Do you ever catch yourself saying “I can’t” or “It’s not possible?” If so, you have to hear the story of Colin O’Brady who is shattering the limits of what is believed to be possible.
How? As a 10-time world record-holding explorer and one of the world’s best endurance athletes. Those records include a world-first-solo crossing of Antarctica, a world-first row across the Drake Passage, summiting Mt. Everest, and setting three prestigious mountaineering world records.
Yet, his journey isn’t that straight forward. He did all of this after a devastating accident that rendered him unable to walk.
On a mission to help others push the limits of what is possible for themselves, he’s authored his first book, The Impossible First, and we sat down to hear his story and what he’s learned.
O’Brady grew up in Portland and “didn’t really have a lot of money.” His “parents dared me to dream big.” As an active kid, they put him into sports and he took to swimming, which led to his joining the team at Yale, with dreams to make it to the Olympics. When that Olympic dream wasn’t on the horizon, he took his savings from summer jobs as a house painter and traveled.
His travels found him in many places, one of which was in Fiji where he met his now wife, Jenna, and soon after that chance encounter, on a beach in Thailand where he “foolishly” (his words) jumped a rope of fire and it ”wrapped around my legs, lit my body on fire to my neck, and it kind of went south from there,” explains O’Brady. “All the while being basically in rural Thailand with half of my body burned. The doctors telling me, ‘Look, you’ll probably never walk again normally.’ It was a very, very grim diagnosis.”
“It was definitely one of the darkest places that I’ve ever gone to in my mind, potentially the most dark place. The physical trauma was obviously immense being told this, but the emotional trauma was even greater. I’m in the midst of this darkness, about four or five days into this ordeal, and my mother, the wonderful woman she is, comes and finds me in the middle of this island in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand and shows up at the hospital.”
He empathetically continues: “I can only imagine what it’s like to be a mother in that state: to see your kid so injured, so helpless, so broken, so hurting physically and emotionally. I know now that she was in the hallways in tears, ripped apart, experiencing her own level of trauma, pleading with the doctors for good news. But she never showed me that fear. Instead, she came into my hospital room every single day with this air of positivity around her and saying, ‘Colin, let’s set a goal. What do you want to do when you get out of here?’ And it ended up being one of the most valuable lessons of my entire life because there was this ‘sliding doors’ moment of ‘are you going to lean into this negativity?’ Instead, I was just wrapped up in this flood of positivity and the mindset shift that my mother instilled in me.”
She told him to close his eyes and visualize himself in the future. He did and shared, “I’m crossing the finish line of a triathlon”. Instead of her saying, “that’s not realistic,” remembers O’Brady, she said, “Great, that’s what we’re going to do.” And for the next couple of months while they remained in that Thai hospital , they did.
When they returned home to Portland with O’Brady still in a wheelchair unable to walk, he doubted his goal. But, his mom continued to encourage him saying, “You can do it. Let’s take it a step at a time.” And they did. Just 18 months after his diagnosis, he entered and completed the Chicago triathlon, (he had moved there for work). Much to his surprise, later he learned that he hadn’t just finished, he had won the entire race.
O’Brady remarked that in that moment he realized, “We all have these reservoirs of untapped potential inside of us to achieve extraordinary things, particularly when we can shift our mindset in the face of obstacles towards these positive outcomes. My work and passion over the last decade or so since then has all been wrapped up in this curiosity of unlocking human potential, both in myself and sharing that with others, so that they can unlock that within themselves.”
And has he ever! His book primarily chronicles the “impossible” journey across Antarctica. O’Brady shares, “A lot of people have attempted this project over time. Some died trying and some ran out of food and had to be rescued. Because of that, people started saying, ‘This is impossible. It just can’t be done. With a hundred years of polar history, no one’s been able to pull off this solo and unassisted crossing.”
So how did he begin? Instead of succumbing to the naysayers, “I set that goal and people like my mother and Jenna said: ‘This might be really hard and really challenging and you might fail. But, why not?’ When we step outside of our comfort zones, when we try things that are so audacious, succeed or fail, then that product is growth and learning. So being around other people who believe in your vision absolutely has made the difference.”
“When you fill yourself not only with your own positive mindset shift, but also the positivity of other people who are reinforcing that mindset, then it’s really amazing what you can create and inspire in the world as a result.”
I had to ask what Antarctica’s really like? O’Brady sympathizes, “It’s an abstraction. It’s almost like a different planet. The average temperature when I was there was about minus 25 or minus 30 degrees. It’s an endless, expansive, white landscape. So once you’re in the interior, which is where I was most of the time, there are no views of mountains. It’s 24 hours of daylight. The sun is directly overhead, which is very disorienting. It’s basically like being in this endless white room of wind and cold, where it’s high noon constantly.”
