'Double Take' Author: Skiing Hard And Staring Back
People tend to stare at Kevin Michael Connolly. He's cute, fit, funny and a champion skier. But he knows the stares are usually inspired by something else.
Connolly was born without legs, though that has hardly slowed him down. In fact it drove him to become a raging competitor, both in sports and in life.
Double Take, out now in paperback, is a memoir built around some of the photos Connolly has taken around the world -- portraits of the people he catches staring at him.
He thinks it began in Vienna, not long after he left the relative cocoon of his Montana hometown for a trip that took him to New Zealand and through Europe.
"I was more or less having to confront the reactions," Connolly tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I think the first photo, the first snapshot, came from a more or less cathartic or combative stance."
He decided that if people were going to stare -- "I think in the book I mention a group of teens taking a cellphone picture of me," he says wryly -- he had a kind of right to turn such an encounter "into an exchange."
"To fire back with the lens," is how he puts it.
A 'Butt Boot' With A Birkenstock Tread
Connolly was born in Helena in 1985. His condition is the result of bilateral amelia, a birth defect that prevented his femurs from growing into his hip sockets. Connolly quickly adapted as a child by walking on his hands.
There was one problem with this method: "Since I was running on my hands, my parents would be saving all this money on shoes," he recalls, "but I'd burn out a half-dozen pairs of pants in a weekend" because they'd be dragged along the ground.
Connolly's father solved the problem by designing a contraption he calls the "butt boot."
Originally, Connolly says, "It was just a pair of leather pants held up by bright red suspenders." As Connolly got older, the device got a little more complicated: "We started adding in plastic inserts, and we gave it a sole, and it actually has a Birkenstock tread on it now. So we've even gotten a little style added to this device."
Clearly, Connolly's father had a gift for invention -- inspired in no small part by a certain crafty TV character. Connolly remembers watching MacGyver with his father, who'd tell his son to pay close attention whenever the shrewd secret agent built something extraordinary out of ordinary objects.
The elder Connolly helped his son in another unorthodox way. Connolly says that his father sports a big mustache and long, grey hair -- "kind of like Sam Elliott did" -- and that he decided on this look because he wanted to draw attention away from his son.
"I think his train of logic was, 'I think if I look a little weirder than him, maybe they'll stare at me a bit more instead,'" Connolly explains.
One Instinct To Stare, Many Assumptions About What We See
People often do more than just stare at Connolly. As he was traveling around the world, taking the pictures that would end up in Double Take, the author encountered any number of different reactions.
"When I set down the camera, people would sometimes give me money," he says. "People would bless me."
Most commonly, though -- especially in English-speaking countries -- strangers would ask Connolly what had happened to him. Some would guess. And the realization that informs both Double Take and a Web-based photo project he calls The Rolling Exhibition was this: While the instinct to look is the same everywhere, the guesses about the backstory behind his appearance varied depending on the place.
"Like, one kid in New Zealand" -- where there are lots of surfers and lots of great whites -- "asked his mom very loudly at the checkout counter if I'd been eaten by a shark," Connolly recalls. Back home in the U.S., "in my hometown of Helena, I had one guy in a pub ask me if I still wore my dog tags from Iraq."
The reactions that Connolly encountered in Sarajevo, though, were more powerful for him than most. As he traveled through the city, he saw people with missing limbs -- people who had lost their legs or arms to mortars or mines or shrapnel in the Balkan conflicts of the early '90s.
"And I was just at the right age where it would be very easy to assume that I [had been] a little kid running where he shouldn't have been," Connolly says. "And so on top of people coming up to me and giving me money, sometimes handing me food, I had people actually apologizing to me. Or assuming that I was part of this."
It jarred him. It left him off guard -- to the point that one day, in the Turkish quarter of the city, he found himself on the wrong end of the stare.
"I saw this guy; he was missing, I think it was his left arm and his right leg. And I sat there eyeballing him and really thinking, 'What happened to this guy? Why'd he find himself in this position?'" he remembers.
"I was doing exactly the same thing that so many other people had been doing to me, both in the city and around the world," he says. "And it really struck home, because I felt especially there, regardless of my choosing to do so, I was bringing up a lot of bad memories or bad stories for people around the city -- history that they maybe didn't want to be constantly inundated with."
The experience deeply affected Connolly. In Double Take, he even says that Sarajevo made him think about giving up on his project.
An Inheritance Of Invention (And Persistence)
Quitting, it turns out, isn't in Connolly's DNA. A silver medalist at the 2006 Winter X-Games, he's still competing -- he filed a long blog post in February about his run at the 2010 games, and posted YouTube footage of himself in action -- shot from a camera on the tip of his ski.
And like his dad, he seems to be something of a tinkerer: One current project is an ingenious set of "jumping crutches" designed to help him navigate stairs, rocky terrain and other inhospitable turf.
For the moment, he gets around mostly via skateboard. "All the parts to it are replaceable," he says, and it's more compact than a wheelchair.
Of course, those aren't the only reasons Connolly favors his particular mode of transporation.
Riding one, he says, is also "really fast -- and phenomenally fun."
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