Three skiers that suffered life-altering hardships have helped others through the High Fives Foundation
On April 29, 2006, Roy Tuscany was having a bad morning. He thought a couple laps alone in the Mammoth Mountain terrain park would clear his head. More specifically, Tuscany wanted to hit the step-up jump he and the rest of the Sugar Bowl Ski Team coaches sessioned weeks prior. Around 9 a.m., and without checking his speed, Tuscany cruised in and popped off the takeoff. Soaring through the air, he watched the knuckle, and then the landing of the jump, disappear below him. In the moments that followed, he closed his eyes. His life was about to change forever.
Everything in the C.R. Johnson Healing Center is happening simultaneously. From his desk chair, Tuscany, 31, rips open an envelope for a donation check, while speaking to a corporate sponsor on the phone, and giving hand-signal directions to Adam Baillargeon and Steve Wallace. In the corner, Baillargeon, 29, crafts a weekly e-mail blast highlighting the foundation’s new program, B.A.S.I.C.S., which promotes safety and awareness in the mountains through coaching. The program’s director is pro skier J.T. Holmes. All the while, Wallace, 31, handwrites thank-you notes to recent donors.
This is a typical day for the High Fives Foundation. Based in Truckee, California, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit is dedicated to raising money and awareness for athletes that have suffered a life-altering injury while pursuing a dream in the winter action sports community. High Fives is the preeminent foundation of its kind in skiing and a staple of the Tahoe area, throwing fundraisers—big and small—almost every day of the week. As of August 2012, the foundation has raised just under $900,000 in their three-year history.
Tuscany awoke to an air mask on his face and two ski patrollers tending to him. “My then girlfriend and her best friends were right there,” says Tuscany. “They looked like they had just seen a puppy get hit by a car.”
Rushed to the local hospital, he was told he’d broken his T12 vertebrae and would never walk again. “I thought, ‘No, that’s impossible. I’ll be fine in a couple of hours,’” he says. Tuscany was flown to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada, for surgery to repair his broken vertebrae that had been dented like a soup can.
The morning after surgery, Bill Hudson, a former Olympian and executive director of the Sugar Bowl Ski Team Foundation, set up an umbrella fund called Roy’s Recovery Fund. Supporters raised $25,000 in the first week following his injury and $85,000 over two years. The money went toward physical therapy and disability and adaptive equipment.
In the hospital, Tuscany developed a way to put his caretakers at ease. “Doctors and nurses are literally petrified of you,” he says. “They are visiting so many people and they’re only there to tell you what you’re supposed to get for drugs and care.” He felt like there wasn’t a personal connection between him and his doctors, so he started insisting they give him a high five. “At first they were like, ‘What do I do?’ and I said, ‘Just slap my hand. I’m not going to kill you or anything.’”
After 43 days of six- to eight-hour sessions of intense physical therapy, he walked out of the hospital with the assistance of a walker and ankle foot orthotics. He flew back to his native Vermont to be close with family and friends and work with personal trainer Wayne Burwell on stabilizing his core, hips, and knees.
Tuscany elected to return to Tahoe in December 2006, putting the Roy’s Recovery Fund money to use by visiting Ladd Williams, a physical therapist in Truckee that was helping a local skier recover from a traumatic brain injury. In therapy, Tuscany and the local skier hit it off, and the two walked the road to recovery together, getting to know each other in the process. Above all, Tuscany and the local skier, C.R. Johnson, wanted to return to the mountains.
Growing up in Saco, Maine, Adam Baillargeon did the typical things kids from Vacationland do—skiing at Sugarloaf and playing sports. After an injury, Baillargeon had surgery to fix a collapsed lung. A year later, during a checkup, doctors found a tumor between his lung and rib cage. A biopsy revealed the worst—he had Synovial Cell Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. He was 17. Baillargeon went through surgery to remove the tumor followed by five months of chemotherapy and radiation. In the fall of 2001, a family friend approached Baillargeon about a trip with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He was asked if he could do anything, what he would do.
“I was thumbing through the pages of POWDER and without hesitation said, ‘I want to go ski at Squaw with Shane McConkey,’” says Baillargeon. The trip was arranged, and in February 2002, he headed to Squaw with his family to meet and ski with McConkey.
“He was this scrawny young kid that was super cool with great manners,” recalls Sherry McConkey, Shane’s wife and founder of the Shane McConkey Foundation. The trip would leave an impression on Baillargeon.
