High Fives: injured athletes return to sports

Foundation provides support, services and healing at tahoe facility

PHOTO/HIGH FIVES FOUNDATION: Roy Tuscany, who is recovering from a spinal injury, started a foundation to help other injured athletes get back to an active life.

Roy Tuscany is reluctant to talk about the injury that changed his life.  What he really wants to talk about is what he’s done since.

Tuscany, a Sugar Bowl ski coach from Vermont who now lives and works in Truckee, Calif., was skiing at Mammoth Mountain in 2006, when jumped too hard and too high and crashed. He suffered a paralyzing injury to his spinal cord.

Airlifted to a Reno hospital, he woke up after a 10-hour surgery and held up his hand to the surgeon for a “high five”, a gesture where two people clap open hands together — meaning victory, resilience, friendship and encouragement. 

The High Fives Foundation grew from that moment, Tuscany said. Thankful for the support from his Tahoe community, he vowed to help at least one injured athlete to recover every year.  Today, 15 years later, High Fives has aided 463 athletes and veterans in 42 states and Canada, giving out $4.8 million in grants.

A new vocation

The group he founded in 2009 has become his life’s work:  to support athletes who have sustained a life-changing injury and pave the way for them to get back to the sport they love.  He’s not doing it alone.  The foundation employs 12 staffers; its board of directors numbers 17; and 150 volunteers have been recruited. High Five’s partners include sports manufacturers, local businesses, health providers, ski resorts and many others. The group sponsors activities in California, Colorado and Vermont.

The foundation started helping skiers and snowboarders, but now reaches out to athletes in other outdoor sports including surfing, mountain biking, dirt motorcycling/motocross and even fishing.  They help “anyone with a goal to be athletic,” Tuscany explained.  Within the organization, the key word is “athlete” rather than “awardee” or “recipient,” and any pejorative terms are shunned.

The foundation — and services it provides — has grown”organically through the needs of the community,” Tuscany said.  “Tahoe is the community we come from; the true people who call Tahoe home.”

Spinal cord and brain injuries

The Tahoe facility includes the CR Johnson Healing Center offering physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, active release techniques, restorative stretching, personal training and more.  Craig Hospital in Denver, a world-renowned rehabilitation hospital that specializes in spinal cord and/or brain injuries, has provided additional space and equipment to the center. The Healing Center attracts over 300 visits monthly, over 3,700 visits per year, by High Fives athletes and community members.

PHOTO/JORDAN DREW: Sean Kent.

“The gym is a huge part of what High Fives does for the local area,” said Sean Kent, 28, a Reno athlete who was a ski coach and skydiver, now recovering from a June 2020 spinal cord injury.  He was riding a dirt bike 10 miles away from any paved road in Nevada City when he hit a tree.  After three hours lying in the dirt, he was finally able to flag down a motorist who helped him get help.

Kent works out in the healing center two or three times a week, doing stretching and exercises for his core and upper body.  “It is a good transition to living daily life,” he said.  He currently uses a wheelchair because he has paralysis from his chest down.

He has received a grant from the REACH program which pays for therapy and home and automobile renovations.  He has attended High Fives camps at Sky Tavern near Reno where he met “10 other people in wheelchairs, which was super empowering. It helped me feel really comfortable that I will get there eventually.” 

All expenses paid

Among the programs of grants, medical and rehabilitation support, and fundraisers is a newer effort called Military to the Mountain.  Athletes selected from the Adaptive Training Foundation in Dallas, Texas and through the City of Reno, Nevada, receive nine weeks of training in March and April, preparing for one week of skiing and snowboarding at Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows) and Granby Ranch, Colorado, ski resorts.  All expenses, including transportation, housing, meals and adaptive equipment, are paid by the foundation and its partners. 

Military to the Mountain training facilities in Reno include Double Diamond Athletic Club, Title Boxing Club and the Evelyn Mount Northeast Community Center.  The 2020 program served 22 athletes in Reno-Tahoe and 10 in Colorado, said Tyler Lightcap, chairman of the High Fives board of directors.

“I’m excited about the direction High Fives is going,” said April Wolfe, therapeutic and recreation specialist with the City of Reno adaptive and veterans program, which provides training and adaptive equipment for athletes in joint programs like Military on the Mountain and other skiing, biking and snowboarding camps. 

“It is valuable to have these partnerships that have us all working together,” Wolfe said.

Caught in an avalanche

Another outgrowth of the High Fives mission is BASICS, a prevention program that aims to educate athletes, especially young athletes, about safety.  An annual documentary, available free online, has received 660,817 views as of Nov. 10.  It emphasizes helmet-wearing and awareness of conditions like weather when pursuing outdoor sports.

“We are the safety net of the outdoors sports community,” Tuscany said.

The foundation relies on corporate and individual donations, said Tyler Lightcap, a local financier and wealth advisor. In addition to his involvement as board chairman, Lightcap has come to appreciate the value of High Fives assistance for athletes in a direct way.  In March 2011, his brother, a snowboarder, was caught in an avalanche in Japan.

“When it hit so close to home,” Lightcap said, “I saw firsthand how the foundation brings people together and the need for support systems.”  His brother has made a full recovery, he added.

PHOTO/HIGH FIVES FOUNDATION: Roy Tuscany skiing “four-track” on the slopes at Sugarbush.

Skiing with a ‘four-track’

Roy Tuscany still walks with a limp and says his right side still doesn’t function below his knee.  He now skis “four-track,” meaning he uses outrigger skis on poles for balance as well as skis on his feet.   His recovery took two years in which he “tried every modality that I am able to share.” 

To that end, he walked the streets of San Francisco on a day in 2013 to give high-fives to every person he met, in order to promote High Fives.  He was rewarded with a Guinness Book of World Records entry that held the record for three years – a total of 9,325 high-fives in a 24-hour period. 

High Fives hosts three fundraisers this year:

Warren Miller film: A premiere showing of this year’s Warren Miller ski film “Winter Starts Now,” is scheduled Friday, Nov. 19, at the Reno Ballroom, 401 N. Center Street in Reno.  The evening will include an array of winter sports vendors, raffle prizes, celebrity athletes, and the opportunity to see two amazing films. The 11th installment of High Fives Foundation’s documentary series B.A.S.I.C.S (Be Aware Safe In Critical Situations) will be shown first.

Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 day of show, at Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/warren-millers-winter-starts-now-reno-premiere-tickets-194644796827

The Silver Tie Gala: the event is scheduled on Dec. 16 from  7:30 pm to 9:30 p.m. at Dolan Lexus, 7175 S. Virginia St. in Reno.  Details: High Fives at 1-530-562-4270.

Play Forever Fridays at Boreal: High Fives Foundation partners with Boreal Mountain ski resort which sponsors Play Forever Fridays, a fundraising promotion that donates $5 of every $25 lift ticket bought online on one day every month from December through April.

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