"I can walk," says the 19-year-old Helena High graduate. "I walk on my hands. Around campus, I found that a wheelchair is inconvenient. I took up long-boarding on a three-foot-long skateboard, and that's how I get around campus."
The gregarious and affable teen lives in student housing with another Helena freshman, Joe Yaeger. Both are media/theatre arts majors. Neither is much of a cook.
"For the first time in my life," Connolly laughs, "I've known true hunger. I have the five-meal plan on campus, and I squeeze in another meal or two when I can. My summer goal is to learn to cook or get a roommate who can cook for both of us."
Connolly's goal this week is to make the national team headed to the 2006 Olympics in Italy--and maintain his 3.86 GPA.
His days begin with a long-board cruise to classes. He says that some people are startled when they see him. When a curb interrupts travel, he hops off the board, picks it up and cruises on hands protected by duct-tape-reinforced garden gloves.
"I don't mind when people ask questions, like a little kid who wondered, 'Why is that kid a ski robot?'" says Connolly. "It bothers me when parents cover their children's eyes, or college kids avert their eyes. I appreciate it when people approach me honestly. I have no exciting story; I was born without legs."
Disability has not slowed Connolly. He enjoys the freedom of college. He hangs out in the photo darkroom and often studies outside on campus at night "when things are quiet; it's very well lit." Three days a week, he trains at Big Sky Ski Resort.
"The Big Sky ski team coaches have been really good to me and let me train in their race gates," says Connolly. "On a downhill, my time would be closest to regular skiers. In a slalom, the amount of turns takes lots of response time. So in slalom, my time is farthest apart from the regular skier. I consider myself competitive."
He races a downhill at Vail on Thursday, then a Super G, a giant slalom and on Sunday, the slalom. U.S. Paralympics officials are expected to name the Torino, Italy-bound Olympics team on Sunday.
"Kevin competes in the men's sit-ski category," says Sandy Metzer, director for disabled skiing for the U.S. Ski Team. "Each year we invite three to five new members to the team, depending upon results."
Connolly has come a long way since volunteers from Bozeman's Eagle Mount program introduced him to adaptive skiing at Bridger Bowl a decade ago. Along the way, he has helped revolutionize the adaptive ski gear made for disabled skiers. He regularly breaks skis.
"It happens often," says Connolly who also uses outriggers, short ski poles with skis on the ends to help him balance. "Up until this year, I broke five or six skis a year. This year, I've only broken two skis. They break because of the places I take a ski and the torque I put on one ski. Now with my new ski model, the geometry of the ski flexes like a normal ski would flex with a two-legged skier."
The frame, he explains, works exactly like a pair of legs and boots. In the ski, he is five-feet tall. If not for the repair skills of coach Ben Langgath and friends at Degidio Sheet Metal, Connolly might not have his Olympic try.
"I was skiing at Big Sky, the day before heading to race," says Connolly. "The last run of the day, I hit the tabletop in the terrain park, landed the jump but broke the skis in half. It's like breaking both your kneecaps. My coach called the guys at Degidio. They set aside everything and worked until midnight to fix the skis."
In Vail, his coach totes a quiver of 10 pairs of skis and a repair kit.
"I can click into any binding of my 'boot' size," says Connolly. "But the guys in ski rental shops wouldn't want to see me walk in and rent a ski because they know the force I put into it."
If Connolly is named to the U.S. team, he will train by hiking, biking, rock climbing and kayaking in the summer and then spend three months in Europe next winter. If he doesn't make the Paralympics, he hopes to spend a semester abroad in New Zealand.
"I'm certainly at a crux point in my life," he says.
Race results can be found at http://www.ussa.org and click on "disabled" then "races."
Contact Kevin Connolly 459-2781 or email@example.com