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One in a Million: Man with dwarfism has passion for martial arts

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail
Larry McDonnell, 35, sits on his scooter along Brawley Walkway, in Charleston.
Courtesy photo
While he is a second-degree brown belt, Larry McDonnell isn’t actively studying martial arts. He blogs about the practice and his experiences as a dwarf, but he hopes to eventually find a new karate studio that’s right for him.
Courtesy photo
Larry Donnell (right) with his wife Jessica and their three children.

This is not the first time Larry McDonnell has been in the newspaper.

Sixteen years ago, when McDonnell was a senior at Herbert Hoover High School, he was featured in a lengthy article that discussed his life as a student with diastrophic dwarfism and his passion for martial arts.

He graduated from high school more than a decade and a half ago, but, at 35, McDonnell is still passionate about all things karate, even if he’s not practicing regularly.

“I’ve got three kids,” he said. “So they take up a lot of my time.”

McDonnell was born with diastrophic dysplasia, which affects cartilage and bone development. His arms and legs are shorter than average, and he stands right at 3 feet tall.

He uses a motorized scooter, which helps him get from place to place much more quickly, but he can stand and walk. He said he’d still be at least interested in martial arts even if he couldn’t.

“I’ve always loved martial arts since as far back as I can remember,” McDonnell said. “When I was a kid, I’d watch the kung fu movies Saturday afternoons on Fox 11.”

He was maybe 8 years old when he asked his parents about actually taking a class. His father, McDonnell said, reached out to a local karate teacher and asked if his son with dwarfism could handle the training.

“Probably not,” the teacher said.

But McDonnell persisted, and a few years later, he found an instructor through his sister’s boyfriend, who later became her husband.

“We found an instructor just down the street,” he said.

The instructor was John Bailey, a student at the West Virginia University Institute of Technology.

At first, McDonnell said Bailey took it easy on him.

He wasn’t sure what McDonnell was capable of or even if he’d stick around for more than a couple of classes. But McDonnell did, and he became something of a sensation.

After that article, McDonnell was a local celebrity — at least for a short while.

“People would stop me all the time,” McDonnell beamed.

“You’re that guy,” they’d point and say.

He loved it.

The article attracted national interest. McDonnell was invited to the Little People of America

Conference, held that year in Toronto, Canada.

“I was single, so why not?” he said.

While at the conference, he met English actor Warwick Davis, best known for playing the title character in George Lucas’ other fantasy epic, “Willow,” and the evil leprechaun in the “Leprechaun” horror films. Davis has also appeared in several “Star Wars” films and his own show, “Life’s Too Short.”

“We ran around for a couple of hours in the city,” he said. “I hung out with his sister.”

After the conference, McDonnell was invited to appear on “Maury” in 2001, where he showed off his karate moves and even got the tabloid talk show’s host, Maury Povich, to wear a traditional karategi uniform.

“It was one of the few times Maury wore something besides that gray sweater,” McDonnell said.

The guest appearance on the show almost didn’t happen.

The Sept. 11 attack canceled his flight. The show was rescheduled, but after McDonnell finished the taping, the producers sent the guests for the show out for a day on the town.

“It was right after the attack,” he said. “Everybody was tense about coming to New York. So they sent us out to have some fun and maybe show that the city was still a good place to visit.”

McDonnell’s life settled down after that.

He enrolled at West Virginia Community and Technical College, where he earned a two-year degree in information technology. He would also eventually get a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree. He also fell in love, got married and started a family.

His wife, Jessica, wasn’t the girl next door, but the girl across the street.

“We met in the first grade,” McDonnell laughed. “We met the second time I was in the first grade.”

Throughout his life, McDonnell’s health has been a recurring issue. He’s undergone dozens of surgeries.

“I have a really severe case of scoliosis,” he said. “There are metal rods in my back. I set off metal detectors. You can hang a magnet on my spine.”

His various treatments made his early education more challenging.

McDonnell said he and his future wife were neighbors and acquaintances, but not really close.

“We had some of the same friends,” he said. “But we moved in different circles.”

After McDonnell got his associate degree, he took a job with the Kanawha County Commission as a web master and moved to Kanawha City, where he shared an apartment with a female friend.

“We were just friends,” McDonnell emphasized. “She needed a roommate. I needed a place to live.”

But the roommate was a good friend of Jessica’s, who used to come over to visit.

McDonnell saved his money and eventually bought a house in Clendenin. Jessica lived down the street.

“I got a puppy,” he said. “So she used to come over to see the puppy.”

Finally, she asked McDonnell if he wanted to go see a movie.

“It was called ‘Date Movie’ with Alyson Hannigan,” he said.

McDonnell agreed to go.

About two months later, McDonnell asked Jessica to marry him. They were married four months after that.

“But I didn’t know until we were almost five years into our marriage that movie was our first official date,” he said. “I had no clue.”

McDonnell studied karate and jiujitsu for a while. He said he earned a second-degree brown belt in karate and a purple belt in jiujitsu.

Karate, he explained, isn’t necessarily just about fighting.

“It’s good exercise. It’s great cardio,” McDonnell said.

The style focuses on technique and discipline.

Jiujitsu, on the other hand, has some practical applications, even for someone of McDonnell’s stature.

“My specialty are joint locks,” he said. “If I get hold of your fingers or your foot, I can put you in a world of hurt.”

McDonnell said it was a great confidence builder.

“I learned I could throw a 6-foot-tall man,” he said. “It’s all physics. Of course, I can do that.”

Unfortunately, he said, his martial arts studies have fallen by the wayside over the years.

“Life,” he said. “It gets in the way of everything.”

There wasn’t one particular thing, McDonnell said. He got married, settled down, had children, changed jobs and just lived.

McDonnell left his job with the Kanawha County Commission in 2014 and went to work at the West Virginia Office of Technology, where he’s an information systems consultant.

McDonnell and his wife also stay busy with their daughters.

“I love my girls,” he said. “We wrestle on the floor all the time.”

Sometimes he lets them win.

McDonnell’s children do not have dwarfism, but he did try to get them involved in martial arts. McDonnell was planning to make a comeback of sorts with his own training, but Clendenin flooded last summer, including the studio where classes are offered. It hasn’t been restored yet.

“The dojo was just down the road, which made it great for me,” he said.

Between the responsibilities of his job and family, McDonnell said his time is tight.

“I either need a class that’s close to me or a class that goes extra long,” he said. “I also want to stick with the school of karate I’ve already studied. If I got into something else, I’d just have to start over.”

He’s hopeful he can get back into a regular karate practice eventually. In the meantime, he’s studying tai chi, which he uses to relax.

McDonnell also has a martial arts blog,

“I don’t know everything about martial arts,” he said. “But I do know a lot about me. So the blog is about my thoughts and experiences with martial arts — and my life.”

Among other things, McDonnell writes about how learning martial arts can be therapeutic for people with disabilities.

Not everybody who has read his blog has agreed with him.

“I had someone tell me they thought I was telling the disabled they could become Power Rangers or Neo from ‘The Matrix.’ That wasn’t what I was saying at all,” he said. “Besides, what you see with the Power Rangers or on ‘The Matrix’ isn’t martial arts. It’s a movie.”

Others, he said, have been very encouraging.

A woman wrote to thank him for talking about his experiences with martial arts.

“She told me her son was interested in doing it, and that she was going to let him try,” McDonnell said.

He was very pleased to hear it.

It has done wonders for him.

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