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Canadian skier injured in 1978 is right at home in Finlay Home

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 6 days ago Kerry Gillespie - Sports reporter
Scott Finlay and five others with acquired brain injuries live at Finlay Home, a new specialized home in Napanee, Ont. Finlay was a promising 21-year-old ski racer when he suffered a devastating brain injury in a ski crash at the 1978 Canadian championships that left him unable to speak and almost completely paralyzed. © Randy Risling Scott Finlay and five others with acquired brain injuries live at Finlay Home, a new specialized home in Napanee, Ont. Finlay was a promising 21-year-old ski racer when he suffered a devastating brain injury in a ski crash at the 1978 Canadian championships that left him unable to speak and almost completely paralyzed.

One morning five months ago, Rosemary Finlay woke up and made porridge for her son Scott, just as she’s done every morning for nearly four decades.

Only he wasn’t in the living room to eat it.

“She forgot,” says her husband Hugh Finlay, laughing at the memory.

“She thought he was still here. It was a big, big change for us.”

The day before, on April 10, their 61-year-old son had finally moved into the supportive home that they, along with the Canadian ski community and other supporters, had worked tirelessly to have built.

Scott Finlay was a promising 21-year-old ski racer when he suffered a devastating brain injury in a ski crash at the 1978 Canadian championships in Lake Louise, Alta, that left him almost completely paralyzed and unable to speak.

For most of his life since, Rosemary has cared for him in the living room of their home just outside Napanee, 40 kilometres west of Kingston.

He was in the centre of the home — and the centre of their lives.

“Someone said he should have a bedroom and we said ‘no thanks, this is great,’ ” Hugh Finlay says. “He was part of our family all the time.”

Which is why leaving him for the first time at his new supportive home, known as The Finlay House, was wrenchingly difficult.

“It was a tearjerker for us,” he says.

But they couldn’t have been happier for their son.

The Finlay House, now home to Scott and five others with acquired brain injuries, is in a retrofitted wing of an existing health complex in Napanee, which means all the medical facilities from dental to physiotherapy are on site. The home is funded by the local health network and additional family-paid fees and operated by Pathways to Independence, so there are daily activities and trips.

Hugh Finlay has high praise for the “terrific” staff, but notes they’re no match for Scott’s charms. “He’s sucking them right in,” he says. “They like his big blue eyes.”

Scott’s room is full of ski team photos and memories of his life before his accident and, of course, it is painted golden yellow.

“We asked him what colour he wanted and he said gold,” Hugh says. “He was always reaching for gold.”

His race bibs from all those years of chasing the top step of the podium have been transformed into a spectacular quilt by the local farmhouse community quilters. The yellow No. 11 bib he was wearing on Feb. 24, 1978, sits in the middle. That’s the day his dream of a ski career — and very nearly his life — ended on a set of bumps known as Double Trouble.

He was skiing hard, looking for a spot on the national team in the Crazy Canucks era of Ken Read and Steve Podborski, and came into that treacherous spot on the hill at 110 km/h. It was too much speed and he lost control over the first bump. He was out of position when he hit the second one and that threw him into a backward spin. His head snapped back and smashed against the icy slope, knocking him unconscious, and horrified spectators watched as he continued to tumble down the steep hill.

Scott Finlay’s life was frozen in time that day. He never spoke again. His father says he understands everything, but can’t find a way to communicate verbally.

But Hugh Finlay can speak and shout and bang his fists on the office doors of government and health care officials — and he did all that for 15 years to make sure that Scott would have a supportive home for that day that he and Rosemary couldn’t take care of him anymore.

All parents worry about their children’s future, but for caregivers of adult children with needs, the thought of what might happen to them after they’re gone can be a terrifying thing.

When Hugh Finlay started his drive to get a home built for Scott and others in the area with acquired brain injuries, he was told there were 2,400 parents in Ontario in the same predicament they were in.

“We had over 100 applications for this place, people from Toronto would phone me and say, ‘If we moved to Napanee, do you think we’d get in?’ Thank God I wasn’t the person choosing the people,” he says.

Through the activities in his new home, Scott Finlay has already been on numerous trips, including Kingston, the Thousand Islands and to watch drag racing, a real treat given his love of cars.

His parents, who are in their mid-80s, have been taking things a little slower.

“We haven’t gone anyplace yet,” Hugh Finlay says. “We keep thinking about it, but we’re homebodies. It’s awfully hard after you stay home for that many years not doing too much, it takes a while to figure out what to do.”

But there is one thing he is clear on doing and that is thanking “all the people in Canada that really helped to make this Napanee acquired brain injury home a success.”

At the top of his list are two Toronto Star journalists, the late Randy Starkman and Randy Risling, whose contributions were remembered at the celebratory opening on Wednesday.

Starkman, the Star’s award-winning amateur sports reporter, wrote a feature headlined “The Skier: When love runs out of time” in 2011, a year before his sudden death from pneumonia.

That story and the accompanying video by Risling galvanized community support and started the flood of donations that helped jump-start government action on building the Napanee home.

“I bet he’s looking down from heaven smiling from ear to ear,” Hugh Finlay says of Starkman, whose commemorative plaque adorns a bench in the home’s courtyard.

Scott Finlay is smiling a lot these days.

He likes the staff, the activities, the food, and sitting in his golden room, looking out the window at the parking lot where his parents pull in to visit.

They do so twice a day, every morning and evening, his dad says, but all these months later, Scott’s bed is still in their living room.

“In case we want to bring him home for the weekend.”

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