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No Barriers Podcast Episode 141: From Surviving to Thriving with Caitlin Connor



Our guest today is Caitlin Conner. Her life was pretty run of mill; work, pay bills, repeat. Then a series of deaths in her life from close family and friends sent her into a rut. Soon after… a motorcycle accident forced her to choose between loosing a leg or endangering her unborn child. Everything changed.

It’s safe to say Caitlin has gone through the lowest of lows… how does one rise from those ashes and overcome incredible adversity. What did that process look like; that mental and physical journey to becoming an endurance athlete competing in triathlons, a boxer, a runway model, the founder of a non-profit aiming to build the largest database of adaptive resources in the world, and most recently building the sport of para-speed skating. It’s all about human potential she says.

Connect with Caitlin

https://www.ccadaptive.com/

https://www.instagram.com/caitlin.andherlegnamed.rex/

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Episode Transcript

Caitlin Connor:
I look at it like everybody has all of their ups and downs in life. You don't get to really choose when they happen. For me, a lot happened at once, but a lot of really good things came out of it because I let myself take them in stride and move with them.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I than to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barrier's life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists the map. That map, that way forward is what we call No Barriers.

Didrik Johnck:
Our guest today is Caitlin Connor. Her life was pretty run of the mill, work, pay bills, repeat. Then a series of deaths in her life from close family and friends center into a rut. Soon after, a motorcycle accident forced her to choose between losing a leg or endangering her unborn child. Everything changed. It's safe to say Caitlin has gone through the lowest of lows. How does one rise from those ashes and overcome incredible adversity? What did that process look like, that mental and physical journey to becoming an endurance athlete competing in triathlons, a boxer, a runway model, the founder of a nonprofit aiming to build the largest database of adaptive resources in the world, and most recently, building the sport of para speed skating? It's all about human potential, she says. I hope you enjoy this episode hosted by Eric Weihenmayer with guest Caitlyn Conner, I'm producer Didrik Johnck, and this is The No Barriers Podcast.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Cool. Caitlin, awesome to have you on The No Barriers Podcast. This is so exciting.

Caitlin Connor:
Thanks for having me. It's been a while since I've seen you guys.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. It's good to hear your voice again. You were a part of the New York summit, right? Our celebration of what we call the No Barriers life. And so that was pretty exciting to have that summit on the aircraft carrier, Intrepid, and to have all our activities and all our speaking and all our festivities on that gigantic aircraft carrier from World War II. That was pretty exciting.

Caitlin Connor:
That was a blast. My favorite part was actually questable, getting to go around the city and ask people to do random things with me. One of the quests was actually to ask a stranger to join me in a foot race, and that was the hardest one. Nobody wanted to race a one-legged chick out in the middle of New York.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Because there's no winning when you race an amputee, right? Because-

Caitlin Connor:
Well, I had a kid that I almost grabbed with cookies, but he very clearly wanted money. So I was out.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It reminds me of a story, Caitlin. There's this friend of No Barriers, Kyle Maynard, and he is a quadruple amputee and he wanted to have an ultimate fighting match, and that was his dream. And he went in and I actually talked to the guy that fought him and he is like, "Man, I just could and win. If I beat this guy up, I was going to lose. And if I got my butt kicked, I was going to lose. It was a no win situation." So we'll get into that with you, because I know you got into some boxing, which is just amazing. I can't wait to talk to you about all that.

Caitlin Connor:
Well, looking forward to it

Erik Weihenmayer:
All right. Well, okay. So I hate doing this, but I'm just going to of drop right in, because I was thinking about how to ask about warm up questions and things like that, but we're just going to dive in. I'm going to hammer you right off the bat. Sorry.

Caitlin Connor:
Go for it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You lost a ton of family members. You lost your leg in a motorcycle accident. So we'll talk about that. But what was your life like before that? Were you a quote unquote normal human being?

Caitlin Connor:
I was a boring human being. This year will be actually my eight year anniversary from the accident. Before the accident, Caitlin with both of her legs did not use both of her legs. I just went to work and paid bills and came home. There really wasn't much to me. I think I wanted all the things in the world, but had no idea to get to them, and basically didn't pursue them, and just by not pursuing, did not achieve. So really, I just went to work. That's all I did before I lost my leg.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. You lost your brother, your mom, your stepdad, and then you lost your leg, after all three of those losses?

Caitlin Connor:
I lost my stepdad in 2010, and then in 2013, lost my brother. And at the same time, we lost a good friend three days apart, and then in 2014, got married, and that was right before the accident, as well as also found out my now ex-mother-in-law got cancer. She lived a year and then passed away and then my mom got cancer, lived two years and then passed away. So it was more like a five to six year span with all of that going on. But yeah, it really wasn't until the last couple years I started getting a break from deaths in the family and then COVID hit and it was just a completely different type of chaos.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. Yeah. It's hard. And then on top of that all, you're in a motorcycle accident. I think you were a passenger on the motorcycle and you lost your leg, above the knee, I understand, right? So you're above the knee amputee?

Caitlin Connor:
Actually, I am below the knee amputee.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Okay. Got it. Okay. Because your bio said 70% of your leg, so it was a little bit confusing and I probably couldn't see a picture. So yeah, tell me.