He beat cancer, finished high school, and later graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a bachelor’s degree in Media Studies. In October 2007, Baillargeon headed West after landing a job as a marketing coordinator at Squaw Valley.
In April 2008, Tuscany put on his first event, called High Fives, a best 540 contest at Sugar Bowl (today the event is known as Trains). The idea was conceived during a backyard brainstorming session. Following the success of the event, Tuscany launched High Fives Non-Profit, the name deriving from his hand slapping hospital antics and the high 540s thrown at the event.
In September 2008, at an MSP Films premiere for Claim, Baillargeon met Tuscany. A month later, Baillargeon joined a weekly meeting, where Tuscany was trying to jump-start his grassroots nonprofit. Meanwhile, his physical therapy partner, C.R., triumphantly returned to snow.
On January 19, 2009, the High Fives Foundation became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. On a whim, Tuscany asked an angel donor for $250,000 to help fund the management and general costs of running High Fives for two years. Patrick Rivelli, the angel donor whose identity was made public in 2012, made his money in the medical supplies industry and wanted to give back to the winter community.
With the capital and recognition, Tuscany asked Baillargeon if he would jump in full time as marketing director and vice president. He accepted the offer.
“I wanted to be doing something I believed in,” says Baillargeon, “to be a part of something beautiful.”
With the establishment of their new foundation, Tuscany and Baillargeon had to find their first grant recipient.
On April 10, 2008, Steve Wallace, another Vermont native and former ski racer, was on his final run of the day in the Corkscrew area at Squaw’s Granite Chief. After a few high-speed turns, he tried to jump over a cat track, but didn’t clear it. His body scorpioned and slid to a flat spot, which was where the helicopter landed to fly him to Reno’s Renown Regional Medical.
Wallace broke his T7, T8, T9, T10, and T11 vertebrae and burst fractured his T8 and T9. He was paralyzed from the belly button down. Following surgery and through hours of rehab, Wallace first walked inside parallel bars two and half months later, and walked unassisted eight months after the accident. During that time, Tuscany reached out and the two talked over the phone during his recovery.
A year later, Wallace met Tuscany and Baillargeon at a pre-Trains party in Truckee. The two were looking to find a grant recipient. Wallace wanted to ski again. He applied for the grant, and in December 2009, the High Fives Board of Directors voted to issue their first grant to Wallace. They paid for adaptive lessons, ski equipment, and a gym membership to help with his rehabilitation.
Tragically on February 24, 2010, just weeks prior to Wallace’s return to snow, C.R. died after a fall on Light Towers at Squaw. The ski community was in shock and the outpouring of support was overwhelming for the Johnson family.
“People were trying to give us money,” recalls Kahlil Johnson, C.R.’s sister. “We didn’t want money. We wanted a brother.” On the day her brother died, Kahlil went to his house. On C.R.’s desk, she found a list of things her brother wished to accomplish. Among them were these words:
Charity work w/ Roy
The Squaw Valley Prom—one of High Fives’ largest and rowdiest fundraisers held at the resort—is quickly approaching, and the C.R. Johnson Healing Center is buzzing. Six months ago, on August 10, 2011, the place officially opened its doors. There are three rooms for locals to receive affordable, alternative healing in the form of massage, acupuncture, and physical therapy. In the office hangs the note written by C.R.
“They’ve put together a place for us to put our energy and where I feel at home,” says Kahlil. “I feel my brother’s presence there.”
That September, the board, of which Kahlil and Rusty Johnson, C.R.’s father, sit on, decided to bring in Wallace, who had continued to work with the foundation a full year and a half after High Fives approved his grant, as the C.R. Johnson Healing Center Coordinator.
Thus far, High Fives grants have assisted 27 athletes, including 17-year-old Landon McGauley of Quesnel, British Columbia.
“High Fives has changed my life,” says McGauley, who dreams of making the 2014 Paralympic Games. “One of the toughest weeks for me was the week my local ski hill opened and I couldn’t go out. High Fives had me out skiing the next week in California with amazing instruction, and they also donated a great sit-ski. I haven’t missed a weekend of skiing since.”
Tuscany, Baillargeon, and Wallace hope to continue raising money in the effort to help others and one day open up more healing centers across North America. Although hardships marked their pasts, together they are united under the banner of doing good and changing lives for the better.
“The amount of power they have behind their crippled bodies is beyond anything else,” says McConkey. “They’re so positive, and everybody should experience that with them.”
Click-in to HighFivesFoundation.org to learn more and donate.
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