Burn Victim Turned Pro Endurance Athlete Turned World-Record-Setting Mountaineer
Who in their right mind climbs the world’s seven tallest peaks, then treks to the North and South Poles - all in only 6 months? This friggin’ guy.
Five Easy Steps to Setting the World Record for the Explorers’ Grand Slam.
Step 1: Get set on fire.
Step 2: Be told you’ll never walk again.
Step 3: 18 months later, win a triathlon.
Step 4. Become a professional endurance athlete.
Step 5. Climb the world’s seven tallest peaks and trek to both poles in only six months.
It’s that easy!
The story of Colin O’Brady will make you feel like you can climb any mountain. Literally.
In 2008, you were injured and told you might never walk again. What happened?
Not long after college, I decided to travel around the world before settling into my career. I took a surfboard and a backpack and just traveled for a while. January 14th, 2008 was the fateful evening. I was in Thailand on a small island. I was jumping a flaming jump rope, of all things. The rope lit me on fire up to my neck and I ran into the water and jumped in, and was able to put out the flames. There wasn’t a hospital on the island so I was taken to a small hut. They treated me there and then put me on a moped, then on the back of a pickup truck, then on a small boat, and finally over to another little island where there was a hospital. I underwent surgery every single day there.
It turns out I had burned about 25% of my body; both of my legs, my feet, pretty much from mid-thigh all the way down and on my right hand a little bit. There they told me that I might never walk again – and that if I did ever walk again, that I wouldn’t be able to walk normally. Due to the way the scar tissue would form around my ankles and knee joints, it would really hinder my range of motion. So obviously that was devastating news at the time.
The hospital I was in was pretty bad. I was in surgery for 8 days, and every I came out from surgery there would be a cat running around the ICU, around my bed – it wasn’t great. Thankfully after the eighth day, I got life-lifted to Bangkok, where the medical care was actually first-rate. Everything was a lot better once I got there. But the first week or so was a pretty grim environment. That’s what happened.
During your recovery, what kept you motivated?
I had been an elite athlete most of my life, so being told that I might never walk again at a young age was pretty harsh news. I wasn’t going to accept that.
My mom had flown over and started living in the hospital room with me. She slept right beside my bed on a little cot and she would sit there day after day as I was healing and just talk to me and tried to keep me positive and focused on the future. She would keep saying, “What do you think we’re going to do when we get out of here? What’s the next thing for you?” And for whatever reason I was just like “You know what I want to do? I want to complete a triathlon.” I had never done a triathlon before. I had been a college swimmer but never cycled or ran at any sort of competitive level. But I just had this idea that that would prove to myself and everyone else around me that I was recovered and I could beat these odds. I fixated on that idea in my mind.
So when I came home from Bangkok after a couple months, I was in a wheelchair and still couldn’t walk. There was a whole year of learning to walk again before I could do a triathlon. Day by day, as it went on, I just kept that idea in my mind.
About 18 months after the accident, I was living in Chicago. I had taken a job as a commodities trader there and I started training for the Chicago triathlon.
What did the training process involve?
In the beginning, it was as simple as you can put it. My mom was still there, she was a huge part of my recovery. I would be sitting in one chair and she would bring out another chair and place it about 2-feet in front of the chair I was sitting in. She would be like, “Alright, your big job for today is to figure out how to get yourself from this chair that you’re sitting in to this other chair that’s 2-feet away.” It was just one step at a time. So I went from the chair 2-feet away to the chair 5-feet away, then to the couch in the other room. That would be like a big daily goal in the early phase. Then, I was able to start to walk more and then run again, but I was just taking it really slowly. It wasn’t until about 4 or 5 months before the actual race when I could really start training. My legs had gotten so skinny from the atrophy that they were almost more like my wrists or arms. So even as I started training again, I had lost so much muscle definition in my legs that it really took a lot of time to bring that all back together.
18 months after you’re burned in an accident in Thailand, and told you may never walk again, you race in the Chicago triathlon. What happened?
I ended up surprising the heck out of myself when not only did I finish the race, which was my goal, but I ended up winning the entire race. There were 4,000 to 5,000 competitors that day, and I came in first. It was a pretty remarkable day for me.
After winning the triathlon, you become a pro endurance athlete. Where have you been since that first race in Chicago?
I’ve raced in 25 different countries, 6 different continents. Zimbabwe, Kenya, all over Europe. I lived in Australia a few different times, I raced down in Tasmania. I’ve raced in South America, Brazil, and Chile. Of course, I’ve raced all over the United States, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, Puerto Rico…(laughing) It’s tiring just to think about all that travel saying it out loud!
It’s interesting to think about the Grind, Hustle, and Payoff of being a professional endurance athlete. What’s the thing that tends to grind on you the most?