Caitlin Connor:
No, no, that's fine. So it was a 75% partial amputation. So what that means is that impact, 75% of my limb was detached. So not as in length of limb, but more like depth, if that makes sense. So what happened was the car hit my ankle. And if anyone's graphic and has a problem with graphic descriptions, skip the next two seconds. But the car put my ankle into the gearing of the bike and it actually shred my ankle almost all the way off, which is where you get that 75% amputation. So basically after that, I stopped rolling after filling off the bike and I sat up and looked at my limb and saw my ankle completely turned inward toward the other foot. And then I laid back down and realized the next best thing I could do is actually calm down.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Wow. And how is your husband? How did he fair?

Caitlin Connor:
So he's now my ex-husband. We're still friends. We talk almost every day. So he broke his sacrum, he fractured a femur, and broke his entire hip down on the right side. And then the clutch of the bike actually punctured his gut. And he got really lucky that it missed vital organs. And so I took a helicopter and he took an ambulance and we went to two separate hospitals. We weren't even in the same hospital. They air flighted me and then took him to a private hospital. That was actually not even two months into being married and that's how we started our marriage.

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's would be beautiful honeymoon.

Caitlin Connor:
Yeah, it was great. We got to leave the hospital both in wheelchairs. It was quite entertaining.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. How romantic, oh my gosh. So they didn't amputate your leg right away. You got to the hospital. And I understand it was a decision that you made to amputate, is that correct?

Caitlin Connor:
Correct. Because I could still fill my toes and wiggle them, they thought there would be a chance of saving my limb. But after six surgeries and seeing an angiogram showing a very deteriorated artery on the inside of my leg, it was actually my best decision to ask the doctor, "Okay. Well, what are my options? And what's that going to mean for me? Because right now, it just seems like I'm going to keep going through surgeries." And then eventually, we got down to it and they said that if I got arthritis in my ankle, they would have to fuse the ankle bones, which would be like walking on a peg leg anyways. So for me, I also found out I was pregnant at the same time. I was four weeks pregnant, super early, didn't know. And so I was doing all this while being pregnant and it was a risk to myself because I had less medication, anesthesia, antibiotics.

Caitlin Connor:
So there's chance for infection, but it was also risk for the child. And I really wanted to be a mom. So for me, it was, what's worth it? Is it worth going through all these surgeries and all this pain and losing something I really wanted over something that... Not that I didn't want my foot, not that I didn't want the mobility that came with a foot, it just wasn't as important to me is having the child be safe. And that was my indicator of, "Okay. It's time to stop wasting time and going through surgeries and adding muscle memory that would consist of pain when I can start moving forward and start healing."

Erik Weihenmayer:
So Caitlin, what a crazy double whammy. You go to the hospital with this traumatic injury and then you discover you're pregnant. You got a lot going on. This is a very emotionally crazy and imaginative, fragile time in your life. What was your mental state?

Caitlin Connor:
Initially, I just started to thinking about the baby and what could I do to keep the baby safe? I'll fast forward for you, she just turned seven. I have a little girl named Finley, so I'll spare the drama there. But I really wanted to focus on my child. I actually had the rare opportunity to see her in, I guess, a scan. And she was just the size, if you can picture it, just the size of a Navy beam and didn't have arms or legs or anything else. And to me, that was like, ah, I made that. Well, I had help making it, but I made that. And so it was something almost tangible for me and it became really important. I just knew I couldn't allow any negative emotions into that room, and that was very hard. And that included my own emotions, but that also meant that I had to shut down emotions, which led to me a couple years later realizing that I had PTSD from the accident that I had shoved under the rug.

Erik Weihenmayer:
What I'm hearing is that having Finley there is almost a positive thing because, as you said, it focused your mind on, "Okay. What's my priority here?" So in a way, it's a way to just focus in on what's the most important, and then, yeah, makes sense that years later, you look back and you say, "Okay, I was sweeping a lot of emotions under the carpet," I guess, right?

Caitlin Connor:
Yeah, absolutely. And honestly, that was probably the first time in my life I really had a purpose, and that was a turning point for me. It wasn't just losing something and then having to deal with it. She became a purpose for me. I wanted to be a role model for her and show her she could do all the things in the world. But in order to do that, I have to show her all the things that I can do.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And your rehab, so you get your surgery, you have your leg amputated, and now you're spending a lot of your pregnancy in a wheelchair, right?

Caitlin Connor:
Correct. Yeah. It was not feasible to wear a prosthetic in the beginning.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Right. And you're gaining all this weight. I understand that it was really hard even to wear a prosthetic because your body's throwing you all over the room. Right?

Caitlin Connor:
Yeah. And to put it in perspective for those who don't have prosthetics, it's not unusual for a new amputee who is healthy and maintaining a good diet and physical fitness to be in a permanent prosthetic within that six month range. It took me about two years to get into a permanent prosthetic because of so many body changes. I gained 62 pounds. And then when I delivered basically that day, she was eight and a half pounds, and then you deliver a placenta as well, which weighs a lot. And that day, I basically delivered 20 pounds of weight off to my body. And then you start going through more body changes with breastfeeding and diet changes and lack of sleep and all the things that come with that. My body was just up and down, up and down all the time until it finally plateaued a bit.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Nobody goes through this though. I've never heard that story before, literally. I've interviewed hundreds of people and never heard a story like that, so many things happening to somebody all at once.

