Tom Cornell

July 2022 – Tom Cornell grew up transfixedTom Cornell 800x533 by the undersea documentaries of famed oceanographer and scuba pioneer Jacques Cousteau. Fifty years later, he is a diving veteran and advocate in his own right. While his childhood idol gets a share of the credit, Cornell says he would not have taken the plunge (quite literally) if another hero had not entered his life back in 1989.

“When I was in my mid-20s, I learned that I needed a kidney transplant,” he explained. “After about a year and a half on dialysis, a kidney became available. It wasn’t just any match, either. As it turns out, they had found a full house match – meaning an organ from a donor so perfect, it was like I had a twin brother out there.”

As far as blessings go, this was a decidedly bittersweet one. “My brother, my angel, was a man 11 years younger than me who had only just graduated high school before passing away,” Cornell said. 

“After the transplant was successful, I considered it my job to take him on all the adventures he didn’t live to experience. … Each year around our anniversary, I find something outside my comfort zone to honor that.”

This vow took him full circle to scuba diving. Cornell and wife, Brenda, received their open water certification (essentially, authorization to dive without supervision) in 1997. Next came master dive training in 2004, which cleared Cornell to lead excursions.

Over the past 25 years, the couple has traveled all around the world. Each adventure has had something to commend it, but a reef tour in Fiji proved especially memorable. 

“Brenda and I were traveling with a group, and the group included a young woman who had lost an arm and sustained leg injuries in a motorcycle accident,” Cornell recalled. “She didn’t let that stop her, though. She was an absolutely phenomenal diver. I thought that was really cool … and it really stuck with me.” 

After talking to other divers with disabilities, Cornell began to understand the liberating potential of scuba. “Someone told me: ‘You don’t get it. There’s nothing that compares to getting out of my wheelchair and being free to fully move. It’s a baptism that opens up your life.’” 

Cornell felt called to share this empowering message and experience with other would-be divers. He traveled to Denver to receive specialty training from A-1 Scuba & Aquatic Center, one of only a handful of trainers accredited by the Handicapped Scuba Association. “A-1 is owned by a former occupational therapist,” Cornell shared. “He has a great relationship with the local hospital where he used to work. They allow him to bring in divers with adaptive need to try out scuba.” 

“On the way home from Denver, Brenda and I began brainstorming and taking notes. ‘How can we do in Minnesota what they have done out there?’”

In partnership with friend and fellow HSA dive instructor Rick Kline, the Cornells founded a non-profit organization dedicated to that mission.

“FREE-DAPTIVE DIVERS creates scuba opportunities for people who, for whatever reason, think it is outside their reach,” he said. “We work with people who have physical needs, but also welcome divers with invisible handicaps like PTSD.” 

FREE-DAPTIVE DIVERS overcomes each client’s obstacles through a mix of specially modified equipment, adjusted diving techniques, and motivational coaching. Instructors and their novice divers can be found at lakes and pools across the Twin Cities. They also take occasional excursions to diving meccas like the south Caribbean’s world-famous Bonaire National Marine Park. 

Cornell calls this work a challenge and a privilege that never gets old. “A mentor told me once: ‘When you meet someone with a disability, you’ve met one person and their disability.’ Even when two people have the exact same condition, it can manifest differently – so no client is the same.”

In addition to his founding role with FREE-DAPTIVE DIVERS, Cornell is a champion for the adaptive sports community in other ways. 

“Tom has been a volunteer with Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute since 2014,” said Megan Welty, Manager of the Adaptive Sports and Recreation Department at Allina Health. “Over this time, he has volunteered with adaptive cycling and water skiing.” True to form, he also established a popular adaptive diving program for the institute. 

“I’d been aware of Courage Kenny and their rehabilitation work since I was just a little kid, and I’m happy to be a small part of it today,” Cornell said. “Volunteering there has put me in touch with even more inspiring people. I could not feel more fortunate.”

Cornell is a part-time Video Production Assistant in the City’s Communications Department. For his volunteer work, he was presented the 2022 Mayor’s Community Involvement Commendation, awarded to a City employee for volunteer work outside of their position.