“I’m very thankful for that spot,” Trevor Kennison, age 27, says into the phone via FaceTime. He’s sitting in his car in front of his home resort of Winter Park, Colo., which has just shut down due to the pandemic. The “spot” he’s referring to isn’t one of the white slopes shining brightly in the sun behind him. It’s up on Vail Pass, an hour or so away, where he broke his back and became permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
To be grateful for a pretty devastating physical injury is, well, hard to imagine for most of us. It’s the most character-defining moment of our conversation. Kennison’s positivity and enthusiasm is so unbounded that he has been able to transform a potentially negative outcome into something better than he had ever hoped for—a career as a fully sponsored professional sit-skier.
In fact, Level 1 Productions is making a documentary film called “Full Circle” about Kennison, in which he goes back to ski at that fateful spot. What he does there I cannot tell you—it’s under wraps until the documentary premieres in the fall of 2021—but suffice it to say it will change what we thought to be possible in extreme skiing.
At the time of his injury, Kennison was 22 years old and working in the Vail Valley as a plumber. He grew up in Keene, N.H., dirt biking, playing basketball, and snowboarding, but he had rediscovered the latter after graduating from high school. He had zero aspirations of ever going pro. “This has opened doors that I know Trevor never would have imagined,” says Tom Horan, Kennison’s recreational therapist at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., about his injury.
In November of 2014, he fractured his T11 and T12 vertebrae and punctured his spinal cord after catching an edge off a 10-foot kicker he built with his buddies. He heard the pop immediately on impact and lay on the snow for three hours waiting for Search and Rescue. “I didn’t think I was going to make it off that mountain,” he says. He was transferred to Craig Hospital, where he had to relearn how to do everything.
“When you’re injured, you go through such a tough time, and no one can get through it for you,” Kennison says, recounting the beginning of his life after the accident. “So I started to focus on how fast I could transfer into my wheelchair, learn how to go to the bathroom, get in the car, become independent. I had a need for speed. Then when I moved home six months after, I lived on my buddy’s couch. It was a scary feeling. I just had to do it. You can sit there and be like, ‘poor me,’ or get it done. You can’t let what you can’t control affect you.”
Horan said most people take a long time to accept an injury that significant, but Kennison was a shining anomaly. He recounted a story a few years after Kennison was released when Kennison drove down to Denver and called him up a few minutes before arriving at Craig. “He was missing an entire front wheel on his chair. He was just leaning back to make it work. Those are the people you know are out there doing it. People who come back to Craig because their chairs are banged up, missing a wheel. I think he’s probably rolling in a mangled wheelchair most of the time. That’s pretty much Trevor in a nutshell.”
According to Horan, Kennison’s personality was hugely instrumental in his recovery. “I’m sure he had tough days, but that positivity and enthusiasm never left him. There’s never going to be a challenge that Trevor doesn’t take on. You put anything in front of that dude, and he’s going to do it whether he can move his legs or not. It’s a different level of life that he’s trying to live.”
Kennison discovered sit-skiing a year or so after his accident at his sister’s suggestion—he also surfs, dirt bikes, and downhill bikes—and began pouring everything he had into it. He pushed so hard, in fact, that he broke his leg hitting a tree two years later. He attended ski-racing development camp for athletes with disabilities and trained with the National Sports Center for the Disabled at Winter Park Resort. Then, in 2019, he took center stage at Jackson Hole’s annual Kings and Queens of Corbet’s competition by launching—huge—off the top cornice of the famous couloir. From there, sponsorships and opportunities began pouring in.
Related: Military to the Mountain
Initially, says Josh Berman, owner of Level 1 Productions who filmed the documentary, brands were attracted to his personality but didn’t seriously consider his athletic capabilities. But after seeing what Kennison can do, Berman predicts that will change quickly. “People can’t quite believe his level of ability,” he says. “Every time we go out to shoot, he sends cliffs into chest-deep pow and stomps everything. One time when I was filming him with Parkin Costain, Parkin probably went half as big as Trevor. Everyone laughed their heads off and said, ‘Holy shit, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what you just did.’ His stoke and enthusiasm is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And this is just the very beginning for him.”
As with all superheroes, Kennison inspires the burning question of what it is about him that makes him so special. He is quick to credit others in his life—Roy Tuscany at the High Fives Foundation (a nonprofit that supports mountain athletes who’ve suffered life-altering injuries), his sister, his ex-girlfriend, Craig Hospital—but what it really boils down to is something far more innate.
“I love learning. Everything about being in a wheelchair is new for me, so I have to keep learning, keep thinking. Sure, it’s been lots of ups and downs, but that’s life. Everyone has that. This chair might be my arch nemesis when it comes to stairs and sand,” he jokes, “but it’s taken me so many places. I wouldn’t be who I am today or have met all the amazing people I’ve met without breaking my back.”
Watch Trevor Kennison in Action: Day 1 from Level 1 Productions
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Carving Out Space: Brooklyn Bell
Expanding Horizons: Leah Evans
Sitting Pretty: Muffy Davis