Caitlin Connor:
I look at it like everybody has all of their ups and downs in life. You don't get to really choose when they happen. For me, a lot happened at once. But a lot of really good things came out of it because I let myself take them in stride and move with them. It's all perspective and it's all relevant to everybody's story. I'm hoping that I don't have a scenario like that in my life where all the things happen at once again. But at the same time, I recognize that if that does happen, and I've already been through some pretty big life changing moments, that I feel like I could handle whatever comes at me.

Erik Weihenmayer:
What do you think, Caitlin, were the emotional fears and anxieties and all that stuff that you were sweeping under the carpet? What were those? When you illuminated those, what were they?

Caitlin Connor:
I had a lot of emotional stress coming through my marriage. We had to move, we had job changes, we lost work. It was just everything that could possibly be thrown at us was coming at us. And a lot of what I did was shell up and hide emotions. And I even tried to paint a painting to try and express my emotions. When I wanted to paint it, I wanted it to come out like a mountain scape with a beautiful sunset and big green trees and birds and flowers and all these beautiful things in my head, but none of that came out. What came out was actually a very dark maroon, brown, earth tone mountain. It was very much the same. It was you almost... Nothing was tangible in the image. And for whatever reason, I could never get rid of that painting.

Caitlin Connor:
And then years later, I realized it was expressionary. I was expressing pain and I just didn't realize that's what I was doing. Everything inside felt really dark and I didn't know how to turn it into something light. And it wasn't until a few years ago actually, probably right before COVID, that I had that painting and I had my daughter at home with me and I decided that she could help me turn that into a positive. And together, we both whitewashed this brown gross, depressing painting. And then I only put happy colors on the plate and then we actually created this bright, vibrant, colorful, mixed, textured painting. And now it's a happy painting, but I had to have somebody else to help me get out of that.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So your daughter was instrumental as well in that process?

Caitlin Connor:
Yes. And she's been instrumental for myself and for her dad as well. When our marriage was falling apart, we both clung to her. We work really hard to co-parent and make her life the focus. But I do remember that both of us, we both wanted her so badly when we found out about her that we'd literally do everything and she became a source of comfort for both of us, with all the pain we were going through.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Now, when you're talking about that pain and you're trying to transform that darkness into light, is there anything else that's going on? I imagine you don't just make that painting beautiful and now everything's beautiful and bright in your life. It's a daily process of trying to turn pain into light, right? Is it an ongoing thing? Or do you feel like you're changed forever?

Caitlin Connor:
It's absolutely ongoing. It wasn't just expressing through paint that helped me. I also started getting into sports and physical fitness and trying new things, because I didn't do sports before I lost my leg. So for me, part of my process is actually trying new things and experimenting. I like to experiment. Sometimes I'm the experiment now. But it is a daily process and it's much like physical fitness where you go in and you're not perfect when you go in.

Caitlin Connor:
Each day, you're trying to build up. And even if you get to a point of physical fitness that's a very good point to be at, you can always have something happen that brings you back down. And it's just keep working back up to climb up those emotions and all the pains that you have in your body. And for me, really finding a community to support you, because without that community, you're on your own. And if you're not the kind of person that has the mental toughness to be on your own all the time and be okay with it, which I am not, I'm a social butterfly, then the community becomes dire to your success.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. I relate to that because when I went blind, before I was blind, I had this retinal disease and I wasn't able to do any contact sports. So all my sports and fun things and adventures all happened after blindness. Because once I went totally blind, the gloves were off and I could do anything. I couldn't lose anything else. So it sounds like in certain ways, your life changed and awakened after amputation.

Caitlin Connor:
Yes. I think a lot of that is because not quite the thought process of what else do I have to lose, because I had just gained a child and parts of me was the, what else do I have to lose? But she was not one of those parts. She's that thing that I would fight anything for. But it just became more of what else can I do? If I can do this, what else can I do? And constantly building on that emotion. Every time I tried a new sport and did something I had never expected to do, I started saying, "Okay. Well, what else can I do? If I could do this, then what else can I do?" And it became not just sports. It became work, it became modeling, and just all the things. I just like to try new things, and that's been a big catalyst for me.

Erik Weihenmayer:
We're going to get into all those, because I'm totally fascinated by some of those. So the step before though, getting into all those sports and finding that amazing community, is, "Okay, I don't have a leg." So how'd you start learning about prosthetics and the variations of prosthetics? If you're pregnant and then you're losing weight, well, I know technically you're not supposed to call it a stump, but that's what I call it. Residual limb is shrinking or expanding. So there's just tons to learn about in terms of prosthetics, in terms of becoming an engineer, in a way, right?

Caitlin Connor:
Yeah. And I think as far as terminology, you just always go back to asking whoever you're speaking to, like, "Okay, what do you call it?" And then you won't get in trouble. Then they've given you the term they like to hear. For me, I flip back and forth. I don't really say stump. I'll say limb leg. But if I say leg, I just mean my leg. I don't know. And then residual limb, all the things.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It was Hugh Her who was on the board of No Barriers who corrected me the first time. He's like, "Well, it's not really stump. It's residual limb if you want to be technical."

Caitlin Connor:
Yes. Yes. I know Hugh very well, and he's going to give you the technical anatomical phrase. And for me, it's not going to change how I speak to you if you're going to say it a certain way. There may be ear cringing moments, but no, I'm fine. But for me, I had a little bit of time to learn about prosthetics just because I was pregnant. And most of my pregnancy, I still had my job. And then at the time, I was in oil and gas and then I got laid off, because that's what oil gas does. But I had time because of that, and that time gave me the ability to do research and to explore and to learn about the community and what prosthesis were necessary. And that's when I started learning about nonprofits and grants they offer. And I have a really good prosthetic company that I work with now too, but they're under the same, but they were really good.