“Every single day for 12 plus hours, I’m pulling my 375 pound sled. I have this photo where I took a cup of boiling water, and I threw it in the air and it immediately turns to ice. So that gives you a sense of how cold it is. Chapter two of the book is called ‘Frozen Tears’ because literally, on that first day, I was struggling so much, feeling so sorry for myself for even trying to attempt this thing, I went to a negative place and was having some setbacks and started crying. What happens in Antarctica when you start crying? It’s such an unforgiving place that the tears freeze to your face.”
Little did O’Brady know when he made the decision to do this expedition that it would also become a race. “It turned out that at the same exact time that I was attempting it, another very prolific polar explorer, a British guy by the name of Captain Louis Rudd, was going to make the attempt as well since there’s only one time of the year when you can do it (when the sun is out 24 hours a day). So, the situation turned from my just trying to race against history, or push my edges of what’s possible, into an actual head-to-head race. So Captain Lou and I are now on a tiny little cargo plane getting dropped off on the edge of the Antarctic continent. We were not just racing history, we were dropped off a mile apart from each other to start the race. Then we had 932 miles to go, hopefully to finish the crossing.”
How did the unexpected competition help or hamper him? “Ultimately, it really did fuel me in a couple of ways that I actually think were advantageous to the success of the project. Spoiler alert: I crossed Antarctica, I made it. But the thing about the competition is that had I been doing this in a vacuum, would I have been successful? We’ll never know. But what I do know is that I was running out of food by the end. So basically my margin for error, meaning the actual days that I could have stayed out there, I couldn’t have gone many more days than I already did. There were a bunch of times in massive, massive torms when I probably should not have gotten out of my tent. Better judgment would have told me not to. I would have made that decision to stop and wait, had I not been in a race. But because I was in a race, if I had waited it out, I would have lost my foothold. So, in 54 days, I never took a single day off. I think that I was successful in this because I had that other person driving me. It actually made me better. And although Lou and I had a very spirited and intense competition, we remained friends in the aftermath of all of this.”
In those moments when better judgment would say to stay in your tent, how do you overcome those hardships? “I think that it’s very easy to resist hardship. Life gets hard and then all of our minds are flooded with doubt. We ask ourselves questions like, ‘Why me?’, ‘Should I give up?’, or ‘Is this even possible?’ We all have that negative voice, I don’t care who you are. That’s just a part of the human experience, as far as I can tell. That’s resisting it. That’s tightening up around something saying, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to get out of my tent.’ Versus saying, ‘Yep, I’m going through something hard right now. This is challenging.’ Understanding the impermanence of this, actually just surrendering to this moment is key. Pain is mandatory, but suffering is optional.”
He elaborates: “We are the stories that we tell ourselves. I get to choose what of that dialogue is actually coming into my brain. It’s actually just me talking to myself and beating up on myself with all this negativity. That’s only going to compound into more negativity, frustration, fear, and doubt. And so that first morning I wake up, my alarm goes off, and I say this out loud into the endless Antarctica landscape: ‘You are strong. You are capable.’ I’m just trying to override this negativity in my brain. And it ends up being what I do every single morning. That began the story that I told myself, and I was able to get up and continue to make progress towards the end goal.”
Massively fatigued and running low on food, O’Brady is 77 miles from the finish. He pauses and realizes, “I can actually measure the distance between here and there in hours. What if I don’t stop? Isn’t that what I came out here to answer? The true edges of what lives inside of me? Objectively, from the outside looking in, my body is wrecked, but I find this strength inside and say, ‘I’m not going to stop. I don’t have to stop.’ And I find this moment of flow and this peace and energetic peak state of bliss.”
“When you think you’re at your edge, you think you have to quit, you think your body’s broken down. There is actually so much more inside. That was literally, forgive the pun, the tip of the iceberg. It was a beautiful thing to experience. I found this place in my mind where I’ve been intentionally trying to go. It didn’t just randomly happen, but had been the set intention. I’d worked on it every single day, did a decade of meditation practice to get my mind and body prepared to do this. But ultimately that all culminated in this moment. I didn’t stop. And ultimately, I pushed forward 32 hours nonstop, 77 miles, and continued to finish the Antarctic crossing in one continuous push. Certainly, this was all from the power within.”
O’Brady continues: “I have no doubt in my mind that this is accessible to anyone. We have this incredible strength within us. The most important muscle that any of us has is the six inches between our ears. It’s the ability to tap in in such a deep way that we can exceed well, well, well beyond the limits that we have perceived for ourselves.”
Before he crossed the finish line, he sat a quarter of a mile from the end and felt all his senses, soaking it in, as long as he could before threat of cold and inaction took over. Why? Because “There’s a feeling of wanting to be at the finish line. I’m not saying I didn’t feel that in day 35, thinking to myself, ‘What did I do? I want this to be over.’ If you can give yourself a minute to remember, ‘I set out on this journey’, whatever your journey is, and look around to enjoy it. Taste that moment. Really, the present moment is all any of us have. So if you’re missing all these present moments just to get over this one finish line, you’re going to be pretty let down when you get there.”
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This article was originally published on Forbes.