Helping Hand

Helping Hand

Roy Tuscany and his High Fives Foundation have helped more than 100 athletes recover from major injury and return to the sports they love.

We’ve all had them: those sudden “Whoa!” moments of almost crashing while skiing. Maybe you were cruising too fast and caught an edge, maybe you almost hit a tree, or maybe you misjudged the landing on a jump. For most of us, the moment comes and goes before we have time to process it. But others aren’t so lucky.

Take Vermont native Roy Tuscany. In 2006, in the Mammoth Mountain Terrain Park in California, Tuscany suffered a major crash: he gained a little too much speed while launching off a jump, and overshot the landing by several feet. He fell brutally hard. “When I went to sit up,” he later told the Burlington Free Press, “everything felt like a million pounds below my belly button. . . . I couldn’t wiggle my toes.” Lying in a hospital in Reno, Nevada, Tuscany was diagnosed with a burst fracture of his T12 vertebra, in his lower back, compromising 45 percent of his spinal cord. The injury left his lower body paralyzed, and doctors told him he would never walk, let alone ski, again.

But Tuscany isn’t one to give up, and he immediately made a decision: through a simple action, a high five, he would try to make a connection with each of the doctors and other medical professionals who came into his room—he would try to get them to stay positive about him and the possibility of recovery.

As it turned out, the doctors and physical therapists didn’t give up on him, and neither did the ski community. With the emotional and financial help of local skiers, community members, friends, and family, and through significant rehab and medical procedures, Roy stepped back into skis two years after his accident.

Tuscany was so overwhelmed by the community support he received that he was inspired to start a foundation to help athletes in similar situations. Named after that act of connection in the hospital, High Fives (founded in 2009) has so far helped 112 athletes across 23 states recover from major injuries and return to the sports they love. In the last year alone, High Fives received ninety-one applications from athletes and was able to approve sixty of them. The organization raises money through a combination of grants, individual donations, and events. Last year’s total was $1.1 million.

One of those athletes is Lindsey Runkel, who broke her T5 and T6 vertebrae while mountain biking in 2014, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. Runkel was attemping a drop she’d never tried before, down about fifteen feet onto a tough section full of rocks and roots. As she was landing she realized she didn’t have enough speed; her front tire grabbed a rut, throwing her over the bars and straight onto her back. “I never thought I would be able to be as active as I am today, and I attribute all of that to High Fives,” she said. “They have given me my life back. They have supported my every athletic endeavor and even given me a chance to get more therapy than I would have been able to afford.” Now Runkel can be seen out on the ski slopes, surfing waves with other High Fives athletes, and traveling the country independently.

Or take Maxwell Elles, who was injured in 2013 when he hit a hidden ditch while snowboarding at Killington and broke his back. He received help from High Fives with funding, training, and rehabilitation therapy (including massage, acupuncture, and structural integration). “It’s difficult to explain the full effect of High Fives in my life,” Elles told me. “Not only have I been adopted into a family network of amazing people all around the world, so have my family and friends.” He went on to credit Tuscany. “Roy is as concerned with the well-being of my mom, dad, and brother as he is with the relevant issues in my life.”

High Fives is based in Truckee, California, but it has strong roots in the Valley, with many locals and Sugarbush employees active and involved in the organization (and many of them sporting Big Truck hats with the High Fives logo). That’s because Tuscany spent most of his early ski career shredding terrain at Sugarbush as part of the Diamond Dogs, Sugarbush’s cream-of-the-crop freestyle team.

Sugarbush holds a kickoff party with Mad River Glen every November, “The Big Kicker,” which features presentations, raffles, and giveaways from High Fives with Tuscany on the stage. Later in the winter, Sugarbush hosts the High Fives Fat Ski-A-Thon off the Summit Quad at Mt. Ellen. (This year, the event moves to the Valley House Quad at Lincoln Peak.) Raising money for the foundation through pledges, more than a hundred skiers lap the chair all day, seeing how many circuits they can complete before the lifts close. Last winter the event raised over $150,000, with top fund-raising honors going to a pair of Sugarbush skiers named Rubi (twelve years old) and Mae (ten years old) Murphy, who together raised almost $21,000. (Rubi and Mae are the daughters of Jesse Murphy, director of development for the foundation, and Heidi Witschi, a member of the Sugarbush Resort Real Estate team.)

Sugarbush and the High Fives Foundation stay connected in other ways as well. The resort has hosted the High Fives Charity Golf Tournament for several summers, with wacky rules for each hole, like using air guns to tee off or trying to hit an old Sugarbush gondola on the first drive. Sugarbush also helps sponsor a new BASICS film (Being Aware Safe in Critical Situations), released annually by the foundation and focusing on different aspects of skier safety.

The partnership between Tuscany’s new foundation and his old home mountain should keep on growing along with the success of High Fives. As Tuscany continues to help athletes and build his foundation, he hasn’t forgotten about his roots. “When you make that turn at the corner of Route 100 and Route 100B, and you catch your first glimpse of Lincoln Peak, there’s really nothing like it,” Tuscany told me. “To this day I still get chills returning home and seeing that view of my old mountain.” This past season, for the first time since his accident, Roy had a season pass to Sugarbush, thanks to his relationship with the mountain. “It felt so good to have a pass again to my favorite resort, my home resort, and the place that made me the skier I am.” Even though he only ended up skiing five days, to him it was a magical number. High five.

Roy Tuscany (right) with Jesse Murphy, High Fives' director of development (left), and Rob DiMuccio (center), from High Fives foundation partner Smith Optics
Roy Tuscany (right) with Jesse Murphy, High Fives’ director of development (left), and Rob DiMuccio (center), from High Fives foundation partner Smith Optics

The U.S. Paralympic Adaptive Ski Race Camp Comes to Sugarbush

Over three days in February 2016, thirteen athletes from the Northeast took part in the U.S. Paralympic Adaptive Ski Race Camp, hosted by Sugarbush, the High Fives Foundation, and Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports.

World Cup Champion and ten-time U.S. National Champion mono-skier Chris Devlin-Young worked with campers on the fundamentals of skiing and advanced techniques in the racecourse, including gate training, tuning lessons, mono-ski setup, and video analysis. (Known by most as CDY, Devlin-Young has the longest-standing winning streak in U.S. Alpine Skiing history.) All of the invited athletes have suffered sports-related spinal cord injuries and are working their way back into competition. 

The High Fives Foundation paid all of the athletes’ expenses at the camp, which was based out of Mt. Ellen’s Vermont Adaptive center, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization that empowers people of all abilities year-round through inclusive sports and recreational programming.

Two athletes from the camp were awarded an invitation to the U.S. Paralympic Nationals, hosted at Loon Mountain: Greg Durso from Stony Brook, New York, and Emily Cioffi from North Easton, Massachusetts.

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