Caitlin Connor:
Within a couple days of being in the hospital, they came in and they met with me and taught me how to take care of myself. And some of it was trial and error. Some of it was also me as a patient not listening to my doctors and prosthetists to do things keep my limb clean, which is actually very common in the community. People just, it becomes overwhelming depending on their situation and the personality types. For me, I didn't want to have to add all these extra steps just to do day to day living. So it was hard in the beginning, but later it became interesting. So for me, I have always been a science buff, especially medical sciences. So for me, this is like brain candy. I love to learn about the body and how the body can change and adapt and grow. So this was fun for me.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So what kind of limb did you settle on? I bet you have different limbs for different activities?

Caitlin Connor:
I do. I have to think now. I currently have on a Fillauer AllPro for my new day to day leg. But before that, I've had, I think, they're all Össur legs, which I still love Össur. I have a cycling foot now, which is actually my very first prosthetic and I've taken care of it to last almost eight years, which is great. And then I have a running prosthesis. I have my high heel prosthesis, which is what I also use for figure skating. I'm working on a prosthetic just for speed skating. You're going to like this, Eric. I'm working on a rock climbing leg. But yeah, I have all these different limbs that have different uses. Ideally, you would have one that does all the things, but that's not how it works with prosthetics yet. It's just, your body changes volume, and over time, you atrophy. And so you don't always fit in this stoic mold of your body, so you have to update it. It's just like new firmware on a computer. You have to go and get your-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Not the leg necessarily, but the fitting, you're saying, right? Or is it the leg itself that sometimes-

Caitlin Connor:
Sometimes it's the leg too, like the prosthetic foot, or for Army amputees, the hand. Because they do have a limited life. You can expect that the warranty will usually end after three years, and to get them to live beyond that is you're taking care of them, but you can always expect something to go wrong. I've seen running amputees snap their blades in the middle of a track practice.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So when did you get to the point where you said, "Okay, I can start working out and doing sports with these legs." That must have been quite a breakthrough, huh? Did somebody show you a certain kind of foot for a certain kind of activity and a light bulb went on? Or how did that start?

Caitlin Connor:
It started out pretty slow. So that was actually back in 2016. My prosthetic company introduced to me the Challenge Athletes Foundation, and you could get a grant to get a running prosthesis. Because normally, insurance does not cover any sporting equipment. They don't find it necessary, which I think is ironic, because I think it's extremely necessary that you keep your body in the best shape possible. So they introduced me to this grant and I filled out my grant before I could run and the idea was to get the blade to begin running. And initially, they mentioned running and I just thought of it as a life necessity. I didn't think of it as sporting related at all. But then they had a 5K in Fort Worth that they always got the patients to sign up for with the prosthetic company. And so they said, "Well, do you want to sign up? You can sign up for free." Oh, free. Sure. Why not?

Caitlin Connor:
I'd run one 5K in my life and it took me a couple hours and that was with two legs. So keep that in mind. And so I signed up for this race and that was in April of 2016 and I was pushing my daughter and her stroller. At this point, I was still heavier. I hadn't quite lost all the weight. My body was still adjusting quite a bit, but I had this running prosthesis. This was actually the first time I set a goal was this particular race, and my goal was to complete a 5K in under an hour. And by the end of it, I had realized I'd made some dire mistakes. I forgot to bring the little socks for your prosthetic that fill the void when your body starts to lose volume.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Because the sweating, right?

Caitlin Connor:
Yeah. I'm historically bad at dehydrating myself. So by the end of it, my limb was botting me out or hitting the bottom of the socket, which is quite painful. I basically walked 75% of it and the rest, I jogged, and that was the most I had done. But by the end of it, I finished race at 59:01, I believe, is the time that I finished and awesome. That was the first time I had not only set a goal, but actually achieved a goal. And then a year later, I came him back to the same race and did it in, I believe, 33, almost 33 flat. So I cut in half and ran that straight. And I think that was the first race I'd actually run straight. So it just spurred me wanting to do better than what I was doing before.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And did that get you excited about others sports, like boxing, which I'm probably the most fascinated by? Just punching other women in the face, that's pretty wild.

Caitlin Connor:
Yeah. Boxing was one I didn't expect to love so much.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Are you the only amputee boxer, female boxer in the US, or you were when you were boxing?

Caitlin Connor:
I was. Actually, there's another woman. I think her Instagram handle is bionic kick or something like that.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Oh my God. I would not want to be kicked by a prosthetic leg.

Caitlin Connor:
Well, so boxing for amputees has very specific roles. And it's the reason it's been hard to get it into the Paralympics because you have to have so many countries involved and you have to very specific equipment rules and rules about what parts of the body you can hit. I started training, and the reason I'm the only one in the US officially is because I'm the only one that's had an official fight. I think more are starting to come out, which is fantastic. I love seeing it. I like to catalyze people doing things. I like to go try them and say, "You can do it too. See?" But the other boxer is Erica Noviriglia out of Italy. And so she has way more fights under her belt than I do. And we had to work really hard just to get one round. We didn't even get a full match. We had one round.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Did you fight her? Is that how... So yeah, back up and tell me how you got into this. And then, what are the pros and cons? Or what were the problems that you noticed as an amputee boxing that you had to figure out?

