Connor O’Leary has covered an incredible amount of ground for a guy in his mid-20s.
He was a professional cyclist in Europe during high school. He and his dad, Dave, won “The Amazing Race: All-Stars” in 2014. And now, with the help of one of his best friends, Boman Farrer, he’s launching his own adventure bag company, but there was a time when O’Leary was forced to slow down.
O’Leary, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was two weeks away from entering the Missionary Training Center in preparation for serving a full-time mission in Barcelona, when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The diagnosis left O’Leary sidelined from serving a mission for the LDS Church and from participating in the sport he loved as he underwent chemotherapy and surgery.
“It rocked my world,” O’Leary said of this period of slowing. “Honestly, that was probably the most frustrating part for me was cycling, (it) was kind of my entire life. I kind of slept, ate, drank, breathed the sport and when that’s all taken away I kind of lost my identity a little bit.
“And I didn’t say ‘Why me?’ but to see all my best buddies serving missions or going to college and I’m just kind of at this standstill was really tough and honestly, took kind of a while to kind of shake that mentality and realize, ‘Yeah, this sucks but it could be way worse, I’m really blessed to be where I’m at.’”
O’Leary needed something to challenge him and he found the challenge in an unlikely place.
“As dumb as it sounds, I started sewing just to kind of preoccupy my time and to kind of learn a new skill,” O’Leary said.
He started making scarves and sewing pockets on T-shirts.
O’Leary, who sewed his prototype for the bag, said in a video on the Kickstarter page: “It was really this amazing creative outlet for me in a time when I really needed it the most,”
Farrer was one of O’Leary’s best friends who was on a mission in Raleigh, North Carolina, when he learned of the diagnosis in a letter from home.
“That whole process was really, really weird and hard for me to navigate through because it almost didn’t seem real because I wasn’t there, but then I would get pictures of him just looking so sick,” said Farrer, who has known O’Leary since junior high school. “He didn’t look anything like the active, vibrant Connor that I grew up with but it all started and ended while I was on my mission and he had this huge traumatic experience that I wasn’t around for at all.”
Farrer said that O'Leary rarely talks about his battle with cancer but then again, he also doesn't talk about his achievements.
"He's so humble and he's also kind of an under the radar type of kid," Farrer said. "In high school, no one knew that he was like a big time cyclist but he was out there racing big-name guys. He doesn't like all the attention."
O'Leary's appearance on two seasons of "The Amazing Race," didn't help with the unwanted attention but O'Leary explained that it did have its perks.
“It was really such an incredible opportunity and experience," O'Leary, who along with his father won the 24th season of the show, said. "I didn’t want to be on TV, that was never the objective. It was really to be able to travel around the world for free and to do it with my dad, who has been my best friend for forever. So probably just the experience of getting to see all of those incredible places with my dad. He’s in 60s and obviously nowhere near death but experiences like that probably won’t happen again so that was just kind of a father-son experience that we’ll never forget."
He has been able to use the platform the show gave him in the years since.
"The Amazing Race really gave me a good platform to share my story. I’m heavily involved in the cancer world. I do work for the testicular cancer foundation, which is something that is near and dear to me. I’ve been able to speak at hospitals across the country and talk to survivors so that’s been a really great blessing to come out of it."
Now, O'Leary will seek to use that platform and his love for adventure to help his fellow thrillseekers.
Farrer and O'Leary can trace their first entrepreneurial effort back to the same place: a little room off the side of Farrer’s parents’ house they dubbed “The CAB Lab,” an acronym for their first names and the first name of their friend Austin who joined them in dyeing and screen printing T-shirts. In recent years, Farrer became the co-founder of Luno Wear, a company that makes wooden watches and has found success by building on his family’s legacy as watchmakers. He is grateful to have found another product with a strong story behind its creation.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is how to find people who resonate with your product so that you can reach them and reach them in a way that will be appealing to them,” Farrer said. “For our first campaign, we were able to identify that and we had a great backstory that really helped people resonate with the brand and why we were founded and what not. This one, our video is kind of the same way, we like to sell a product that is driven by a passion.
“I think that’s pretty hard to do, and I think I’ve kind of gotten lucky being in a family of watchmakers so our brand and our watches were driven by a passion for that and now with Connor and this brand, he’s an adventure and travel enthusiast.”
The idea for the bag came to O’Leary when he was in Thailand a few years ago. Having used many different bags on previous adventures, he had begun to note the things he would change if he created his own adventure bag.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a daypack that could pack really small but was comfortable, could carry stuff and could be used for not only travel and packability but just for adventures in general’ and that was kind of the genesis,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary used his sewing skills to create a prototype.
“That first prototype was super scrappy,” he said. “It was pieced together with pieces of fabric and webbing and buckles, but the function was there.”
Farrer and O’Leary teamed up with designers and manufacturers to create the bag of their dreams as adventurers.
“Now hundreds of hours, a trip halfway across the world and 11 prototypes later, I think we nailed it,” O’Leary says in their Kickstarter video of the bag. The 24-liter daypack includes a camera case that doubles as a cooler, a fanny pack and a dry bag. The bag is everything O’Leary hoped it would be, but it represents something even more for him.
“The experience of traveling and 'The Amazing Race' and professional cycling and being able to go all over the place has first and foremost helped me to design a product that will resonate with a lot of people and a lot of people will enjoy and use,” O’Leary said. “But on top of that, there have been a lot of ups and downs and like anything, there are a ton of those so that has given me some wherewithal and mental fortitude to endure those challenges, and I’m sure there will be a lot more.”
O’Leary says throughout the many highs and lows of his life, it is his faith in God, “the reassurance of what I believe in,” that has remained constant.
“Turning away from God never really crossed my mind, and I don’t say that because I think I’m this hyper-religious person but for me, really the only comfort I could turn to was that someone knew what I was going through and understood the pain I was feeling and that was extremely reassuring to me,” O’Leary said. “So for me, man, if I didn’t have the gospel and the faith in what I believe in that entire experience could’ve been much worse and much harder to go through.”