The Comeback Kid: #13 in a Series


On June 3, 1969, twenty-six year old Dennis Tapp was working the graveyard shift at a gas station in Vallejo, California. Three men walked into the station brandishing guns. He gave them all the money out of the cash register, the blue chip stamps, and his wallet. Then one of the robbers instructed him to turn around. Dennis felt the first bullet hit him in the middle of his back. He experienced a floating sensation when he was hit with another four bullets. Another man was murdered.

After the men left, Dennis was able to reach for the phone and request help from the operator. The police arrested the group right away. They were sentenced to life in prison, and later released in 1988. The ABC News program 20/20 contacted him to appear on a special called “Life After Death Row” and he was able to meet his assailant face to face. Despite everything Dennis has been through, he is not for the death penalty.

Dennis went through a lot. When he arrived at the hospital, he could only move one toe. He was paralyzed from the waist down. His physical therapist had hope that he would walk again. He had excruciating pain from the spinal cord injury. “But I didn’t let the pain get to me,” he recalled.

He spent the next six months in the hospital, working on his mobility. In the rehabilitation gym, he used parallel bars to balance himself. He wore braces around his knees and a belt with a handle so his physical therapist could hold him up as he attempted to walk. He could not feel much below his feet. His weight dropped from 156 lbs. to 112 lbs.

When Dennis left the hospital, he walked out using polio crutches. He still needed a wheelchair for another two years. Then, after a year and a half, he progressed from polio crutches to canes. And after another year, he was able to walk without any assistance. “I kept thinking positively. I learned how to walk and then years later ride a bicycle,” he explained.

Mind you, Dennis had only been on a bicycle twice in his life. He never really learned how to ride one before. By 1980, he was feeling out of shape and decided to do something about it. “One day with my warped sense of humor, I decided to buy one of those K-Mart specials, a Huffy. So I rode that bike on the sidewalks to get home. That 15-minute ride from K-Mart to my home was a workout,” he admitted.

Since Dennis still had 30-40% paralysis below his waist, he had to lean to the left, his stronger side, to get on and off the bike. He gradually built up his stamina by going a mile further a day. “After a while, I realized I didn’t like that Huffy. It probably weighed 35 or 40 lbs. It was a heavy bike. I decided to buy a 10-speed Peugeot for $400 with all the bells and whistles. Then I found out about toe clips. It took me about a week to get used to them, but everything was a lot easier with those toe clips,” he recalled.

Dennis learned how to cycle well. He could spin 90 rpms. He could stand up on the bike and sprint up hills. “I worked up to 30 or 40 miles a day, then up to 50, 60, 70 miles per day. After a while, it seemed easy. So in 1982, I decided to bicycle across the United States on the Bicentennial Trail which is 4200 miles,” he explained, “I wanted to do something to prove that I wasn’t disabled.”

He bought panniers for his bike and gave himself a budget of $10 per day. People treated him well. He made 200 friends along the way. They invited him to spend the night in their homes, schools, and even jails. Coffee shops and restaurants piled extra food on his plate when they saw him pull up on his bike. He has fond memories of stacks of pancakes the size of plates. “They rolled out the red carpet for me,” he admitted, “The thing I looked forward to the most was a hot bath.” What’s his advice for anyone bicycling across the United States? “Go with the wind. Go from west to east in the summer,” he answered. “I hit heavy 70 mph, hurricane force winds in Wyoming and Montana. They were at my back. I flew over the Rockies. It was fun.” Most of the time, he averaged 12-15 mph with his bike weighing 70 lbs, loaded with gear. Some days he only traveled a block. One day, he rode as far 165 miles (by accident). The entire trip took him three months.

When he returned to Oregon, he got into walking. He managed 3-4 miles per day at first. In 1992, Walking Magazine honored him as the Walker of the Year. After a couple of failed attempts at a marathon due to illnesses, he completed the Portland Marathon in 7 1/2 hours.

A triathlete friend turned him on to hiking mountains. Together, they climbed all of the highest peaks in Oregon, including South Sister, Mount Thielsen, and Diamond Peak. He also climbed the majority of Mount Whitney in California with his wife, but had to stop due to a severe headache from the altitude.

Today at the age of 66, he uses a cane again, but it doesn’t stop him from getting around. Dennis continues to walk in 5ks, 10ks, and half marathons. And what his advice for athletes who are getting over their injuries? “Think positively! You have to see yourself getting better,” he explained, “It’s more than physical. It’s mental. You have to think positively.”

NOTE: If you have a good comeback story, please contact me at sixtwothreetries@gmail.com. I’d like to interview you. I hope this will be the first of many Comeback Kid stories. Here’s why.