Caitlin Connor:
I don't actually remember how I decided to get into boxing. I did a little bit of HIIT workout, HIIT boxing right before we got married and it was fun and I loved it, and it was quick workouts. It wasn't actual boxing. They were just more like cardio workouts. And so after, I had my gloves from that, and this is what happens. I see things sit around. I'm like, "Well, why don't I use that?" So I saw my gloves and I was like, "Well, why can't I get into boxing?" And I found a boxing gym that would teach me and then also found they're a nonprofit. I don't think they are running anymore, but they were called NABA, and it was the National Amputee Boxing Association. And I had a friend... Oh, okay. No, I remember now you've spurred my memory.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Good.

Caitlin Connor:
One of the guys that is that my prosthetic company, I became friends with, and he was part of NABA as a boxer. And then somehow. Seeing him, I decided I needed to do that too. And so I wanted to be the first female, and I don't know why. It just hit me and I wanted to do it. So I started working out and then I felt in love with it. And I had to work out all these big, tough guys at the gym and we weren't allowed to be soft on each other. And that was the first time I'd really been hit in the face. So I had to figure out real fast, how to start blocking and protecting myself, because they were actually being nice and holding back of it. For me to think that my opponent would hold back would be ridiculous. So I started training and I actually found Erica online. And I'm the one that said, "Hey, come to America," and connected her with NABA. And we became great friends after that.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I just keep getting this ridiculous, maybe it's a ridiculous image in my mind of you getting punched and flying out of your prosthetic leg. Did that ever happen?

Caitlin Connor:
Doesn't quite work that way.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You don't get punched so hard you go flying back and your leg goes flying out of the ring or something?

Caitlin Connor:
This sounds like a great cartoon-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, exactly. My mind light works like a cartoon. That's the problem.

Caitlin Connor:
So there are different types of suspension systems for prosthetics. I use suction, which means I have a giant sleeve that goes over the prosthetic and over my limb as well. And as soon as the Silicon of the sleeve hits my skin, it forms suction. So you would have to create so much... If you were to create enough suction for it to fall off, you'd be ripping my leg off. I've skydived in this leg before and it hasn't gone anywhere.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Got it. All right, good. And so can you plant that prosthetic when you punch somebody, because you have to plant that back leg, if I know anything about boxing. I'm pretending right now.

Caitlin Connor:
Yeah. Yeah. So initially, I actually did it in a running blade. There are a couple different types of running blade, and this one, you would term more of a long distance.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Those are really thin.... Well, yeah. Describe what the blade looks like for everyone.

Caitlin Connor:
If you can imagine, I'll describe the one I was wearing. There are a couple different types though. There's one that's like a giant J and one that's more like a smaller C, the shape of a C. And so they're thin from a side view, but they're wide from the front. So you have lots of surface area, but it's not like... A general prosthetic will have maybe a pylon, which is a giant metal pipe that comes from under the socket and then goes into the foot. Sometimes they have pylon that attaches to the C shaped foot. Other times, you can have what's called a posterior Mount where they literally take this flat blade and they wrap it with carbon fiber into your socket so it becomes part of your socket. There's lots of different ways to put legs together.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. What did you ultimately decide on when you started boxing for real, getting serious about it?

Caitlin Connor:
Initially, I didn't have as many legs back then so it was whatever I could do. I started out with my running prosthesis because it would allow me to hit the toe, to be on a tip toe, whereas my other prosthesis, it's harder to be on the toe. You have to really be over. And if you're that far over your knee, you're probably falling. So for me, I wanted to be on my tip toes so that I could bounce. You need to bounce to be able to move quick.

Erik Weihenmayer:
How'd it go with Erica when you fought her?

Caitlin Connor:
It went great. It was basically, because it was only one match, there was no declared winner. But yeah, she's La Roca. She hits like The Rock is what it is. And so she has a very powerful strike and I have great reach. I have very long arms, which worked in my favor. And the difference was we actually had a 50 pound difference, which is why we couldn't do a full match. Because in USA boxing, you have to be within five pounds of each other. And there was no way for us to possibly get within five pounds in a healthy way.

Caitlin Connor:
So for us, we weren't going to change our bodies that much just to fit to the rule and they were able to give us the one round just to accommodate. But it was difficult because she came in from Italy and needed certain doctors papers and we had to make sure she had our physical in time and the match almost didn't happen. And it was great. We came out and we fought each other as hard as we could. We put our hearts into it. And at the end, we gave each other a big hug because we knew we had just done, and we became great friends in the process.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Nice. And since then, you've been getting into other sports like triathlons and CrossFit and even speed skating. And I understand that you are developing a specific prosthetic for speed skating?

Caitlin Connor:
Yes. So all the other sports happened over a two, three year range where I was doing a bunch at the same time. I just started getting into everything. Speed skating is newer. It has been over the line last three years that we've been developing this prosthetic, but I've been working with the Colorado School of Mines and Mr. Joel Bach, who is a professor there, and his engineering students. And over the last three years, we've been working to develop this prosthetic that would be... Basically, the pylon would go straight into a blade instead of having to put a foot into a boot that has a blade on it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Which is inefficient, right?

Caitlin Connor:
Try to streamline it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
To put a prosthetic foot into a skate, why do that when you can just build a skate, a skate blade?

