Norway native doesn’t let paralyzing accident stop him


Staff Writer

IRON MOUNTAIN – Four years ago, Robert Coombs’ life was forever changed when he suffered a severe neck injury in a trampoline accident and became a quadriplegic.

However, the 2006 Norway High School graduate has not let his disability slow him down, and now his future is looking brighter than ever.

Coombs has started to receive recognition for his photography skills as a student at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Last year, he won a $1,000 Social Action Award for his entry in the 2012 ArtPrize competition.

ArtPrize is an international art competition held annually in Grand Rapids. The 2012 competition included 1,517 artists from 46 different countries.

Coombs’ entry, entitled “Disabilities and Sexuality,” showcased a series of black and white photographs of men with disabilities.

“I figured I would help educate the public that despite having physical limitations, we all are still sexual beings,” Coombs said of his inspiration for the series. “It was well-received at ArtPrize.”

Also during ArtPrize, Coombs was chosen as one of the top five artists in the two dimensional art category.

Coombs’ work caught the attention of a University of Chicago faculty member, who invited him to sit on a discussion panel during the Bodies of Work Festival of Disability Art and Culture, which will be held next month in Chicago.

The panel will discuss the documentary film “Nobody’s Perfect” by Niko von Glasow.

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post had heard about Coombs’ story. He recently wrote a series of blog posts about his experiences for the publication’s Arts & Culture web page.

It has been an eventful year for Coombs, but he admitted that getting to this point has been a challenge.

Coombs was seriously injured on April 24, 2009 while attempting to execute a double backflip on a trampoline at a gym in Grand Rapids.

He remembers the accident well.

“It started out like any other day – woke up, went to meet a friend for lunch, and then headed to the gym to train,” he said. “The training sessions last two hours, an hour of tumbling and an hour of trampoline.”

While on the trampoline, Coombs began the backflip.

“On the first flip, I opened up too early and freaked out in the air,” he explained. “And that’s when I landed on my neck.”

Although Coombs’ coach had thrown in a foam pad to break his fall, it was not enough.

“The angle that I fell at, the pad could only do so much,” he said.

Coombs added that he was awake and conscious the entire time.

Following the accident, Coombs was in the intensive care unit for about a month. He was then transferred to the University of Michigan Hospital for a six-week physical therapy program. He returned home to Norway on July 2, 2009.

Coombs is now a C4 C5 quadriplegic and paralyzed from the shoulders down. However, he does retain some movement.

“I have some movement in my right arm, enough to operate my iPhone and scratch my nose if need be,” said Coombs.

In August 2010, Coombs made the decision to return to Kendall to finish his degree. He already had three years of study under his belt before the accident occurred.

“My parents were very nervous having me move away so early,” he said. “I just knew I needed to go back to school and continue to follow my dreams, and my parents supported me in that decision.”

Independence was difficult at first, but Coombs was able to manage.

“Once I got in the swing of things, it was relatively smooth sailing from there,” he noted. “It’s necessary to have a schedule in order to plan your day out, but there is still room for spontaneity.”

Coombs also had to find a way to take photographs with his physical limitations. With the help of technology and Kendall staff members, he has no trouble.

“My professor, Adam DeKraker, informed me about this software called Capture One,” said Coombs. “What this software allows me to do is operate my camera from my computer by tethering. I am able to adjust all the settings on the camera and push the shutter.”

Coombs currently has several more projects on the horizon.

He is set to graduate from Kendall in May with a studio excellence award for his photography major. Then, he will attend the Bodies of Work Festival.

In June, he will be part of the Detroit Print Exchange, where he and 20 other artists will showcase their art in a gallery exhibit in Detroit and New York City. In the fall, he will exhibit his senior thesis at ArtPrize 2013.

When asked where he finds the strength to accomplish so much, Coombs credits his friends and family.

“I have an amazing support system,” he said. “I have a wonderful group of friends who are willing to help me at any cost, and of course my amazing family. Without any of them, none of this would be possible.”

Nikki Younk’s e-mail address is