Em(powder)ment: After life-altering injuries, High Fives Foundation gets athletes back in action

Claire McArthur / Tahoe Daily Tribune
Adaptive skier Trevor Kennison rides in the terrain park at Woodward Copper Mountain Park during High Fives Foundation’s Retro Shred-a-thon.
Photo / High Fives Foundation

Sixteen years ago, Roy Tuscany soared 130 feet off a step-up jump in Mammoth Mountain— a feat he’d accomplished just weeks earlier — and landed on his back. The 24-year-old professional skier and coach fractured his T12 vertebra, paralyzing his body from the waist down. 

“Until you know someone with a disability, you really don’t understand or even recognize what that person might go through. It changes them not just physically but mentally, socially and environmentally,” says Tuscany. “There’s usually two mindsets: ‘What can I do to get my old life back?’ And the other is, ‘It will never be the same, but it will be awesome.’” 

Though it certainly wasn’t easy, Tuscany chose the latter. With that same determination, he pushed himself in physical therapy, and over time, remarkably, regained the ability to walk, albeit with a limp and certain limitations. 

Adaptive skier Jay Rawe hits a jump at Palisades Tahoe.
Photo / Kate Abraham

Tuscany credits his recovery to the community of family, friends and healthcare workers who buoyed him during those difficult years. And he wanted to pay it forward. 

With $500 left over from his disability check, Tuscany started High Fives Foundation in Truckee in 2009 with the goal of providing support to others who’ve suffered life-altering injuries. Named for the high fives he gave the doctors, nurses and therapists during his time in the hospital, Tuscany has grown the nonprofit into a multi-faceted organization that has provided services and a community to over 500 injured individuals and veterans. 

“Our flagship program when we first got started was our Winter Empowerment Fund, which provided financial assistance to those that got hurt in a winter sport and also got people back to winter sports,” explains Tuscany. “Now 13 years later, we’re really focused on outdoor sports in general. If you get hurt in an outdoor sport or you want to get back into an outdoor sport, we want to help you get there.”

To date, High Fives has disbursed $6 million in grants to help support the recovery of those who’ve suffered life-changing injuries, as well as supply adaptive sports gear and other equipment to make daily life easier. 

An adaptive biker rides at Northstar Bike Park as part of a two-day event put on by High Fives Foundation.
Photo / Alpine Media

“We provide the out-of-pocket, non-insurance cost of recovery. So when people run out of physical therapy or they want to try alternative healing methods such as massage, acupuncture, or Eastern Medicine, we cover that,” explains Tuscany. “High Fives steps in to provide modifications to homes and vehicles, and also mental health therapy and any type of equipment they might need to improve quality of life, like a shower chair.”

Two years after its inception, High Fives opened its CR Johnson Healing Center in Truckee. 

“When we first started, the facility was under 800 square feet, and now we’re at 6,000 square feet and provide over 125 hours of free one-on-one workouts to people that are supported by the organization,” says Tuscany. 

Just two years after his injury, Tuscany stepped into his skis once again and went down the mountain at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort outside of Truckee. Getting people back into outdoor sports — often something people have written off with their disability — is at the core of what High Fives Foundation does. High Fives hosts camps year round and brings its athletes to adaptive sporting events around the country for skiing, mountain biking, surfing, fly fishing and motocross. 

“Athlete is a term we use instead of recipient, grantee, or awardee. ‘Athlete’ has nothing to do with professional status. It has to do with goal setting. Every individual that we provide funds to has to set a goal that the funds we’re providing will help them attain,” explains Tuscany. “After you’ve had a life-changing injury and you call someone an athlete again, it helps them re-identify with who they might be and what they might have lost. It’s incredibly empowering. Words matter.” 

It’s certainly true for Winter Park-resident and pro-adaptive skier, Trevor Kennison. Back in 2014, Kennison broke his back while backcountry snowboarding on Vail Pass and became permanently paralzyed from the waist down. He didn’t know what life would look like after that. 

But with the help of friends, family and High Fives, Kennison got a sit ski — a fiberglass molded bucket seat above a ski used with outriggers attached to his hands — and got back on the mountain. With an infectious positive attitude only matched by Tuscany himself — who he is quick to credit with helping to get him where he is today — Kennison has gone on to make history for adaptive skiers. In 2019, he launched off of Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson Hole, also known as “America’s Scariest Ski Slope,” and three years later, he became the first adaptive skier to hit the X Games Big Air jump. Full Circle, a documentary following his journey back to skiing the spot on Vail Pass that changed his life is out this fall. 

“High Fives was everything. It’s a family. I think that’s the biggest part,” says Kennison. “I didn’t know what to do after my injury. I didn’t know where to go, and Roy and High Fives showed me there’s life way beyond being injured. There’s surfing, biking, skiing — there’s all of these awesome amazing things that we are doing.”

On High Fives’ website there is a metric that’s tracked alongside grants funded and athletes served. To date, High Fives has facilitated 305 first-time experiences. After a disabling injury, life can feel limited and shaped by what’s not possible. High Fives wants to squash that mentality. 

At a fall motocross camp hosted by High Fives in Colorado, athlete Jesse Alberi was hesitant to get back out on the dirt bike. When he finally did, the pure joy on his face was something that Tuscany won’t soon forget.

“He went out and when he came back in, the smile on his face was almost like the Joker in the Batman movie. It was just stuck there,” recalls Tuscany. “As that grin finally allowed him to talk, he looked around and was like, ‘I just did something that I never thought I was ever going to do again. I had written this off. And I just did it.’” 

High Fives continues to evolve to expand its reach. The organization’s Military to the Mountains program selects 22 veterans and first responders every year to receive nine weeks of personal training for a week of skiing at Palisade Tahoe and Granby Ranch in Colorado. A new educational program launched this winter aims to educate recreationalists on preventing injuries through presentations at schools, clubs and other organizations. 

“I think High Fives has been able to elevate the way that folks with disabilities are perceived but also the idea that there are no barriers to entry,” says Tuscany. “We all can adapt and overcome. I think a staple of High Fives has been that exact thing: For 13 years we have continued to evolve and adapt and overcome, and that’s just because it’s built into the community that we serve. We build it into who we are and what we’re doing.”

Editor’s note: This article appears in the 2022-23 winter editions of Tahoe Magazine.

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