Caitlin Connor:
Yes. And sometimes the issue is footwear is not always accessible, so it can be difficult to get a prosthesis even into a piece of footwear, whether it's a tennis shoe or a skate, whatever it may be. So the idea was to be able to just switch a foot out and simply attach it to the pylon of a leg you already have.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Is there speed skating in the Paralympics or something like that? I don't even know.

Caitlin Connor:
No. So when it comes to the Paralympics, the only ice sport, not snow sport, we do have a couple snow sports, but the only ice sport we have is sled hockey. So there's no upright ice sports for the Paralympics.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Is that something you're thinking about? Is that something you're contemplating?

Caitlin Connor:
Yes. This came from me when I had figure skates back in college that I invested in, and after amputating, I just kept them. I couldn't let go of them. And then I wanted to start figure skating. So I started figuring out how to figure skate with a prosthesis and doing things like crossovers, where cross you leg over your other leg to go in a circular motion. And after doing the crossovers, I'm like, "Well, why can't we do speed skating?" Because that's mostly what speed skating is. It's crossing over and then going really fast. So it, to me, is more doable than even figure skating, which has a toe pick, involves jumping and all kinds of movements.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, that's so exciting. That's really fun. So you skate on a regular basis? And when do you think that skate will be ready for other amputees maybe to check out?

Caitlin Connor:
So it's still a prototype. It's still in testing. And I actually go this Friday to my prosthetic company to test the socket fit. They've made a permanent socket so that it's safer to hit the ice. And the goal is to actually touch the ice next week for the first time.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Oh, cool. Well, you got to let us know how that goes.

Caitlin Connor:
Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Tell me about modeling. How'd you get into modeling? That's really exciting too, and I have a zillion questions about modeling.

Caitlin Connor:
Sure. 2016 was a big year for me to catalyze new things happening, so modeling actually came to me in 2016 as well. I had a friend who was invited to be a runway model as a blade runner is what they were calling us, is literally just an amputee wearing a running prosthesis. And they had an extra spot and I invested to go to this runway, and that was the start. I didn't even wear the clothing line. I came out at the end wearing Gap. They had us basically close out fashion week. They wanted 10 to maybe 14 amputees with running prosthesis at the very end dancing. And it was probably the first time anybody ended a runway show at LA fashion week by dancing. And so they put me in the very front with one other amputee and everyone else fell behind us.

Caitlin Connor:
And the behind us barely danced. And the two of us in the front really went all out on our dancing. So it probably looked really weird to have such a dynamic set of dancing going on. But it opened my eyes that modeling was even something I could do. And then after that, I started getting into print modeling. I worked with target on the C9 Champion line. And then, oh, I modeled for Tokyo 2020 for long jumping, even though I never did long jumping. I saw that modeling casting call jump up and I found a long jump coach within a day and said, "Teach me how a long jump so I can do this." And I had actually originally auditioned for triathlon, but they picked a gold medal triathlete to do that shoot, which totally makes sense. But within two weeks, I learned how to properly long jump for this photo shoot, and then we did nothing proper in the photo shoot at all. So it was completely pointless.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Is this a newer thing for amputees or people with different kinds of disabilities to be modeling? 20 years ago, would that have happened? Or is this just a really awesome time in history where companies and different institutions are thinking more about inclusion and more about diversity, more about how different human beings are and how we're shaped and made?

Caitlin Connor:
I think it's a mix of things. I think, yes, you probably would've seen people with disabilities 20 years ago, but it would've only been in a hospital scenario. You wouldn't have seen us in everyday clothing or just walking on the street. You wouldn't have seen us in a normal scenario, which most of us have normal lives that people tend to think we don't have. So now is the time that you're really seeing media push for more inclusion, and some of it is because media wants to, and some of it's because media's being forced to right over years and years of people saying, "Why not us?" I like to joke that they've really missed on a couple things. One, people with disabilities also make income, so they're missing out on their own financial benefit by including us. But we're also like walking billboards and rolling billboards. As many people stare at us for our disabilities, they might as well slap a brand on us and pay us, so why are they missing out on that?

Erik Weihenmayer:
Tell me if this applies at all or tell me whether it doesn't apply. Okay. So I was going to be honored as part of the timeline of folks who have climbed El Capitan, which is in Yosemite. It's a big 3,000 foot rock face. And they're like, "Okay, so we're going to have the timeline of people who have climbed El Capitan, and then we're going to have the adaptive timeline of all the adaptive people." And I went, "Wait a second. Why not just blend us into the regular timeline of the history of El Capitan. Don't give a special disability, completely separate exhibit."

Caitlin Connor:
Separate, not equal?

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, exactly. It didn't feel right to me. So do you ever find that as an amputee model, that you're like, "Hey, just integrate amputees and people with differences into the mainstream. Don't have a special showcase for people with disabilities." Or what's your thinking there?

Caitlin Connor:
I think it's a mix. I do think there are times when, yes, people with disabilities really do need that spotlight. For instance, the Paralympics. Yes, I think Paralympic athletes should definitely have a spotlight. But then there are times where, when I'm doing a commercial or a photo shoot, when, because they haven't been working with people with disabilities for as long, or even at all in some cases, they aren't aware that some of their actions are insulting, things like panning the camera down to just my like and then focusing on it as I'm walking. Yes, you do need some of that movement, but does it have to be the entire focus? So what I've noticed now is I'm actually getting cast for commercials where, yes, I'm an amputee actress/model, but that's not what I'm being cast as.

