For most skateboarders, that first board is unforgettable. For 23-year-old Conner Millan, it has helped shape his entire life.
Millan received his—a Walmart Spiderman board—as a gift from his mother when he was 8 years old. He remembers sitting on it and riding around when another boy his age pushed his way past. “He asked me why I wasn’t standing on it, and from that day on I was determined to learn how to skate standing up,” Millan tells GOOD.
Millan was born with spina bifida, a rare birth defect in which an infant’s spine fails to develop properly in the womb. According to Mayo Clinic, there are fewer than 200,000 U.S. cases of spina bifida yearly. This chronic developmental disability can’t be cured and requires an immediate medical diagnosis. Some cases may require surgery and others require treatment to help with management over time.
Despite his condition, it didn’t take Millan long to skate standing up. And that was just the beginning of Millan’s unlikely journey, defying everyone’s expectations and racking up hundreds of thousands of miles on four wheels, two crutches, and, eventually, one leg.
People often make assumptions about Millan’s condition and ability to perform common functions and partake in physical activities. “(They) think that I’m not in a position to stand up for myself,” he says. Then he laughs while saying he’s no different than anyone else thanks, in part, to his skateboard.
“I want to be able to spread more awareness about spina bifida,” Millan says. “Not all forms can be visually identified or seen from an outward perspective.”
Much like other disabilities and the lack of knowledge surrounding them, there are many misconceptions. Millan doesn’t experience any pain or soreness unless he spends the day skating, and his case could be very different from other spina bifida cases. People assume Millan can’t drive (he can). When he’s in the wheelchair, they think he’s stuck in it, that he’s unable to walk or function. And obviously, they’re surprised to find out that Millan can skateboard. “There isn’t a lot of accessible information, and I’d like to be able to change that.”
At the time of this writing, Millan was in Venice, CA, skating his way through Los Angeles. This isn’t the first time he has done that. During his first visit two years ago, he was skating in the Life Rolls On competition and took a bad fall that opened up a callous on his foot. From spina bifida, both of Millan’s feet turn to the right, and his left foot developed a callous where all the weight was centered.
“They gave me a pill antibiotic,” Millan says about his Los Angeles hospital visit following the accident. “I skated out of the hospital with a hole in my foot.”
He returned to his native Florida for further medical attention and intensive recovery. “The torn callous became infected, and my leg needed to be amputated,” he says.
Millan spent two months in the hospital. He didn’t know if he would ever skate again. Then local non-profit Friends of Fernandina Skate Park launched a GoFundMe campaign. Between insurance and generous donations from across the nation, Millan was able to pay for a prosthetic leg, one for which he anxiously waited seven months to receive.
It didn’t take long for Millan to learn how to skate with a prosthetic either.
“Because of spina bifida, I couldn’t move my ankles or toes anyway so learning how to skate with a prosthetic wasn’t too big of a change.” He says he had to get used to the weight of the prosthetic and the stiffness of the ankle piece. “Nothing that took longer than a day or two to get used to,” he adds.
I skated out of the hospital with a hole in my foot.
The only remaining issue for Millan is the sweat factor. He says the rubber cup that holds the prosthetic on isn’t very breathable and if he sweats, it slides down. “I’ve talked to my friend’s buddy who’s also an amputee that skateboards,” Millan says. “He told me try deodorant or baby powder.”
Millan’s GoFundMe page is still active. He is trying to raise enough funds to replace his crutches with SideStix, which are devices developed especially for performance and those who seek comfortable, limitless mobility. “They’re stronger, have suspension in them, and are a pretty big upgrade from the ones I’m using now,” he says.
Millan approaches VENICE skate park with confidence—and some caution. He prefers street skating than skate parks, and is still learning how to skate bowls. Nevertheless, he greets his friends (which he makes wherever he goes) and pops out of his wheelchair with ease, utilizing his great upper body strength borne of daily crutch use. To affix his prosthetic, he rolls a rubber sleeve on to his leg and snaps the metal rod in place. He needs to remove the prosthetic for short periods of time to allow the sweat to dry up. The socks that come with the prosthetic for fitting purposes also need to be cleaned.
Unlike other skateboarders who use their feet to push, Millan uses his crutches. The maneuver may seem challenging, but for Millan, who skates regular-footed, it’s clockwork. He still needs to lean into turns, but utilizes a crutch to brake. Tricks are a bit more limiting, but Millan has the “Pop Shove It” dialed in. To start the trick out, he places his crutches down on opposite sides of the board. Next, he kicks the tail of the board downward at an angle. Using his arms and the crutches that are still placed on the ground, he pushes himself up for the jumping motion while popping the board with his feet.
“I don’t have enough muscle in my legs to land on my feet alone,” Millan says. “When I land, I usually place one crutch down to catch myself.” When all is said and done, he rolls on and to the next trick. No big deal.
Millan has caught the wanderlust bug like many of today’s twentysomethings. Latching on to what became one of 2016’s most-talked about alternative living styles, he plans to drive a van and skate across the country in this new year, opting to forgo modern amenities and comfort for life on the road and lasting memories. (Millan generally uses hand controls to drive but can also use his foot.) He’s already nailed the hipster vagabond look without even trying.
But on this day, it’s unusually empty at the Venice park as the sun begins to dip beyond the Pacific horizon. Millan gets ready to drop in as passersby gather around to watch. A curious little boy runs up to Millan, pointing toward his leg and asking, “What happened? What happened?” Millan stops to explain, in the simplest way possible, that he had an accident. The father, clearly embarrassed, apologizes profusely, but Millan shakes it off like it’s no big deal. He always shakes it off, because to Millan, it’s never been a big deal.
All photos by David Bracetty