Undeterred Courage: An Interview with the Founder of the High Fives Foundation, Roy Tuscany
Jeff Neagle: So Roy, where did you grow up?
Roy Tuscany: I grew up in Waterbury, Vermont. Right around the corner. My mom and dad were both 4th generation Vermonters and I am a 5th generation Vermonter.
Awesome. Can you tell us about your introduction to skiing?
Yeah! It was through the Waterbury Elementary Ski Program. So on Wednesdays they offered an after school program. We could go to Bolton. You got on a bus, you got rental equipment, you went to the hill and you just went skiing. And so the first day I got there, like all my friends (I had never skied, and no one in my family had ever skied)… so when I got there the first day I just paired up with my buddies who were all great skiers. Go on the lift, fell off the lift on the first try, got on the lift, went up to the top. My buddies went way down the hill way fast I had no idea what I was doing. Ended up on top of the “practice” slope, which is this really steep hill right at the base of Bolton and ended up just straight lining down thinking like, “okay, just go fast, you’ll get down, it’ll be over.” Well I ended up hitting right into the lodge. This is before helmets. So just WHAMMO into the lodge. Dust myself off, you know I look up and one of my friend’s parents is right there and he’s like, “you’re coming with me,” and I was like “ohh ok Mr. Breen.” He like dragged me over to this little fenced in area and was like, “this is where you’re going to be for the next couple weeks.” So my introduction to skiing went really fast, clearly, and it ended quickly to the lesson area that I was kind of deemed to for a while. And I was there for three weeks. Three straight weeks you know, pizza French fry man. Then started skiing and just absolutely fell in love with it.
When did it really become a passion for you?
It became a passion for me when I actually transferred from having a season pass at Bolton to having a season pass at Sugarbush. Sugarbush ran some deal when I was in 7th grade that you could get some discounted tickets. So I went to Sugarbush for a day and I was like “oh my god…”, I had never skied woods like that. Not that Bolton doesn’t have these things, but Bolton didn’t have quite as an expansive amount of terrain as Sugarbush. Went that day and then in 8th grade I joined the freestyle program there and I started skiing there like literally 4 to 5 times a week as a kid. It was just the best feeling in the world.
Did you have any skiing idols back then?
You know back then I would really say my first two real idols… what was the name of this ski movie… umm… I can’t remember the name of it. It was Glen Plake vs Brad Holmes… “Snow What!” And it was just Brad segment, Glen, Brad, Glen, Brad, and I was like, “that is sooo cool.” And there’s this poster that I had from Dynastar that had Brad Holmes riding a motorcycle through a fence and it’s like, “Brad Holmes hastily departs the farmer’s daughter’s house.” And then across the top it said like, “’when I die I want to have my friends eat my ashes.’ – Brad Holmes.” And I was like, “that is so core!” So I would say around 7th grade and 8th grade that was it. It was those two. After that I just gravitated as every single person did in the ski industry to Shane McConkey. I mean there was no one that possessed so much ability and could do everything. It made him stand out over everyone else. So Shane, and then the New Canadian Air Force. That was my crew. And then locally at Sugarbush there were four skiers that kind of like ruled the mountain which were John Egan, Doug Lewis, Jesse Murphy, and Chris Parkinson. And the four of them were always just shredding at Sugarbush so obviously from a local standpoint I was like, “I want to end up being that good of a skier at the mountain and recognized,” but then from a national perspective, yeah, Glen, Brad, Shane, and the New Canadian Air Force.
So tell us a little bit about your experience as a competitive freeskier? Are there any highlights or memories that stand out?
You know what stands out the most was when ASC (American Skiing Company) kind of purchased all those mountains they had a national partnership with Budweiser. And each mountain got to nominate two skiers, and so I was on the Budweiser Big Air Tour and I was on the Budweiser Aerial Assault Tour. I wasn’t like a regular on the Aerial Assault Tour, but I was a regular on the Budweiser Big Air. So I got to go around to all the ASC mountains for like three seasons and get to compete. Back then they used to line the hill with people, we had lights on…
I remember, I used to go to them at Sugarloaf.
Yeah! You literally felt like you were playing in a baseball game, but you were on your skis. So for me, just that across the board… Budweiser Big Air… gold. That’s my competition memory.
Awesome. Now, obviously in freestyle skiing injuries are a big part of the sport, it’s pretty common for someone to get hurt. You had a very, very serious injury, what was your initial reaction?
When I crashed?