Caitlin Connor:
I'm being cast as, for instance, we'll say brewer, I'm not being cast as an amputee brewer. So I'm starting to take more normal roles. And yes, maybe they'll cater the outfit to... They do want to show the prosthesis. So maybe they'll show, I'll wear shorts or capris or dress with a slit on that side. So they're not hiding the disability, which is good. You want it to be more mainstream, but they're also not just zooming in on it and saying, "Hey, hey, hey, this person's different. Look what we did. Give us a pat on the back." I'm seeing a shift where it is becoming a more normalized thing to have people with disabilities on the cast and they are actually working really hard to be more inclusive. It's just now, we need more people who are willing to be in front of the camera and willing to work on those skills.

Caitlin Connor:
Because as much as there has always been an underlying amount of people disabilities in the entertainment industry, it's always been a smaller percentage. And so now that we need to bump up that percentage, because now you're still competing with talent... It's not just, "Oh, I am missing a leg so you must hire me." No, I still have to be talented. I still have to be able to do what the director needs me to and perform the tasks they need. So now, it's not just getting their attention to hire us, it's also working on the talent that they're seeing so that they understand the value of hiring us and seeing that we are as equally, if not more talented, in some ways, because of our ability to adapt.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Right. So Hugh Her, just talked about him a few minutes ago, but he has this, I don't think he invented the phrase, but he talks a lot about machine beauty, this idea that mechanical things can have a kind of beauty, like a car can have a kind of beauty. And when you integrate these mechanical things, these technological things into biology, you're mixing the human and machines. There can be a kind of symmetry or beauty to it. I'm sure you know way more about this than I do. Have you been working with that, like legs that are really beautiful or showcase what you are?

Caitlin Connor:
Yeah. Actually, I hate pants now. Pants are extremely uncomfortable, and usually they're pretty difficult to get on. There's only a few brands out there that are actually accessible. So most of the time, I'm wearing shorts, I have no problem showing my leg. And in the beginning, I had a hard time with people asking, just because of a mix of new emotions and PTSD. But now when people look, I'm like, "What do you want to know? Ask me? I'll help you." Same thing with kids. In the beginning, kids were rough around on the edges. And so now I'm using-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Like pointing and stuff like that. Yeah.

Caitlin Connor:
Oh yeah. Kids can be ruthless. And most of the time, the parents would be like, "Oh, what's a big deal? They're just being kids." And they don't realize that they could soften the jab a bit. So now, I try to use it as a teaching moment for adults and children alike. But when it comes to things like fashion, I like to pull my leg into it. I actually don't change what my prosthetic looks like. I only have one cover and that's only for runway style. And other than that, I just like the black carbon fiber look. I don't change any colors or do special designs. To me, it's a part of me and so I embrace that. Now, I would love to have some kind of steam punk leg or something super metallic or I don't know, but-

Erik Weihenmayer:
What was it, Amy Mullin who had like prosthetics that were see through or something, like glass slippers, but they were legs or something?

Caitlin Connor:
Well, you got Amy, you've got Victoria Modesta has some cool legs. They work with the Alternative Limb Project and makes some pretty intense, cool prosthetics out of that, which maybe they'll consider me for future projects. But I'm artistic and I would love to, if I have to paper mache something around my leg just to paint it and make it exciting, I will. But I also, at the same time, don't have to do that to be happy in my limb.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So I want to ask some questions or maybe just say question about the perception of beauty. And I feel a little bit like a 50 year old dude asking this question. But I know when I went blind, even as a man... Well, I was a kid. I was 14 at the time, but I really wanted to be rugged and tough and cool and fit in and not be looked down upon. And so I have a lot of friends who are females and have disabilities, girls and women in wheelchairs. And they're like, "Man, it's hard when you're abled, because you have this perception of beauty, which is perfection. And now I'm in a wheelchair, I'm "broken." Am I going to have a partner, sex, all that kind of stuff? Even dudes I know in wheelchairs, they're like, "I hate looking up at people when I talk to them." Is being an amputee, has it changed, has it shaped your perception of beauty, of femininity in any way?

Caitlin Connor:
See, all of those thoughts are extremely valid to anyone listening to this. Most of my problems with beauty have been inward. It has been my own self consciousness, some of it because of society teaching us growing up to look a certain way, and then some of it is because inside, I never feel like I'm good enough. So I have to constantly work on how I look at myself. And so I try to look at... I have a giant scar on my left shoulder from the accident. So anytime I do a commercial or go on TV, there's a makeup artist that will see the scar if I'm wearing a dress or something and my shoulder's exposed, and they'll ask me if I want to cover it. And I always tell them no. And so for me, if something isn't changing about my body, then I want it to stay the same.

Caitlin Connor:
If it's something like, for me, if I get acne one day or something, that's not a forever thing, so that's something I would cover. Temporary is not something I care about. But if it's something permanent on me, then I want to keep it that way because that's who I am. So my viewpoints of myself have changed a lot. Growing up, I was super skinny, not because of any reason probably other than poor diet and just not taking care of myself. I didn't work out so it wasn't that. I wasn't bulimic. I like food. I don't know. It's one of those things that I think is a constant battle and it goes down to, how comfortable are you with yourself? How easy it for you to shut out what media is telling you to look like? Are you the person that has to have all of the trends? Or can you develop your own style and be comfortable with your style no matter what?

