to do so. And use your injury as an impetus to face your greatest fears. Really. What do you have to be scared of?

(Bob Vogel is a regular contributor to New Mobility magazine and an ambassador for Motion Composites.)

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.