Umm, I instantly thought that my entire life was over. You know, I aspired so hard to be a professional freeskier, and not to the point… I’m not talking like a Cody Townsend level, but I’m talking a guy that is respected in the industry, that has sponsors that take him around and gets to participate in great opportunities, photo/media shoots… So I was like right there. When I moved out to California and I started to really gain some exposure out there. The night before I got hurt we setup this amazing photoshoot with like 8 different photographers, two different film crews documented it all, and I actually have never seen the footage. We’ve just never done anything with the footage because the next day I got hurt and it just all kinda got lost in my accident. So, for me when I landed and hit so hard it, I thought life was over. But… it wasn’t, it was just starting.
So, when during the recovery period did you get the idea for high fives?
So here’s a good fact. So the first day in the rehab hospital, rehab hospital was 9 days after my accident, so May 8th or so, all of a sudden Sugarbush setup a fund for me called Roy’s Recovery Fund, and like being from Vermont, obviously there’s wealth here, but there’s nothing like compared to San Fransisco based wealth. So all of a sudden this fund had generated like $28,000 in a 24 hour period and I thought, “who has this type of money?” By the time everything was said and done about $85,000 was raised that I was able to use for two years. And so, all of a sudden I was like, “I gotta pay this forward,” and I started to think of this idea. The original name of the foundation was going to be Flip Back. Taking the word backflip, splitting it, flipping it around… but I started to high five my doctors because they were so awkward bedside socially that to introduce myself in a way they’d remember me I was like, “slap my hand!” And so that’s kind of where the name started. So it was literally like 8 days in, but it really didn’t formulate until about two years after my accident.
So for those somewhat unfamiliar with the organization what’s your mission statement?
Yeah! So High Fives supports the dreams of mountain action sport athletes through injury prevention awareness, while providing resources and inspiration to those who suffer life altering injuries. The foundation has the vision of being the safety net of the mountain action sports community. By combining all our programs we feel that we really encompass anyone who participates in mountain sports. When we first started it was just snow based, but now, because we’re so affluent in mountain towns we want to make sure that people who participate, from mountain biking to skiing to snowboarding to snowmobiling to anything you can do in a mountain action type of way that’s using gravity to propel you, the foundation wants to support you if you suffer a life altering injury.
So cool. Along the same lines, how many total athletes do you have right now?
So we have 125 athletes from 26 states, so we just broke the 50% of states line.
It’s gotta be somewhat hard to find gravity driven athletes in some states…
That’s what we thought, but you know we’ve got an athlete from Arkansas, we’ve got an athlete from Alabama, we’ve got athletes from Texas. So a lot of the spots we thought… you know, I don’t know if we’ll ever… maybe Iowa might be a hard one to grab? South Carolina… I don’t really see many applicants from those two areas.
Tell me a little about the injury prevention stuff you guys do, the B.A.S.I.C.S. program.
B.A.S.I.C.S. is an acronym for Be Aware Safe In Critical Situations. It’s a documentary based program where every year we pick one topic. That one topic is extrapolated out in a 25 minute documentary that’s shown for free online, distributed amongst many of the top industry leaders in the country and then also to local ski clubs, organizations, and then also local schools that are based in mountain towns.
Now I was browsing your website and this is something that’s new to me: the Military to the Mountains program. Are you going to be expanding to other areas beyond that?
Nope so we’re going to be pretty much in these five areas that the foundation is based on and this is the 5th and final program service for the foundation. Military to the Mountains was all conceived around a meeting that I had three years ago in Dallas, TX. We were gifted $25,000 by Richard Rawlings from Gas Monkey Garage. He brought down five nonprofits to receive a total of $125,000, $25,000 each. From him celebrating his 40th birthday that’s what he wanted to give back. I ended up meeting this guy named Dave Lebora, played in the NFL for four years, and he had just started a foundation called the Adaptive Training Foundation, which trained wounded vets. But they didn’t really have a purpose of what they were training for. You know they had ideas, but he wanted to conceptualize an idea where they could train for nine weeks and at the end of nine weeks they’d then come ski for a week. We talked about it three years (ago), two years later we did a pilot program with a wounded veteran, a guy by the name of Jacob Shick who was in the movie American Sniper, Director of the 22 Kill Foundation, an amazing human being. Went so well we ended up getting a partnership with Squaw Valley who ended up donating $185,000 to the foundation. That money was used to create a program that brought ten guys to the mountain last year. Now this year we’re going to bring 22 veterans and we’ll cap it at 22.
And you’re going to keep doing that?
Every year, 22 veterans.
Awesome. So because I follow you on social media, you just took a group to Hawaii right?
Is adaptive surfing as fun as it looks?
