It’s fair to say these are challenging times. It’s also fair to say that few people have a better perspective on facing challenges with grit, grace, and perseverance than Travis Roy. That made Roy the ideal speaker for the current moment at an Upper School meeting this week.
Roy is the Boston University hockey player whose fourth vertebra was cracked 11 seconds into his first collegiate game, on October 20, 1995. A quadriplegic, Roy has gone on to a life of fulfillment and meaning as a speaker and philanthropist, through his Travis Roy Foundation.
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of that life-changing accident, Roy visited campus virtually to share with students his inspiring story. Clad in Rivers red (well, Red Sox red, anyway) for the occasion, he told the students about, as he put it, “the challenge that chose me.”
“As I found myself lying on the ice, I knew almost immediately,” he said. His father made his way to the ice and urged him to get up and keep playing, but Roy couldn’t move. A long period of rehab, including two months on a ventilator, pneumonia, stomach ulcers, and dramatic weight loss, lay ahead. “It was a tough time, going from being a star athlete to this,” he said. “I didn’t know what was ahead.”
But he never succumbed to despair. Growing up in Maine, he was on skates before the age of 2 and had a passion for hockey from his earliest days. As a high school freshman, he’d made a list of dream goals he hoped to achieve: Playing hockey at a Division I college, going on the NHL, and one day attaining Olympic glory on the ice. Reaching that first goal was a challenge for Roy, who had a learning disability and struggled to maintain a B average. But he persevered, forgoing fun times in order to spend hours on the ice and cracking the books. When the time came, he was ready to join BU’s top-ranked ice hockey team.
Roy told the Rivers students that there’s only one way to attain goals: Identifying those goals and writing them down. And that’s the easy part, he said. “The bigger challenge is staying motivated to actually make them happen.” Material rewards may not provide enough incentive; instead, said Roy, focus on your desire to do your best and your pride in attaining your best. And even though his dream of playing hockey ended that day on the ice, he revels in having achieved his first goal: As he lay there, he says, he told his father, “ ‘Dad, I made it.’ I had stepped on the ice in a Division I hockey game, and no one could take that away from me.”
Roy emphasized the importance of showing respect to others, of resisting peer pressure, and most of all, of love. “Don’t be afraid to give your loved ones a hug,” he said. That led faculty member Jeff Nisbet to ask, during the Q&A period, whom Roy would choose to hug first once the social-distancing protocols of COVID-19 are lifted. “I have so many amazing family members and friends,” said Roy. “Probably whoever’s next to me at that moment.” Above all, he said, appreciate all of life’s opportunities, great and small: “You don’t understand the value of simple things until you lose them. Don’t take those moments for granted.”