By Laurel Winterbourne
"Thank you Roy. Thanks for making me go out." The sincerity in his eyes and contentment in his smile said it all.
After a 16-hour drive from Truckee, Calif. to San Clemente, Calif.; three days of roasting in the sun at the beach; late nights around the campfire; hours of paddling, surfing and repeatedly getting worked, Landon had made it clear that he would rather take a nap than paddle back out for one last session. Like a father whose years have taught him a thing or two, Roy Tuscany, the founder of the High Fives Foundation, wouldn't have it. "Put your wetsuit on and get your ass in the water. You're going out." That was that.
Landon McGauly, or Lando as we call him, is a 17-year-old Canadian from Quesnel B.C. who was on the path to becoming a professional mountain biker. An unfortunate accident during a race when he was 15 left Lando paralyzed from the waist down, but his positive and innocent demeanor doesn't let that stop him. "My legs don't work, so what! My head does. It's still me, just sitting." That same positive outlook in spite of his injury is what landed him little brother status with the High Fives Foundation, a Truckee, Calif.-based non-profit that helps injured athletes get back to the adventure sports that they love.
The High Fives Foundation has become an integral part of the Truckee / Tahoe community by organizing fun action-oriented events as a means for people to actively participate in the community. The money raised helps fund alternative treatments to aid in the recovery of their athletes as well as trips like this San Onofre surf mission.
Paddling out with the High Fives crew, Roy, Lando, Steve Wallace, John Davis, Danny Toumarkine and the beautiful Taylor Fiddyment was an honor. Almost all were injured doing the action sports they love, and yet each one has a more positive outlook on life than any able-bodied person I know.
Few of them had ever been in the ocean, and surfing was considered unattainable after their injuries. With legendary shaper Steve Boehne from Infinity boards and John Davis, an accomplished wave skier, as guides, these guys learned how to read the ocean, get into position, paddle and actually catch waves. Not only catch waves, but ride waves. And that was all in their first session.
Watching the drive and commitment they had to get after it was overwhelming. Imagine being on the inside and facing a 10-wave set on your first time out. Factor in that you don't know much about the ocean or the craft you are on and that you can't use your legs to aid in your own rescue and board and paddle recovery.
Then imagine seeing Lando pop over a passing roller after his royal beat down looking a bit disheveled and out of whack, but glowing with accomplishment and self-reliance, making sure to get into position for the next wave. I have seen a lot in my life as a surfer, but those moments broke me down to my very core; lump in my throat, tears on my cheeks and pride that I will never be able to fully describe.
After each epic effort, we all sat outside talking about how each wave was better than the last. Then one by one and a lot of times two or three at a time, we would all catch a wave. Solo waves, party waves, it didn't matter. There was no feeling of ownership in the water, no right to any one wave or another. The only feeling was of positive encouragement backed up by a lot of high fives, whoops and yeaaaaahs! The enthusiasm and stoke were all encompassing and contagious enough to spread to other surfers outside of our group. Pretty soon, we had other surfers joining in with genuine curiosity and appreciation for the feeling being shared. The feeling was too good, and they wanted a piece of it too.
This feeling was never more present than during the last sunset session in which Roy forced Lando to paddle out one more time. Roy is the king of positivity, and he seemed to know what was best for Landon, and what was best for all of us. That evening Landon caught more waves than anyone at the beach. He found that place where everything is in harmony and you become a part of the elemental balance of your environment.
Landon was the last one to come in that night, long after the golden southern California sun had set and the last diehard local surfer had called it a day. He wasn't even a silhouette on the water by the time he made it to the beach. Aside from the white board that gave him an opportunity to find his place in the ocean, the only thing visible was Landon's white-toothed smile and wide eyes.
I have always known that a smile and a good attitude go a long way, but I never knew how far until this trip. In three short days, they changed everything about how I perceive myself and my own capabilities. They showed me that you really can do anything you put your mind and heart into, that you can choose to share in this life with others through positivity and that the combination of those two will elevate every aspect of your own experience. And it can be as simple as shelling out a high five and a smile.
These experiences introduce their athletes to new adventure-adaptive sports they may have never known existed. Part of the healing process is regaining a healthy perspective and through friendships, new sports and lots of high fives.