Colin O'Brady says a flaming rope that burned a quarter of his body is the reason he just crossed Antarctica alone and unaided

Colin O'BradyHollis 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. 

colin o'brady body burned in fire thailand full moon partyA partygoer jumps over a fiery rope during the Full Moon Party on Ko Phangan island in the southern Thai province of Surat Thani.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. 

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. 

colin south pole training in greenland.JPGCourtesy of Colin O'Brady

Building resilience 

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. 

Other research on the science of resilience has found that stable, supportive relationships that provide love and reassurance (like a mom at your bedside) can help people bounce back

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."

gaining weight 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. 

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