Adversity can make us stronger, better people if we continue to set goals, focus on achieving them and live according to our value system, former Boston University hockey player Travis Roy told a rapt audience of 750 students and families in the Performing Arts Center at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School this week.
Mr. Roy, 33, spoke from a wheelchair on Wednesday morning, more than 12 years after a freak accident in his first collegiate hockey game left him a quadriplegic. Mr. Roy has no feeling below his shoulders and limited movement in his right arm.
Then a budding 20-year-old star, Mr. Roy’s goal was to play at an elite hockey school. He was recruited by virtually every Division 1 collegiate hockey college and chose Boston University, the defending national champion. Mr. Roy was injured in the first 11 seconds of his first game against North Dakota State University.
Lying on the ice that October 1995 night, “I knew I was in big trouble because I couldn’t feel anything or move. I asked the trainer to bring my Dad onto the ice, less for help than to tell him, ‘Dad, I am in big trouble here but I made it,’ he told a hushed audience.
They had just watched a videotape of Mr. Roy, wearing number 24, crashing headfirst into the dasher boards, breaking the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae and injuring his spinal cord.
“My goal was to play at a big-time hockey school and I made it but my career lasted 11 seconds,” he said.
Now a motivational speaker, Mr. Roy explained that his childhood habit of writing down short and long-term goals, then committing to achieving them, has served him well going forward in life.
He was invited to speak in a program developed by the Rotary Club and a high school team led by student Max Nunes. Mr. Roy was introduced by hockey team co-captains and defensemen Matt Flynn and Trey Rasmussen.
A Yarmouth, Me., native, Mr. Roy said his goals, beginning in high school, were also to play in the National Hockey League and on the American Olympic hockey team.
“I shared my goals with my parents. They were impressed but reminded me that to do any of that, I first had to get into college,” he said.
An indifferent student with dyslexia, Mr. Roy set short-term goals: maintain a B average and achieve a score of 1,000 in the national scholarship achievement tests (SAT) used by colleges to measure college applicants.
“I knew if made a commitment to put the time and effort into my studies I could get the B average and I did. I also got my 1,000 in the SATs although it took five tries . . . which really sucked,” he said to laughter.
His life goals changed after his accident and after months of surgery and rehabilitation, including two months at an Atlanta hospital
One night Mr. Roy found himself in a restaurant, tears running down his cheeks as he was fed by his mother. “I thought, ‘I am 20 years old and I can’t even feed myself,’” he said.
But two rehabilitation projects led him to rediscover his goal-setting and achievement system. “They taught me to shoot a pellet gun successfully and to scuba dive and I began thinking, ‘Hey, there is a lot I can do that I never thought about before.’”
He devoted himself to spinal cord injury research, to which his foundation has donated more than $2.5 million.
“My goals are to become the best motivational speaker I can become and one day to walk away from this wheelchair. I know that day will come, although I thought it would have come sooner,” he said.
He added, “Our national priorities with regard to the war (in Iraq) has diverted money away from research.”
A student asked him if he didn’t have regrets and miss his former physically active life.
“You know, I was thinking about that on the ferry ride,” Mr. Roy replied. “I visited here for a beach party after high school. Little did I know that five months later I would not be able to feel wet grass or the sand washing away under my feet at the ocean’s edge.”
“Yes, I miss those things but it’s a question of living by your values and goals, really. That doesn’t change whether you are able or in a wheelchair,” he said.
He asked students to “listen to that little voice in your head. It’s right 99 per cent of the time about your choices and goals.”