Roy Tuscany grew up always wanting to be a pro skier. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 2004, he moved west to do just that. He moved to be part of the culture and to work towards his dream of one day going pro. He found work as a ski instructor at Sugar Bowl Academy, a ski school in California. He was making it happen. He was living the life he set out to.
However, in 2006, the trajectory of his life changed one fateful day. During a morning ski at Mammoth Mountain in eastern California, Tuscany over-shot a 100-foot jump by 30 feet, falling from 30 feet in the air. Right then and there, the course of his life was altered forever.
The impact of the fall shattered Tuscany’s T12 vertebra. He could no longer feel anything below his navel. He was even told he would never walk again. It was an altogether rude new reality he was faced with; a time with feelings of hopelessness and despair.
Fortunately, Tuscany was a candidate for spine stabilization surgery at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nev. While there, he also embarked on an intensive weeks-long rehabilitation program.
Tuscany was also blessed to have a strong support network. The outpouring of support from family and friends was tremendous. The Sugar Bowl community, together with his home community in Vermont, raised $85,000 to help fund his two-year-long road to recovery.
Tuscany was filled with a sense of gratitude. He made every effort to reach out to donors to personally thank them. Although he felt that wasn’t enough and was moved to do more. “I wanted to pay it forward,” said Tuscany. “I wanted to do for others what so many others had done for me.”
In 2009, with a new lease on life and a strong desire to give back, Tuscany started the High Fives Foundation with the mission to provide resources, support and community to outdoor athletes who have had life-altering injuries. High Fives also helps those with life-altering injuries that would like to get into outdoor sports.
“This was my way of giving back,” said Tuscany. “I wanted to let other athletes know that they weren’t alone and that there was life after their injuries.” High Fives is essentially about giving someone a high-five through their recovery process and introducing them to alternative sports such as adaptive surfing, adaptive waterskiing or adaptive skiing.
“Eleven years later, High Fives has supported 300 individuals from 38 states across the country,” said Tuscany. The organization’s growth has been both organic and remarkable. With every athlete they help, everyone connected to that athlete becomes a supporter. Much of the organization’s growth has been along these lines. Indeed, several High Fives athletes have gone from being fund recipients to becoming fundraisers and donors themselves.
High Fives has three key areas of programming: 1) The Empowerment Fund, 2) The B.A.S.I.C.S. program and 3) the CR Johnson Healing Center.
The Empowerment Fund makes resources available to those that have suffered a life-altering injury such as an amputation or spinal cord injury. Funds can go toward the cost of rehabilitation, travel, adaptive camps and to the cost of adaptive equipment. Adaptive sports equipment is especially costly as it is often custom-made.
Empowerment Fund recipients are called High Fives Athletes and are selected by an application process. Applications are assessed by a board and funds are dispensed on a quarterly basis. Outdoor athletes from Canada, the United States, and Mexico are eligible to apply. In the September 2019 grant cycle, 45 individuals received $176,046.41 in board approved grant funding.
The Empowerment Fund receives funding from donations, fundraising events and non-government grants. In-kind donations are also welcome.
The B.A.S.I.C.S. program
The High Fives Foundation also works to prevent accidents before they happen with their B.A.S.I.C.S. program, which stands for Being Aware Safe in Critical Situations. The B.A.S.I.C.S. program is the foundation’s safety initiative and is about “catching an athlete before they crash,” said Tuscany.
High Fives partners with prominent outdoor athletes to make public service announcement videos that encourage “critical thinking about playing safely.” Themes of prior PSAs include avalanche awareness, a successful ‘helmets are cool’ campaign and critical choices that enable greater longevity in winter sports.
CR Johnson Healing Center
Located in Truckee, Calif., the CR Johnson Healing Center is a 2,800-square-foot facility with “all the modalities that one would need for healing.” Treatments include physical therapy, acupuncture, massage and personal training. The center provides a sense of community and also “produces some amazing recoveries” in a no questions asked environment. High Fives Foundation is planning on opening similar healing centers across the country.
Keenan Weischedel is one of the High Five Athletes. Weischedel grew up skiing in Vermont and loved the outdoors. In late 2016, while skiing with friends at Mad River Glen in Vermont, he hit a jump and double-ejected from his ski-bindings. He landed on his head and suffered spinal cord trauma at the C7 level. He is now quadriplegic; while retaining full use of his arms, he continues to struggle with fine motor skills.
“It took me some time to adapt to my new situation,” said Weischedel. “But from the beginning, being able to be as independent as possible has always been my goal. I was actually living on my own one year after the accident.”
Weischedel says that High Fives provided him with a sense of community and introduced him to sports he may not have experienced otherwise. For instance, High Fives took Weischedel surfing on two occasions as part of their High Fives adaptive surf camps.
While living in Reno for a season, Weischedel played with the High Fives rugby team. Weishcedel continues to play wheelchair rugby and is a member of the United States Quad Rugby Association (USQRA). He competes with the University of New Hampshire USQRA team.
High Fives also helped Weischedel with the costs of an off-road hand cycle. “I can ride pretty much most mountain bike trails with my adaptive cycle,” said Wischedel. “If I can ride the same trail with my friends that I used to ride with them before my accident, it doesn’t remind me that I’m different. I love the stoke that you get when you’re riding with others. Outdoor sport was a huge part of my life before my accident. I was either biking or skiing every single day. Being able to bike and ski, to feel the speed and the wind in your face, that’s everything.”
Weischedel’s efforts to relearn how to ski continue. “After my accident, I used to stare at [the] big magic carpet of white snow that I can’t ski down. Now I can. It’s amazing.” He’s using a mono-ski and balances himself with two outriggers. “I basically had to relearn how to ski from scratch. It’s totally different. But I love it: the wind against my face, the speed, the adrenaline.”
Characterizing the value of High Five’s work, Weischedel said, “I’ve definitely met many others that could benefit from the resources and help that I’ve received from High Fives Foundation.”
Commenting on how the High Fives Foundation can benefit the snow industry, Tuscany says that there are plenty of ways to collaborate. “Companies looking to get involved with High Fives can help with events and also by helping to spread awareness about the organization. High Fives actually has a program called ‘Friends of Fives’ to facilitate donations. In turn, High Fives provides partner organizations with a corporate social responsibility platform. It’s a great opportunity that can be very win-win.”
Ultimately, Tuscany says that High Fives is about more than just providing financial assistance. It’s about helping injured athletes “stay stoked about life,” providing them a shoulder and a community, and the tools to move forward in their recoveries. He said, “High Fives really aims to be a beacon of hope to injured athletes.”