I think the biggest thing is just being tired all of the time. Funny enough, we watch the Olympics or a professional sporting event or whatever and it’s really exciting to see the competition. It’s not any different for me. When I’m competing in front of thousands of people, it’s really exciting; but what really goes into preparing to be ready for that is a grind. Of course I love it, I’m happy, I’m deeply passionate about it. I feel fortunate to be able to do it. However, when you push your body that hard every single day there’s just sort of this general level of fatigue that weighs on you. It’s really hard to even put into words unless you’ve experienced it. I spend a lot of my time very tired, just not quite operating on full mental or emotional clarity as a result of that. That’s not like tired as in being out of breath from this one training session that was hard, it’s on a much deeper level of months or years of built up fatigue. It’s a strange feeling of being in amazing shape and so strong but also of course there is a lot of times when you’re just so tired. I think that’s the part that feels most like a grind.
I think as both a founder and a dad, I can totally relate to the feeling of never quite feeling like you’re operating at 100%. The months, years really, of never fully resting. Which leads me to the Hustle. The training seems the obvious part of the hustle, but I imagine you’ve got to hustle for sponsorship, visibility, marketing, all the aspects of the career outside of the physical hustle.
For me, that’s a huge part of it. That’s for sure the hustle part of it.
There are two ways for us to make money – one is by prize money and the other is by sponsorship. Truth be told, the prize money is fine, but it’s not great. Really the way that most of the people are successful at being a professional endurance athlete is by having great sponsorship. That’s hard to come by. It’s not necessarily a linear correlation between how many races you’ve won and how much you’re getting paid. It really has to do with all of those other things – building your social media following, having a compelling story, being articulate. Different sponsors want different things. It’s a relationship game just like anything else. Networking, knowing the right people, being in the right place, all of that stuff culminating in hopefully a sponsorship, a paycheck. So that part of it never ends. That’s the constant hustle not only for my life in triathlons over the past 6 or 7 years but certainly with my new mountaineering project – that’s pretty much the name of the game. I’ve watched a lot of really great athletes have to leave the sport because they just couldn’t get that piece of it down.
Let’s talk about your mountaineering project, “Beyond 7/2”. You’re attempting the Explorer’s Grand Slam – climbing the world’s seven tallest peaks, and going to both the North and South Poles. This is something that others have completed before, but this will be a world record attempt. How do you train for setting a world record?
If you were just going to go set a world record, part of what you would do is not just climb mountains, but you would swim or bike or run or do a ton of cardio just to be in great fitness. So triathlon training has been extraordinarily helpful for my strength in the mountains. [My coach] has been able to work with me to integrate specific mountaineering into my larger cycle of training. The training was designed so that I’m here in Portland through the whole winter. It’s a little bit harder for triathlon training, less ideal than being in warm Australia in the winter months, but it was great for the mountains. I was able to not only swim, bike, and run a ton but also be up in the mountains climbing, so I’m honing my skills there as well.
How have you felt being an endurance athlete helps you achieve in other areas in life?
For me, I really am a small business. I am my own sort of brand and so all of those component parts I think are relevant to any other sort of business venture I would do in the future, as well as just the personal motivation and discipline that’s required. I think one of the biggest things in the mountains is risk management and leadership. I think all of those skills apply to many different areas of life, without a doubt.
Who’s an athlete who you admire right now?
That’s a great question. I’ve recently been pretty inspired by Michael Phelps actually. I’ve always been a fan of him as swimmer as a kid. He and I are actually about the same age. I don’t know if you’ve been following him lately, but he took two years off and basically was retired but now he’s come back and is swimming better than he’s ever before. I think that’s remarkable to see. Since we’re the same age, I like seeing someone peak perform at the same age and lifespan that I’m in. We both have been doing this a long time. Obviously, he being the most prolific athlete of all time is pretty amazing. That’s someone I admire right now, for sure.
Last question – being a pro athlete, attempting a world record, it’s all an incredibly difficult pursuit. What’s the payoff?
There have been a lot of people say, “You know Colin, if you had just kept sitting in that trading desk, you most likely would have made a lot of money by now.” The guy I started working with was right around the same age and he just got a 7-figure bonus check. People ask me if I regret not sticking with commodities trading, and there’s not a single day that I do. This hasn’t been a particularly lucrative path, but I’ve been able to see so many parts of the world, experience life in a really meaningful way, and push my body to these extremes. Although it is a grind, and although it is hard, I think it’s a really unique thing in life. Not many people get this experience and know themselves on that deep of a level.
One of the most amazing things about this is that in the last three and a half years of my career, my now-fiance has now been able to be on the road with me full time. She’s the Executive Director of our Beyond 7/2 project, but she’s also been my manager, agent, and logistics coordinator, and also my best friend and love of my life. The fact that we’ve been able to experience all of this together as a team has just been so meaningful. For that, I am forever grateful. For me, that’s better than making a lot of money.