The Fall and Rise of Roy Tuscany
- By David Goodman
Roy Tuscany was flying.
The talented skier from Waterbury, who grew up setting his edges at Sugarbush and Mad River Glen, was on the cusp of making it big. After graduating from Harwood Union High School in 1999 and getting a degree in mechanical engineering from UVM in 2004, he headed west to ski in the big mountains.
Tuscany’s talent for big air, speed, and style landed him a job as freestyle skiing coach at Sugar Bowl Academy near Lake Tahoe, California, and with support from numerous sponsors, he was beginning to realize his dream of becoming a professional skier.
On April 29, 2006, he and some other coaches were skiing at Mammoth Mountain in California. Always charging hard, Tuscany was up early trying to persuade his buddies to take a morning run through the terrain park.
His ski pals were up for cruising but not jumping. So Roy decided he’d take a few laps on his own. He headed right for a jump that he had skied before. Only this time was different.
“As I launched I knew I was going too fast,” Tuscany tells me. Using his hands to draw a picture in the air, Tuscany, thirty-one, describes how he would normally rise into the air and land on a downhill slope to absorb the impact. This time, he flew right over the landing.
“I remember being in the air looking down and going over the roll. I shut my eyes and said, ‘This is gonna ... hurt.’”
Tuscany smashed into the ground like an egg dropped from a window. “I felt like my legs went through my shoulders,” he says, his animated voice channeling a constant torrent of energy. “The worst part is when I went to sit up, everything felt like a million pounds below my bellybutton. … I couldn’t wiggle my toes. I just started screaming the most intense screams I’ve ever let out in my life.”
Tuscany couldn’t tell how badly he was hurt. He got a clue when his girlfriend skied up to him. “The expression on her face was as if she were looking at a puppy that had just been run over.”
The ski patrol brought Tuscany directly to an ambulance. At the hospital in Reno, Nevada, he underwent a CT scan. A technician examined the results and looked ashen. Tuscany had burst his T12 vertebra, the hinge of the lower back.
“You are never going to walk again,” the technician blurted.
At the age of twenty-four, high-flying Roy Tuscany was grounded. He was going to be a paraplegic.
A second chance
Roy Tuscany can’t stop laughing.
He is sitting on the back porch of his dad’s house in downtown Waterbury overlooking the town green. He is cracking jokes, putting people at ease, finding humor even in grim stories.
There he was on a table in the ER getting a CT scan, he chuckles, trying to get his limp body to resist the male nurse who was attempting to cut off his clothes.
A friend suddenly shows up at the front door. Roy rises from his lounge chair and walks over to greet her.
That’s right. Roy Tuscany walks. With a pronounced limp, but he walks.
Peering out from beneath a gray trucker’s hat, the young man with a permanent smile and a spray of whiskers beneath his chin has defied the odds and worked his way back from the abyss.
Tuscany’s secret, besides months of grueling physical therapy at a Reno hospital, was to connect with people via a simple act: a high five.
“What I learned in the hospital is that doctors, nurses, and physical therapists are petrified of disability. They would stand at the end of the bed and look down at you with a clipboard. I wouldn’t allow that.”
And so the crippled young man from Vermont, in an act of hope and defiance, would raise the only part of his body that he could—his hand. At first, his caregivers were puzzled. Then they got used to it: everything with Roy Tuscany had to start with a high five. “It broke the ice,” he says. “It’s just a way of being positive.”
Tuscany’s high fives buoyed everyone around him. He was surrounded by friends—at one point, thirty-eight people were crowded into his room at Renown Rehabilitation Hospital in Reno. They ranged from students he coached, to Olympians, to his parents, Alec ’72 and Bonnie Tuscany G’82 of Waterbury, who were constantly by his side.
As Roy worked himself back from the brink, his colleagues at Sugar Bowl Academy set up Roy’s Recovery Fund. Within two years, there was $85,000 in the fund.
The support he got raised his spirits. But what got him walking again was Hope.
“I was lucky to get a physical therapist named Hope,” he says. “Hope never gave me a shot at saying no.”
Tuscany learned later that physical therapist Hope Hutchins was set to retire the day he arrived in the hospital. When she met Roy, she postponed her retirement. Hope had one last job to do.
Roy set himself a simple, enormous goal: to walk out of the hospital. I ask him what enabled him to keep to his goal through the hardest parts of his recovery. He replies quickly, “Kerrigan.”
John Kerrigan G’84 is a science teacher at Harwood Union High School who has coached the school’s cross-country running team for thirty-three years. The team has won numerous state titles, and Roy was a member of one of those championship squads.
He says that his former coach taught him that “a goal is not something you do in a day. It’s something you achieve over time.”
Tuscany spent nine days in the ICU, during which he had surgery to stabilize his broken back. He now has two rods, eight screws, and two plates that protect his spinal cord.
Forty-three days after Tuscany entered the hospital as a paraplegic, he walked out.
Roy Tuscany now has a new goal: helping others. “Paying it forward,” as he says.
