"I believe in life there are times when we choose our challenges ... and other times when challenges simply choose us. It's what we do in the face of those challenges that defines us," Travis Roy said to the all-school audience gathered in the Olcott Center for the first convocation on this year's theme, Mental Well-Being.
Mr. Roy, who had worked hard from a young age to achieve his goal of playing ice hockey on a Division I college team, suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury during the first 11 seconds of playing his first game as a freshman on the Boston University varsity team in October 1995. The accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. During his talk, Mr. Roy shared his experience of coming to terms with the challenges that have chosen him, including finding meaningful ways to contribute to society.
Growing up in small-town Maine, where his dad managed an ice rink, Mr. Roy loved the ice, and hockey became his passion. He defined, and even wrote down, his goals in terms of hockey — he aspired to play Division I college hockey, to play professional hockey after college, and maybe even to make the U.S. Olympic team.
In an unflinching re-telling of his tragic accident — crashing into the boards at an awkward angle and finding himself face down on the ice, unable to feel his arms or legs — Mr. Roy said he sensed right away that something was very wrong. "I'm in big trouble," he remembered telling his father as he was being attended to on the ice. "But Dad, I made it," he added, meaning he had achieved his lifelong dream. That dream had come to an end in the course of 11 seconds.
Mr. Roy acknowledged that the 23-year journey since his accident has had many ups and downs, but with perseverance and the love and support of family and friends, "I've come further than I ever imagined," he said.
After a long recovery, Mr. Roy returned to Boston University, where he earned his bachelor's degree. In 1997, he established the Travis Roy Foundation, which generates funding for research and provides support for individuals with spinal cord injuries and their families. Mr. Roy speaks to a wide variety of audiences in New England and across the country, and he wrote an autobiography, Eleven Seconds: a Story of Tragedy, Courage and Triumph, published in 1998.
Mr. Roy encouraged students to find something that excites them — a passion — and then to challenge themselves to discover how good they can be at that passion, to push themselves as far as they are able. Whatever your interest, he said, the primary motivations are the desire to see how good you can become at something and the pride of knowing you gave it your all. Be accountable to yourself, he advised. Mr. Roy also appealed to students to take advantage of the many opportunities available to them at a school like Loomis Chaffee.
Because he is in a wheelchair and is unable to participate in activities in many situations, Mr. Roy has become a keen observer. And through observation Mr. Roy said he has found that the people who know themselves and their own values are among the most successful. This discovery made sense to him as he came to understand that the values that led to his success before the accident — love, pride, respect, effort — were the same values that would compel him to achieve his goals afterwards.
When interacting with others, Mr. Roy encouraged the audience to start from a place of respect — don't wait until it's "earned," he said, adding that if you give people a chance right from the start, you will be a better person.
He reflected on the power of peer pressure on young people, including himself when he was in high school. He encouraged students to listen to "that little voice in your head that says 'This isn't me.'" That voice, he said, will very often guide you in the right direction.
Mr. Roy also encouraged his listeners to take time on a regular basis to tell or show their love for the important people in their lives — parents, siblings, friends, and others. "Don't save it for special occasions," he said. Often asked what he would do first if he could get out of the wheelchair, Mr. Roy said his answer is always the same — he would hug his loved ones.
After answering some questions from the audience, Mr. Roy met with members of the girls and boys varsity hockey teams in the Burton Room. He acknowledged to them that he greatly missed playing hockey but uses the leadership skills he learned on the ice in his work helping others. "It's not as exciting," he admitted, "But it is important." He also encouraged the student athletes not to take for granted the wonderful experience of the game; to work hard, but not too hard in practices; and above all, to have fun in the moment and enjoy playing with their teammates.
Mr. Roy's visit to Loomis was made possible with support from the Robert P. Hubbard '47 Speakers Series.
Connect to the Travis Roy Foundation website.