Athlete Profile: Roy Tuscany

Adaptive athlete and High Fives founder on freedom and hope

By Domenica Berman
Photos by Trevor Clark

Roy’s infectious energy shows as he gets out of the water at Duke’s Ocean Fest.

“Holy crap, first place!” Roy Tuscany exclaimed at the scoreboard minutes after his third heat of the day. He’d won first in his heat and advanced straight to the finals the next day in the Ventura Paddle Surfing Championships this past October.

The Paddle Surfing Championships include “open” events for all athletes and also “adaptive” competitions for athletes who are disabled in one way or another. The adaptive athletes use waveskis, which are a mix of a kayak and a surfboard for maximum paddle power and maneuverability.

When I asked Roy how it felt to win his heat he said with a laugh, “It’s really fun to win something again! It’s been a long time.” He went on to explain, “Ever since my injury, competition is something that has gone by the wayside.”

It’s been about ten and a half years since Roy’s injury. An aspiring pro-skier, he overestimated a jump by 30 feet in Mammoth. His spine was compromised by almost 50%, causing motor and sensation loss from the waist down. Fortunately, a group of friends in Lake Tahoe and a supportive community from his home town of Waterbury, Vermont, stepped in to raise funds for his recovery.

Roy started therapy right away and was able to sustain it for two years. He tried all sorts of therapies including physical therapy, acupuncture and massage. As a result he was able to regain much of his motor capabilities, allowing him to walk and with time, ski again and learn to surf.

Surfing is a whole new type of therapy that is starting to gain footing with adaptive athletes. Talking to many of the adaptive athletes at the contest, they all mentioned similar experiences that surfing and being in the ocean brought about; feelings of freedom and independence. Many of them also mentioned the seemingly contradictory elements of excitement and anticipation but also immense calm to which anyone who surfs can relate.

Jeff Robertson, owner of LeGrand Adventures and a friend of Roy’s since before the accident, talked about Roy’s drive to get back to doing sports and the immense progress he’s seen in his biking and surfing skills. “Roy’s real passion lies with surfing though. He has fully caught the surf bug and you can see it in his eyes,” said Robertson.

Many of these athletes had been professional skiers or aspiring pros but not many of them had surfed before their injuries. Since surfing is something completely new and approachable, it is really a positive challenge in all ways.

“With surfing, able-bodied and adaptive athletes can paddle out to the same break, spend time in the water and catch waves as a group. Which is amazing, because in other sports, the terrain (as in skiing) can be limiting to adaptive athletes, but with surfing we are all equal in the water,” observed Tuscany.

According to a 2004 study by Anderson KD at UC Irvine, at that time there were 200,000 people living with a spinal cord injury in the U.S. alone. It was estimated that more than half of those don’t have access to trained professionals to help them exercise. In another study back in 2001, it was stated that sport participation can “reduce clinical depression, decrease re-hospitalization, improve family and social interaction and prolong life expectancy among SCI patients.”

Funding is limited though and most people’s insurance will run out after a few months or a year. That is where Tuscany saw a gaping hole in the road to recovery and set to work to patch it.

After recovering somewhat from his injury, Tuscany devoted himself to helping others with similar injuries, an undertaking that has continued to inspire him and those around him.

In January of 2009 he started the High Fives Foundation, inspired by how many high fives he received on his path to recovery. The non-profit is based in Truckee, California with offices in Reno, Nevada and Waitsfield, Vermont.

The High Fives Foundation not only funds recovery for athletes with spinal cord injuries, but also aims to provide preventative information to young athletes. Through a program called B.A.S.I.C.S. (Being Aware Safe In Critical Situations) it aims to “promote smart decision making in the mountains.” B.A.S.I.C.S. creates a documentary every year focusing on one aspect of mountain safety and streams it for free online while also touring it around the country, showing it in schools and to professionals in the industry.

Tuscany’s sense of humor is consistent with his enthusiasm for his work. He joked about how he is essentially the equivalent of the guy in the hairclub for men commercials from the 90s where the guy would say “not only am I the hair club president but I am also a client.”

“I am the founder and executive director [of High Fives] but at the same time, I’m an athlete just like the athletes who we’ve supported through the organization.”

The High Fives Foundation has supported 125 athletes from 26 states across the US and is continuing to grow.

“Injuries don’t stop and we don’t ever want to stop someone’s recovery so by providing them financial assistance we’re able to have them set goals and get to where they want to be.”

The most satisfying part of founding and running the High Fives Foundation for Tuscany has been just that – helping other athletes. “Providing freedom, hope and support to these athletes is the most rewarding part of my job.”

Roy carves a wave during the Dukes Ocean Fest.

At home in the waves.

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