While the overall injury rate among skiers has fallen by half since the 1970s, the rate of serious injuries has been on the rise as skiers go faster and attempt more challenging tricks. Serious ski injuries (including paralysis, head, and other severe injuries) occur at the rate of about forty-five per year, according to the National Ski Areas Association. During the 2010-11 season, there were sixty serious injuries—thirty-six occurred with skiers, twenty-four were snowboarders, and all but two involved males. Traumatic brain injuries are the most common cause of death among skiers.
In 2009, Tuscany launched the High Fives Foundation. The nonprofit based in Truckee, California, is dedicated to raising funds and awareness for athletes who “have suffered a life-altering injury while pursuing their dream in the winter action sports community.” The foundation has awarded more than $400,000 in grants to thirty-three athletes who have suffered injuries. The “winter empowerment grants” range from $600 to $25,000 and help with everything from purchasing adaptive ski equipment, to financial assistance for various therapies, travel, and living expenses.
“High Fives allows me to still be in the snow sports industry in a role that no one has gotten to play before,” he says. “We are trying to become the safety net in winter sports in prevention and in helping.” Toward that end, the foundation will soon hit the $1 million milestone in funds raised.
Veteran extreme skier and Sugarbush ambassador John Egan, one of Roy’s mentors and ski pals, says of Tuscany’s mission, “He is the true meaning of passing it on.”
ANOTHER HIGH FIVE
Phil Hoban was celebrating New Year’s Day 2011 doing what he loved. The 2005 UVM graduate was skiing at Squaw Valley in California, which is renowned for its steep lines and pro skiers. Hoban had been enjoying a great year, having just starred in a new ski movie.
The 27-year-old dropped into a steep narrow chute in the area known as the Fingers. But the patch of snow where he went to make his first turn wasn’t snow—it was blue ice. Suddenly, Hoban’s ski flew off and he was sliding out of control down the hill. He slammed head first into a rock wall. His helmet might have saved his life, but he was rushed to the hospital in Reno with a broken neck.
“There was no pain. I just couldn’t move my legs and arms,” he tells me.
That night in his hospital room, Hoban had a surprise visitor from Vermont. Roy Tuscany had come to give him a high five.
Hoban recounts that Tuscany said, “We’re here for you. We’ll get through this. Anything you need, we’ll do. And we’ll get you back skiing again.”
Hoban says he was extraordinarily lucky: he had successful surgery and narrowly missed becoming a quadriplegic. After months of physical therapy, he is walking and skiing again. “I definitely still have a lot of limitations, but I’ve gotten about 80 percent back,” he says.
Hoban now goes regularly to the C.R. Johnson Healing Center, part of the High Fives Foundation that offers free or discounted treatment and alternative therapies for injured athletes.
Hoban, who now works as a golf course superintendent in Truckee, says that the help he receives from High Fives is crucial to his recovery.
“A lot of therapy that I’ve found to be beneficial is not covered by health insurance and may not be recommended by a lot of doctors: acupuncture, quantum biofeedback, massage. But my weekly massage helps me and my body immensely. Lots of things like that would have been very difficult for me to pay for.”
On New Year’s Day this year, Phil Hoban did something that one year ago he and others thought might be impossible: he skied again.
“Skiing will never be same as it was,” he says. “But sliding on snow outside is still better than the alternative.”
Roy Tuscany is taking his show on the road. He wants to establish a Vermont office for the High Fives Foundation in an effort to expand awareness of the group’s work, spread the message about injury prevention and recovery. Last fall, he hosted a pair of packed fundraisers and returned to UVM to deliver a guest talk in Kate Finley Woodruff’s class in “Socially Responsible Marketing.” Tuscany and colleague Adam Baillargeon shared High Fives success with raising awareness and funds through tactics such as quirky events and compelling on-line video. (See highfivesfoundation.org and be sure to check out “5-Year Redemption: Roy Tuscany,” a video about the skier’s return to ski the site of his accident.)
The most powerful thing that Tuscany offers is his attitude in the face of adversity. “He is always this pillar of positivity,” marvels Hoban.
Tuscany is still adapting to his changed body. This irrepressible optimist seems destined to learn everything the hard way. This spring at a High Fives fundraising skiathon at Squaw Valley, he broke his femur while skiing.
“It made me realize I am no longer a skier,” he concedes. “I am an individual who helps winter sports enthusiasts through the worst parts of their lives.”
Tuscany continues to check off goals in his high energy, zigzag flight path through life. Fall 2011, he got married. A year later, he realized his dream of being featured in Powder magazine. “But it isn’t because of my skiing,” he adds, busting out in another belly laugh. He tosses me the glossy magazine with a big spread about his work with High Fives.
I ask Roy his advice for people facing adversity.
“Surround yourself with the most positive community of people possible,” he declares. “You can’t take on an injury yourself. You need a community. Whether it’s the ski community, or how Vermonters rallied to help each other after Irene, those communities are what make recovery possible. The community won’t let you down.”
This article was originally published in the Burlington Free Press.