Caitlin Connor:
So for me, I've got clothes in my closet from middle school that I still wear because I still like them. I don't care if they're trendy, I still like them. But at the same time, I can go into a fashion shoot and hit the runway and be wearing some glamorous piece and just love it. I just have this weird personality that likes to be all over the place. And I recognize that it's very healthy to be uncomfortable with yourself sometimes, but it's also healthy to recognize that you're beautiful the way you are. If you have something that you have an issue with, is it something because somebody's telling you? Is it because you don't like it or is it some other source? I think it's something people should actually reflect on, on theirselves.

Erik Weihenmayer:
And maybe is that a little bit of the impetus behind modeling is, "Hey, I'm going to get out there. I'm going to show who I am. I'm going to box. I'm going to show who I am, even though it's a little scary. I'm going to be on that runway," with the idea, I guess, the hope that people watch and they say, "Wow. She is who she is. She's beautiful." Or if it was a dude, he's handsome. He's together, he's got it together. That prosthetic actually isn't a limitation. It's not something that diminishes you. It's something that makes you.

Caitlin Connor:
Yeah. Not everybody has a personality to be in front of the camera or on TV. I think people need to understand that. They see somebody who's famous on TV and they think, oh, because they're famous and people love them, that I need to be that. Not everybody's meant to be on TV. Not everybody's personality can handle it. I'm the kind of person that can get in front of a stadium and give a speech that I made up out of thin air and be just fine. Other people would rather die. Some of that's personality. For me, I like to go out there and be myself. I'm like the Miss Congeniality of my own little world. I stand out. I'm not typical. And I like to be... When I'm on set, I'm the nice person. I like to be helpful. When I was in the hospital, I was the one helping the nurse actually clean myself. I just like to be a normal person out there because I think we need to see more normal people.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Wonderful. So, Caitlin, we had talked about this idea that when you have that emotional PTSD, when you have tough things that have affected you, that it's not like one thing happens and you're changed. It's a daily process. Nowadays, you're in a good head space, it sounds like. What do you do? What kind of tools do you have for when maybe you're not, when you're having a tough day, and maybe for others as they think about the roller coaster of our emotions?

Caitlin Connor:
I think it's extremely important for everybody to kind of figure out what their process is. Everybody's process is different. I like to, when I'm frustrated, write things down and get them out of my head, because I'm a person that will sit in my head and hyper-focus on things and I will lose my whole day to thinking. So for me, I have to get out of my head so I can move on, even just momentarily. The other thing is I like to surround myself with positive people. I don't have time for negativity anymore. That used to be something that I let come into my life and take over all the time, and now it's not something I allow into my life. Now, that doesn't mean negative things don't happen. You're always going to have somebody come into your life that causes negativity, but it's important for you to know how to shut it down.

Caitlin Connor:
My day job, I'm on my phone all the time, emails all the time, social media all the time. I have to learn how to shut out the trolls, everything about that. And sometimes that's putting it away and going, for me, sometimes riding a bike, doing a sport, doing some artwork, hanging out with friends. I have to find some way to de-stress or it's going to consume me and all of my productivity will be gone. And at the same time, all the things that work so hard to do in life would be, not wasted, but they would be almost for not because I'm not moving forward with them. So for me, I just have to find my way to get out of my head. And sometimes, that means shutting down from the world.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Do you, Caitlin, think that in certain ways you're like a new person, you're like a different person before amputation? Or are you pretty much the same person, but you've just grown a little bit?

Caitlin Connor:
I think it's a mix. I like to joke that I'm the Gemini, so I've got two sides of myself, but I also feel like I'm a chameleon, that I grow and adapt to everything around me. And I almost wish I could clone myself to put the different parts of me in different parts of the world and have all these different lives. There are parts of me that are the same. I can talk to my best friend from grade school and we're the same person. And then there are times where everything I'm doing is nothing I would've done before. It just depends on the moment and the situation. I just mold to what I need to in life.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). It's good to be a chameleon in certain ways. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I've had a lot-

Caitlin Connor:
As long as you don't blend in.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Right. I've had a lot of friends tell me that adaptability is so important, just constantly being able to adapt. I find it hard sometimes, just constantly trying to adapt and move forward. It's sometimes so easy to get stuck in the past a little bit or just stuck where you're on the treadmill of your mind. Yeah. If people want to learn more about you, they want to hire you for modeling job or set up a boxing match or just get to know you, where do you want them to go, Caitlin? We'll put all this in the notes.

Caitlin Connor:
They can find me, if you go to my website at ccadaptive.com, it has all of my social link to it. You can email me from there. You can find me on Instagram @Caitlin.AndHerLegNamed.Rex, which is another story. And then CaitlinConnorOfficial on Facebook.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Awesome. Caitlin, thank you so much and thanks for being a part of the No Barriers community. And yeah, we're going to have our next summit, I think, here in Colorado, in August. So we'll talk to you more about that.

Caitlin Connor:
Oh, that's going to be awesome.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. We'll talk to you more about it.

Caitlin Connor:
Thank you for having me.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. Sweet. Thank you. No Barriers to everyone.

Didrik Johnck:
The production team behind this podcast includes producer, Didrik Johnck, that's me, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cotman, marketing and graphic support from Stone Ward, and web support by Jamlo. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance, and thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. That's nobarrierspodcast.com. There's also a link to shoot me an email with any suggestions for this show or any ideas you've got at all. Thanks so much and have a great day.



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