Bozeman, Mont. • In May, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk shared a video of a man with one leg flipping a skateboard with his crutches while clearing a gap across the street from Owenhouse Cycling in downtown Bozeman.
"Best 360 flip you'll see today," Hawk wrote.
Hawk’s video of the Bozemanite went viral. It had nearly 1.3 million views and almost 180,000 likes as of last week, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported .
The man in the video is Vasu Sojitra. The 27-year-old didn't expect Hawk would share it, but his videos often do well online.
"Most of the time all my stuff that I share that's skateboarding goes viral," Sojitra said. "None of my ski stuff goes viral, but I'm more of a ski athlete than a skateboarder."
Sojitra’s right leg was amputated when he was 9 months old. He doesn’t wear a prosthetic, just crutches on each arm, and he’s taught himself how to skate, ski and trail run. He’s great at all of it, and people have noticed. He’s sponsored by several companies — most notably The North Face, which made him its first adaptive athlete for skiing.
But he doesn't want his story to be sappy, or one of a man who overcame his disability to be an inspiration to everyone. He wants to use his status to elevate people of color, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities and build a more inclusive outdoors environment. That mission is woven into his work at Eagle Mount, where he leads people with disabilities on outdoor adventures, and Earthtone Outside Montana, where he organizes outdoor activities for people of marginalized backgrounds.
He wants people to understand that the world we live in isn't designed for everybody.
"We try to get by with what we have as much as possible, and, fortunately enough for me, it's been highlighted over and over again through the work I do and my athletic pursuits," Sojitra said.
On a recent warm morning at a Bozeman skate park, Sojitra thrusts himself forward on his board with his left crutch. His foot is positioned on his skateboard and his right crutch maneuvers it to do tricks.
He pops the back of the skateboard in the air. His left crutch hoists him up and gives the board enough room to twirl under him before he lands back on its black grip tape.
Sojitra was born and mostly raised in Connecticut, aside from some time in India. When he was 9 months old he had septicemia, or blood poisoning from bacteria. His parents rushed him to the hospital. To keep the infection from spreading to his heart and potentially killing him, his right leg was amputated.
When he was old enough to walk, Sojitra got a prosthetic leg. Because he was compensating for a hip, knee and ankle, Sojitra had to waddle like a penguin to get it to work.
Around the time he was 10, he said, the knee on the prosthetic bent because he put too much weight on it. He fell and his face hit the sharp corner of a desk.
"I was just bleeding in the middle of class and had a pool of blood in my hands," Sojitra said. "I was like, 'OK. I'm done with this. I'm not going to wear a prosthetic leg anymore.'"
Around then, his brother was getting into action sports. Sojitra said his brother helped pull him out of their apartment and included him in outdoor activities. It started with skateboarding and later progressed to skiing.
He considers his brother his first ally.
"Growing up, he never pitied me, he always wanted to push me to be independent and empowered me to do my own thing," Sojitra said.
He and a friend moved to Bozeman five years ago, mainly for skiing, he said. Sojitra soon found Eagle Mount, where he now works as the organization's adaptive sports director coordinating outdoor events for people with disabilities. Eagle Mount is a nonprofit that provides therapeutic recreational opportunities for people with disabilities and young people with cancer.
The nonprofit is gearing up for a program called adventure day camps, Sojitra said, to get people with disabilities, both cognitive and developmental, out kayaking, rafting, hiking, zip lining and anything else you could do outside in Montana.
"It encapsulates my life," he said.
Sarah Wolf, the nonprofit's Big Sky ski coordinator, said Sojitra is a role model for the Eagle Mount kids, adding that he leads by example. Wolf said she admires and respects him because he treats other people with disabilities like his brother treated him when they were growing up.
"Vasu doesn't put any limitations on himself and that is expressed through all of who he is," Wolf said.
Because he was part of the adaptive sports world, he also saw examples of how the outdoor world left out others — like people of color and different backgrounds. He learned about activism and equal representation in the outdoor industry.
"I started pushing for (equality) and started connecting the dots between anti-racism work, oppression work and then the outdoors as well," Sojitra said.
Sojitra is one of five founders of Earthtone Outside Montana, a group of outdoor enthusiasts who aim to expose more people of color and different backgrounds to outdoor sports.
"Bozeman's a very intense place for outdoor sports," Sojitra said. "We're trying to dial it back and make sure that people feel included, especially for people of color that generationally have not experienced that in their families."
The group was established about a year-and-a-half ago when co-founder Frances Kim asked on a Bozeman social media forum if there were any hiking groups for people of color. Sojitra said people kind of went crazy, saying racism doesn't exist in the city or in Montana.
Kim sought help from the Montana Racial Equity Project to put her in contact with some of the group's eventual co-founders, including Sojitra.
The group also aims to educate people and outdoor organizations looking for guidance on diversity issues. Along with that, Kim said, comes having difficult conversations with people, not to change their minds, but to show them a different perspective on racial, gender or other issues.
Kim described Sojitra as an activist and someone who brings a big voice to the group because of his affiliation with North Face and his social media presence — he has 30,000 Instagram followers. She said he uses that platform to inform his followers.
"There's all these pieces that a lot of people would just find too exhausting to do, and he'll do it," Kim said, referring to Sojitra.
Kim said Sojitra sees that there is an unaddressed issue of people of color not being represented in the outdoor sports world. Through his work, she said, he's trying to level the playing field for minorities.
“Vasu really lives and breathes for that — he really cares about these issues,” Kim said.