Spinal cord injuries have the uncanny ability to change the direction of our lives in an instant, and while this abrupt life-shift carries with it a host of new challenges, Justin Pines, a T6 paraplegic from Denver, Colorado, has decided to approach his new life with hope and a boundless spirit of possibility. “There’s a good God and a purposeful story ahead,” he says.
Why He’s Fearless
On April 9, 2016, Justin entered the world of paralysis when he hit a tree in the woods of Squaw Valley, a ski resort in Tahoe, California. Remarkably, within an hour of his injury, he was introduced to an organization that was set to change the direction of his life – the High Fives Foundation.
“I heard about High Fives about an hour after I impacted the tree. One of the ski patrollers responsible for saving my life, as he was cutting off my ski clothes in the snow cat on the way down the mountain, asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of High Fives?’ I gave him my contact and within a couple of days Roy Tuscany – the founder of High Fives – was in my hospital room sharing some of his story and giving me a first glimpse of the incredible support and community I was to find within the High Fives family.”
After his surgery and acute care at Reno’s Renown Hospital, Justin was sent via medical jet to world-renowned Craig Hospital for his inpatient rehabilitation. Through Craig’s celebrated Therapeutic Recreation program, Justin was introduced to sports right away – from hand cycling and swimming to archery, fly fishing and adaptive rock climbing. By the close of his 5 weeks of rehabilitation, Justin had learned the basics of independent living and was able to move into his own apartment in south Denver, opting to relocate rather than move back to his 3rd floor walk up apartment in Brooklyn, NY.
Within a month of leaving the hospital and recommencing life in his new Englewood apartment, Justin was able to return to work at tech company AppNexus, leading software development projects as a Senior Product Manager dialed in from his desk at home. “The ability to bridge back to serious responsibility and the solving of hard problems was a big thing for me,” Justin explains. “In the hospital, you’re initially so dependent on others, it was an important transition to get back to taking ownership and believing again in my own abilities.”
Possibly even more impressive, within 10 weeks of his injury, Justin rode just shy of 100km (62 miles!) as part of Craig Hospital’s annual Pedal for Possible bicycle/hand cycle ride. What’s more, he raised over $25,000 for Craig that day. “Craig had – and continues – to expand my understanding of possibility in my life. That ride was a deeply personal, physical manifestation of just how much I believe in what Craig is about, what the people and ethos of that incredible institution are instilling in so so many lives.”
Justin is a former division 1 cross country & track athlete who discovered an interest for marathoning late in his 20s. “My biggest post-injury goal I accomplished back in 2017: I knew I needed to get back to the starting line of the NYC marathon. Running had always been a central part of my life; after 4 years as a Cross Country and Track athlete at Princeton, I coached the sport for 3 years at Wai’anae High School (during my time teaching in Hawai’i with Teach for America). I had just run NY for the first time in 2015, a handful of months before my injury, and can’t quite describe the feeling crossing the finish line in my racing chair in 2017, 27 minutes ahead of my running time 2 years earlier. It was something I just had to do, and it was deeply gratifying to have done it.”
Justin was also able to return to the slopes just under one year after his injury, initially in Colorado but soon thereafter at Squaw Valley, his old haunt and ground zero for his injury. Returning to snow in a mono ski, Pines explains, has been fulfilling, but has been a process not without its challenges: “Progress in the mono ski has proven to be very difficult,” he says. “That said, the milestones have been deeply rewarding. From the first time on snow, to the first time I was really starting to put turns together, to the first time a few weeks ago where I skied a few blues consecutively without falling and loaded on and off the chair on my own; it’s been hard-earned, but I’m hungry and excited to be skiing fully independently again… And I’m close!”
Many people have been impressed by Justin’s upbeat personality since his injury, which he has affectionately called his “Giddy up” way of looking at life. “I would say the coping – and maybe more importantly the healing process through this kind of loss – well, it’s a lot to try to detail in this short amount of space. It has a lot to do with recognizing the loss and allowing myself to grieve – I think this is important – but yet not letting that grief spiral and become consuming.”
When asked more about where his “Giddy Up” attitude comes from, he references both the intentional relationships and inherent possibility he savors in his life: “I am loved, and there are many, many people in my life whom I love and pour into. That’s huge. And so much also comes not just from recognizing, but from intentionally focusing on the BIGness of the potential and possibility in my life. There’s so much out there that needs doing. Giddy. Up.”
When he’s not working, skiing or training in his hand-cycle or racing chair, Justin enjoys devoting time as an ambassador and organizer for the High Fives Organization. This month he hosted the first ever High Fives Community Meet Up at Denver’s Punch Bowl Social – providing a new means for individuals with SCI to connect & build community. “The goal of these meetups is to provide fairly frequent, low-cost, replicable opportunities to bring together like-minded people who seek community in pursuing sport post-injury and want to live an active lifestyle.” Excitingly, High Fives plans to expand this meet up model to many more cities around the country, so look for one near you soon!
– Keep an eye on High Fives Foundation events and news: https://www.facebook.com/HighFivesFoundation
– Follow Justin on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jnpines/?hl=en
Watch his Videos!
– High Five The Wave 2017 At Santa Cruz | Justin Pines: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kv4au8oRgq4