- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
- When explorer Colin O’Brady was 22 years old, a fire severely burned his legs and feet.
- Doctors said he might never walk normally again, but 18 months later, O’Brady won the amateur division of the Chicago Triathlon.
- At 33, O’Brady just became the first person to successfully cross Antarctica alone without help from a resupply or a kite.
- O’Brady talks about his traumatic burn as a major turning point, and he says it led him to “really understand the power of the mind.”
Colin O’Brady knew it in his bones: he was an athlete, a guy who loved to move.
In high school in Portland, Oregon, O’Brady exercised his athletic abilities in the swimming pool and on the soccer field. He was an MVP, lettered seven times, and took his soccer team to the state championship. He was recruited to swim at Yale, and went on to spend a semester in college climbing mountains “among other outdoor activities,” as his college athlete bio reads.
At the time, he never imagined that one day, this physical strength would be ripped from him, his muscle power burned away.
“I kind of took for granted being athletic,” O’Brady told Business Insider, “whether that was competing in sports, or just being able to move my body.”
But when he was 22, a traumatic accident during a trip to Thailand forced O’Brady’s body to stop. It happened one night on a darkened beach of Ko Tao, in the light of one of the flaming jump ropes known to dot “full moon” parties on Thai islands.
“Fire dancing is fairly common on the beaches there,” O’Brady recounted.
- LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images
Never one to pass up an athletic challenge, he decided to jump into the flames. How hard could the jump rope trick be for such a fit, athletic guy?
O’Brady approached the rope, wearing shorts and no shoes, his lower legs and feet bare and exposed.
In an instant, his body caught fire.
“I jumped this rope, and it unfortunately wrapped around my legs, the bottom of my body, lit me on fire,” O’Brady said.
In flames, he quickly ran through the dark sand toward the ocean.
“But not before about 25% of my body was severely burned,” he said.
Had O’Brady spent longer outside the water, the burns could have been much worse. Fortunately, within about 10 seconds, his body was in the waves.
“I was actually on fire to my neck, but I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts,” he said.
The clothes quickly melted and burned, but they helped save the upper portions of his body from the fire. Meanwhile, the crippling flames dug in to his bare legs and his feet.
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“YOU’ll PROBABLY NEVER WALK AGAIN NORMALLY.” – That’s what the doctors in Thailand told me 11 years ago today after I was severely burned in a fire on a remote beach. The burns covered 25% of my body, predominantly injuring my legs and feet. There was no ambulance ride, just a moped ride down a dirt path taking me to a one room nursing station. I underwent 8 surgeries over the course of the next week, and as I came out of the surgery room each day there was a cat running around my bed in the makeshift ICU. Needless to say I was in a desperate situation flooded with pain, doubt, and deep trauma both mental and physical. However, as I reflect, today I choose to celebrate this anniversary. Because as terrible as this situation was, with hindsight I now see that the pain and ultimate road to recovery taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons about the human spirit and how to access the untapped potential that lives inside all of us. The fact that those same severely burnt legs have now carried me across countless triathlon finish lines, to the summit of Everest, and now across the continent of Antartica is testament to the power of positivity in our minds. It’s been a very long journey to get to where I am now, but it all began with a single moment. My mother arrived in Thailand on day 5 of this ordeal and sat by my bedside each day for months. Instead of leaning into her fear and my dire prognosis, she instead filled my room with smiles and infectious positivity, daring me to dream about the future and set a goal. My goal was to finish my first triathlon race. This seemed impossible given what the doctors were telling us, but the goal was set in my mind and with my mother’s help we did everything possible to make that dream a reality. 18 months later, I not only walked again, but I finished (and won) my first race, The Chicago Triathlon. Even in your darkest moments remember that this too shall pass, and if you embrace the power of a positive mindset and work relentlessly toward achieving your goals, you will find the keys to unlocking the reservoir of untapped potential that lives inside of you. #BePossible #TheImpossibleFirst
O’Brady’s doctors suggested he’d never be the same
“The doctors told me, ‘look, you’ll probably never walk again normally,'” O’Brady said.
That news shook the young man to his core.
“In that moment my entire identity shifted,” O’Brady said. “Who am I if I can’t move my body, if I can’t train?”
His mother quickly flew to Thailand and stayed there with O’Brady for months as he recovered. She encouraged him to think and feel out his recovery for himself.
“Don’t listen to those doctors – what do you want to do when you get out of here?” O’Brady remembers his mom saying.
Apparently, they were the right words, because O’Brady knew what he wanted to do.
“I want to race a triathlon,” he remembers saying. “I want to be active.”
O’Brady started setting incremental goals for his recovery with a triathlon in mind. Eventually, he got up and started walking, then running, biking, and swimming.
Eighteen months after the fire, in 2009, the 24-year-old competed in the Olympic-length Chicago Triathlon and won the amateur race. He crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 1 minute, and 58 seconds after swimming, biking, and running over 31 miles across the windy city.
His victory was a shock.
“Surprising the heck out of myself,” as O’Brady put it.
- Courtesy of Colin O’Brady
O’Brady knows he isn’t alone in his ability to move forward in the face of adversity. Child-development experts have discovered that human resilience isn’t something innate or special to certain individuals, either – the skill can build over time as kids and young adults develop coping skills.
“What happens early may matter most, but it is never too late to build resilience,” researchers at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child wrote in a 2015 brief.
After the Chicago Triathlon, O’Brady went on to become the world record holder for the fastest trek up the world’s Seven Summits – the highest peaks on all the continents. (That was in 2016, but he’s since been dethroned by other hikers.) Last year, O’Brady once again shattered a record for fastest climbs, this time summiting the highest peaks in all 50 states in the US in a mind-bending 21 days, 9 hours, and 54 minutes.
“Here we are, 11 years later, these expeditions,” O’Brady said, recalling the fateful Thai fire. “That was a huge turning point in my life, not only my athletic career, but also to really understand the power of the mind, and the power of what I believe we all have inside of us.”
Finally last year, on December 26, 2018, after a grueling 32-and-a-half-hour “ultramarathon,” he became the first person to cross Antarctica solo and unassisted.
“It was a really deep mental journey” O’Brady said. “That allowed me to confront some deep challenging fears and anxiety” and tap into “really amazing inner strength.”
- Courtesy of Colin O’Brady
He believes everyone has this strength if they can tap into the power of a clear, focused, and determined mind.
“We really can achieve so much more on the other side of setbacks,” O’Brady said.
- Read more about O’Brady’s expedition:
- We tried the 1,250-calorie survival bar that powered Colin O’Brady’s record-shattering 932-mile solo journey across Antarctica
- The 33-year-old American who just became the first person to cross Antarctica alone says 2 simple mantras were crucial to his success
- An American explorer just became the first person to cross Antarctica alone and unaided, finishing with an ‘ultramarathon’: Photos show his spectacular 932-mile journey
- A 33-year-old American just became the first person to cross Antarctica alone and unaided. He survived on oatmeal, freeze-dried meals, and energy bars.