Adaptive surfing… here’s the coolest thing about surfing: So if you and I want to go skiing together my disability is going to limit you and I to maybe 10% of the trails on the mountain. They’ve got to be groomed, they can’t be too steep, they can’t have too many features… there’s a lot of stipulation about what I can and cannot ski. If you and I go surfing, I can paddle out to the same break as you, I can watch you catch a wave, I can then catch that same exact wave, you know to a certain extent, and then we just surf, and there’s no disability.
It looked like an awesome trip.
It’s unbelievable. Surfing is the most special thing I know.
So you just answered this, but you do still ski, obviously?
I do still ski. I will admit it’s not my priority. For me, like going up the lift with my friends is 10 times more exciting to me than actually skiing down. But I love being on the mountain, I love being immersed in the community, but I’m not the guy who is… Like when people start posting pictures in September like, “first snow man, fired up!” That’s not me anymore. When the trails have a lot of snow and they’re groomed nice and it’s sunny out I’m like yeah, let’s go skiing.
What would you say your favorite activity is these days?
You’ve worked with a ton of different injured athletes, what would you say to somebody who just sustained a really serious injury?
Surround yourself with community. Make it so at no time are you ever feeling like you need something and you don’t have anyone around to help you do it. If you can focus your energy so much on your recovery you are going to have a recovery for the record books. And that doesn’t mean you might walk again, but it means that you are going to move through the recovery process in a way, cause all these outside things that could be potentially pulling at you, pulling your mind away from the injury kind of dissipate away because you have this support system of the community. Family and friends are super key to have.
That’s great advice.
And from a stand point of High Fives, some people don’t have that, and when they don’t have that, that’s alright. High Fives has a giant, enormous network and we like to connect people with other like-minded athletes.
Very cool. Do you have any memories that stand out since the creation of High Fives?
From an athlete standpoint, Jeff Andrews. He’s a really high level quadriplegic with very little motion below his shoulders and he’s been training immensely for the last couple of years. And he continuously is just recovering. We got him into the ocean and now the guy is one of the best surfers. He has an amazing pusher. He’s a prone surfer. And so this year (yup, lies on his chest) we’re surfing. He catches a wave, I see it, I paddle and jump on the same wave as him and me and him just kinda went like this (motions sweeping turns) to the right together. After the wave kinda came down in size I’m like, “hey Jeff, dude, did you ever think we’d be surfing together?” and he’s like, “never.” And this is what I’m telling you is the best thing that I have going. You know, we had a conversation for like 45 seconds on this wave and that right there is just this defining moment. When a guy that we’ve helped get to such a point in a very hard recovery that he could come out and participate in an event that put a smile that big on his face… that one’s through the roof.
Alright, three more. We ask these to everyone we interview, so these are kinda fun. Who in your opinion has had the biggest impact on the sport of skiing?
That’s a tough one. There’s a lot of ways to look at that question. I don’t know… you know like 30 years ago Stein Erickson. I mean no one touched it like that. Then 25 years ago like Tamara McKinney, she was on the cover of Time Magazine. She was the Lindsey Vonn of that (era). 20 years ago the Mahre brothers. You know and then from there like I just truly believe that Shane McConkey is the greatest gift to skiing in the history of the sport. Those people I talked about were all revolutionary in a certain aspect. I mean Shane changed the way skis were shaped. Shane went to areas that were, you know, that had closeouts and he figured out a way to ski it. He did backflips, he did mogul comps, he went to Burke (Mountain Academy) and raced. Shane McConkey.
He’s always my answer. Along the same lines in the history of the sport of skiing what do you think the biggest technological breakthrough has been?
I really believe the biggest technological breakthrough is the boots. Like ski boots have transformed from being like floppy little football cleats to now, you know, like full walk mode to everything you can do in a ski boot now… it’s pretty amazing.
Now you answer this one as honestly as you can. If you had to choose between forgetting your boots at home on the best day of the year or getting stuck on a chairlift for an hour, which would you choose?
You know, I’m going to change the question because if I forgot my helmet, I would turn around and go home. Cause I don’t ever ski without a helmet.
That’s a great answer.
You know what, I think the helmet is just as important as the boots and I’m a big advocate for it from seeing the amount of injuries that we’ve had. You know there’s a really scary stat that the majority of spinal cord injuries have undiagnosed traumatic brain injuries. Because when you endure a spinal cord injury it puts so much force on your body and from that what comes of it is a lot. So I think it’s more if I forgot my ski helmet on the biggest powder day of the year I’d be more bummed than I would be about boots or sitting on a chairlift.
Well Roy I think that’s a perfect way to end it, bringing it back to helmets.
That was great, thanks!
Yeah, we nailed that.