Legs Would Only Get In The Way: A Q&A With Kevin Michael Connolly

Monday, July 4, 2011

Legs Would Only Get in the Way: A Q&A With Author, Photographer and Traveler Kevin Michael Connolly

In this age we live in, seeing a legless man sitting on a bar stool would likely lead to a conversation surrounding Iraq or Afghanistan. That is, unless that man is Kevin Michael Connolly. If you were sitting next to him, your questions would surround the topic of gnarly crashes on the ski hills, skateboarding equipment, photography tips or his travels around the world.

There would be no long sighs while finding the G-rated version of some harrowing narrative of the roadside ambush that took his lower limbs. See, Kevin was born that way. And, although he is used to these kinds of inquiries, his story is a little bit different than what people typically create. It involves world travel, a skateboard, a camera and that little thing we call humanity.

Now 25, the Montana native is probably known just as much for mono-skiing circles around people as he is for any of his other pursuits. The winnings from his 2007 X Games silver medal in the mono-skier cross allowed him to pursue a passion for travel and photography spurred on after completing a study abroad program in New Zealand.

As you can imagine, Kevin’s been at the other end of curious stares his whole life. On his way home from New Zealand, in a back alley in Vienna, he got fed up. From the deck of the skateboard he uses as transportation, he snapped a picture of one of those glares — his way of getting back. After seeing that look, rather than tolerating it, he saw a spark of humanity. And he hasn’t looked back since.

That one stare has turned into over 31,000 photographs from 31 cities in 15 different countries; a photography project called The Rolling Exhibition. The online gallery isn’t comprised simply of shots from the hip (although that’s the method he’s truly perfected). Rather, Kevin’s photography talent drips from each perfectly imperfect gawk. His photos reveal not just a person, not even shameless curiosity, but it reveals much more. He explains:

Everyone tries to create a story in their heads to explain the things that baffle them. Everyone does it. It’s natural. It’s curiosity. But before any of us can ponder or speculate, we react. We stare. Was it disease? Was it a birth defect? Was it a landmine?

These narratives all come from the context in which we live our lives. Illness, drugs, calamity, war — all of these might become potential stories depending upon what we are exposed to in connection with disability. In each photograph the subjects share a commonality, but what does their context say? Looking at each face, I saw humanity. Rolling through their streets, I found the unique cultures and customs that created an individual.

That’s the reason why a man without legs can still kick ass. The heart of what makes Kevin tick is passion. It may find us through his photography, through the coverage of him shredding up the X Games, or in the pages of this memoir. If, and only if, you can manage to peek through his thick veil of talent and wit, you’ll see a man trying to live to the fullest, just as anyone else strives to do.

This past winter, between my own powder runs and ski-trip planning, I read Kevin’s book Double Take: A Memoir. It’s a quick read that literally pulls you in with honesty, grit, and enough of Kevin’s humor that makes you want to buy him a beer. The story of Kevin Michael Connolly is a good one.

With parents that never coddled him, they taught him lessons of independence and creativity, and that there’s no reason Kevin should see himself as different in any way. Stories of tumbling off Lone Peak, his father’s latest butt contraptions, and those of loving and loss have a way of being memorable.

Even months after reading it, I almost feel proud of him. Not for overcoming the legless thing, but I’m proud to have been able to experience an approach to life that we all need to be reminded of once in a while. It’s about perspective, really.

I’m lucky enough to have a connection to Kevin through his and my wife’s shared goal of constantly pushing and changing the way people view disabilities. His passion, work and creativity are most definitely changing perspectives.

A while back, I shot him an email, not realizing it was the middle of winter. As expected with any ski bum during a great snow winter, my inbox welcomed a reply once the spring snow started to disappear. Here is my conversation with Kevin.

* * *

The Expeditioner: For those not familiar with your story, could you give us the quick-and-dirty version of the Kevin Michael Connolly story?

Kevin: How quick and how dirty? Born without legs. Started walking on hands and moved to a skateboard. Traveled world, got stared at, and took a few photos along the way.

The Expeditioner: Let’s talk skiing. Are you back skiing competitively?

Kevin: After I broke my back last year skiing X Games, I’ve been slowly backing out of the competitive scene. I figure skiing 1,000 days at my home mountain is better than skiing once more off a big-ass jump.

The Expeditioner: Best place you’ve skied (and feel free to answer my home mountain of Discovery Basin, MT)?

Kevin: Ha, nice try, but ski bums are pretty protective of their mountains. For me, it’s Big Sky without a doubt.

The Expeditioner: Okay, Big Sky would be my second choice, but more important, when is the soonest I can buy you an après beer?

Kevin: Anytime! Just keep your eyes to the ground and holler out if you see me whizzing past.

The Expeditioner: I’ll get this question out of the way early: Best place you’ve been?

Kevin: Croatia is without question my favorite place to visit in the world. The architecture is amazing, the food is great, and you’re right on the coast. Bonus: pizza is a staple food and beer is about the same price as water.

The Expeditioner: How do you travel? How has this evolved with experience?

Kevin: I try to travel as light as possible, and if there has been any evolution at all, it’s that I carry less with me on each subsequent trip. I’ve always been a “carry-on only” guy, but now I try to leave even that only half-packed.

Generally, my tourist purchases double as necessities at the time, so my bag fills itself over the course of a trip. When I was kicking around Turkey and Croatia for a month or so, I left with my bag half full, and came back with it bursting at the seams.

The Expeditioner: Was there ever a point or moment when you realized you became a traveler?

Kevin: On my first trip abroad, the second I stepped out of the Kiev airport in Ukraine, I was hooked. It was definitely a “moment-one” thing for me.

The Expeditioner: You’ve documented your unique experiences in Double Take, has there been any encouraging or surprising moments from your travels that stick out in your mind?

Kevin: Been hit by two cars in my life. One in New Zealand, the other Bosnia. Both of those were memorable experiences that carried (clearly only half-learned) lessons with them.

The Expeditioner: You’ve been on our radar for a while. Can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects and this rumor of a possible Travel Channel show?

Kevin: For the moment, my lips are sealed. There are some rumblings and grumblings, though . . .

The Expeditioner: I see what you’re doing with that answer — way to leave the door open. Tell us, in your view, what’s the point of traveling?

Kevin: What’s the point of living? I think it’s trying to be happy in your existence, and have some good experiences along the way. For me, travel is the best way to accomplish this.

By Jon Wick


About the Author

Managing Editor, In-House Bike Expert

Jon currently lives in Butte, Montana, attempting a trifecta of hotspringing, wrenching bicycles and catching anything music related this summer. Don’t forget to purchase the book he co-edited The Expeditioner’s Guide to the World: Intrepid Tales of Awesomeness from the Open Road. It is, after all, endorsed by Hello Kitty. Catch more of Jon at TheJonWickproject.wordpress.com. (@ExpedJon)

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