When I was growing up, my dad owned a hardware store. That means he was always inventing new devices that would help me do everyday things like any other kid would. I remember him making me a jump rope with a handle I could tie around my prosthetic hand and drafting a few ideas for a flipper hand that would help me swim faster. But he never came up with anything as extreme or as exciting as the many contraptions we’ll be seeing on the new show Armed & Ready.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of interviewing the show’s star, Kevin Michael Connolly. Kevin, who was born without legs in 1985, has spent the last few years traveling the world on a skateboard and snapping photos of people who stare at him. He penned his memoir Double Take in 2009 (a great read, and he kindly signed my copy). Now he’s taking it to the next level in Armed & Ready, trying new extreme sports and undertaking new and dangerous adventures across the country. I sat down with a handsome and confident Kevin, his skateboard propped against the adjacent wall, at Travel Channel headquarters to ask some questions about his latest project:
What’s your favorite of the places you went to while filming Armed & Ready?
Probably the coolest place I’ve been to while filming the show has been in Hawaii. In Kona, the Big Island (which is where we shot), you go inland and you can be on a 12,000-foot-tall mountain. During the mountain-boarding sequence when we’re up there riding around on this thing, we actually even had trouble getting the engine going not because of any mechanical failures, but just because the air is so thin up there. It had a tough time sucking oxygen. But then you drive a couple hours and you’re surfing. So, you know, the amount of biodiversity there was just jaw-dropping. It was really cool.
Of all the things we made during Armed & Ready, I would say the customized street luge was probably the coolest. Obviously no one without legs has ever been street luging before. So not only did we have to figure out A) if it would work, but also B) how I would stop. If you watch the sport of street luging, you’ll see the first thing they do if they need to stop is they put their feet down. So not being able to do that and going up and above 50 miles per hour, you freak out a little bit. And so the local guy that we met down there, my guide, he ended up building a little brake system into the street luge, which as far as I know is the first time that’s ever been done. So it was cool to be able to integrate something into it that just let me do what I needed to do.
Do you have a mantra or motto that you follow every day?
The one I have is not necessarily a mantra. It’s kind of something I say after I’ve done something particularly stupid, which is “Not dead yet.” Not dead yet, we’re good! But in terms of a motivating mantra, I don’t think anything beyond the basic “Oh, here we go!” Those would probably be my two.
Did you ever have the mindset that you had to prove yourself more because you don’t have legs?
I don’t think so. I certainly don’t have a competitive chip on my shoulder in terms of needing to go out and accomplish something in spite of not having legs. That’s never really entered my lexicon. It’s been more just the fact that there’s so many things that are unknown to me. I’ve never heard of a legless guy going out and street luging or a legless guy going out and skydiving. And so a lot of those unanswered questions are really what kind of drives me to do what I do. I’m naturally a really curious person and, more often than not, that gets me into trouble.
In a promo video on the Travel Channel website and in your book, you said that you never really felt like you contributed to a group. Do you feel that traveling and seeing the world have helped you feel like you can contribute?
Yes, one of my main hopes for the show – obviously I hope everyone watches it and really enjoys it, etcetera – but I hope there’s a very small number of people who are going to see this and not get inspired in a “Oh, I think I can go out and do this” way, but get inspired in a “Oh, I can go to my garage and make a custom street luge and go out and do this for myself” way, if that makes sense. I really hope that somewhere out there there’s someone like me who’s seven or eight years old in second or third grade and the most I could ever hope for is that their life and their social life is made a little bit easier by the fact that this is out there and visible now.
What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done?
The most outrageous thing I’ve ever done, I would say, was fake-chopping my leg off and squirting 25 gallons of blood that was made out of clothing dye onto people. I still feel really bad. It was fun for the theatrics, but I actually feel bad because I know we ruined clothes. I mean, my skin was red for 3 or 4 days following. So all these people getting showered with blood probably thought it was really funny until they got home later that night and realized it wasn’t coming out. I do remember us getting kind of glared at by a couple elderly people once we finished with the float. I quickly got out of there; I didn’t want to deal with whatever fallout was going to happen after doing that.
I read on your blog that there’s going to be a film version of your memoir Double Take. Is that still happening?
That is still in development, yes. There’s no greenlight or casting process yet. So I’m just more focused on not dying and making this show good, which actually tend to run hand-in-hand. Making the show good definitely brings you close from time to time.
Would you be playing yourself, or would they choose another actor?
We’ve had that discussion. They’ve definitely told me that I would probably need to play myself, but beyond that I really try to ignore it. Until that moment happens, I’m going to kind of not deal with it. I’m very good at denial and pushing things away, a common trait in men in their late 20’s, right?
I know in the book you mentioned that your hands are pre-arthritic. Does your body take a lot of wear and tear due to not having legs?
I think so. I mean, I would also say that any body would take a lot of wear and tear based off the stuff I’ve done. You compete in five X Games and then you do a show where you’re undertaking a new crazy sport every week, and your body’s going to take wear and tear, legs or not. I think the only difference with me versus someone else is that the damage gets placed in different areas – my hands in this case rather than my knees or my ankles or something like that.
I know you wrote about your ex-girlfriend in your book. (The parting scene made me cry, by the way.) I was wondering: is it difficult dating when you travel so often?
Yes, a little bit. I don’t really date a ton anymore, or right now. It seems like most people my age in their late 20’s are getting married, houses, or children. And none of those are really on my priority list. No would be the answer. I feel very comfortable going up and asking someone for a date. I mean, the worst-case scenario is you get rejected.
Now that you’ve traveled the world, what country/state/city is next on your list?
Well, in terms of personal travel, I’ve always really wanted to go to Russia. But in terms of what I would do next for the show: one of the most common questions I always get asked is, “how do you drive?”. And trying to answer that, whether it be through racecar driving or rally car driving, would be really awesome. For anybody who is paralyzed or doesn’t have legs, you know how the basic hand controls work. But everyone has to drive an automatic. So the question would be: how would you create an adaptive device to allow you to drive stick? And one of the things that I would tell your readers that we’re really trying to accomplish with this show is doing a little bit of MythBusters. We’ve never built a device like this for anyone before. It’s never been out there. So let’s try and do it. If you can add to the database of adaptive devices out there in the ether, that would be great.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to your younger self or a kid growing up with a limb difference now?
Adapt. If there’s one word that I kind of have to operate by at all times, it’s adapting to your surroundings. The more willing and able you are to adapt to a situation or adapt to a sport, even if it doesn’t mean that you’re competitive or able on the same level as someone with legs or that’s fully able-bodied – I think that your ability to do that is really what’s going to get you out of the house, what’s going to make you lead a fuller life, and ultimately what’s going to make you part of a group and give you a sense of community.
And adapt he does. This guy is going places (quite literally) with his spirited determination and sense of adventure. Check out all his contraptions and follow his journey on Armed & Ready, which airs on the Travel Channel this Tuesday, February 26th at 10/9c.
Have Twitter? Tweet with me during the first episode: http://bit.ly/YQ9jAf