Here is the full transcript of pro endurance athlete and mountain climber Colin O’Brady’s TEDx Talk: Change Your Mindset and Achieve Anything at TEDxPortland conference. This event took place on April 15, 2017 at Portland, Oregon. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.
Right click to download the MP3 audio:
Colin O’Brady – Pro endurance athlete and mountain climber
I’m here today to talk to you about overcoming the biggest obstacle you’ll ever face. Let me take you on a journey.
It was the middle of the night, almost a year ago. I struggled to breathe. Each step taking longer than the last, I fought my way upward at the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner. “Focus,” I thought, “keep pushing forward.” The culmination of 130 days of consecutive climbing, the negative 60-degree windchill and the actual physiological state of my body fighting back at 28,000 feet on Mount Everest summit ridge was pushing me to my breaking point.
“Get ahold of yourself, Colin”, I desperately tried to regain control of my mind. But doubts, fear, and pain swirled in my thoughts. “One step at a time,” I thought. In an apparent daze a chair appeared in the snow in front of me blurring in and out of my vision. “One step at a time,” I thought.
These labored steps reminded me of steps I had taken before — steps that had given me a new lease on life, steps that would bring me to my knees yet simultaneously teach me life’s greatest lesson. My mind flashed back.
10 years ago, I had just graduated from college. It was time to let loose to see the world. I took my life savings from three summers painting houses, packed a backpack and a surfboard and set off into the world for an adventure with no itinerary. After all, adventure is just bad planning, right?
Three months into the journey, I found myself on a beach in rural Thailand. It was a beautiful evening. I was watching fire dancers in amazement and I decided to partake in the fun, jumping a flaming jump rope because you know I was 22 years old and invincible. In an instant my life changed. The rope wrapped around my legs and ignited my body completely on fire.
Survival mode kicked in when I needed it most and with one last breath and ounce of courage, I dove into the ocean a few steps away to extinguish the flames. Then darkness. Silence.
I woke in a one-room nursing station to look down finding my body completely bandaged. “What have I done?” I thought. I had been severely burned. Well, it must have been at least 24 hours later, I awoke leaving a surgery room in a small ICU where there was a cat running across my chest and around my bed, hammering home the fact that I was far from home and in a dire set of circumstances. Being in this unsanitary hospital could kill me and the pain — the searing pain was unimaginable, yet the morphine they kept giving me made it feel like there was insects crawling over my skin. I couldn’t tell which was worse.
I just wanted to give up. I was downward spiraling fast, ready to quit. Thankfully five days in this ordeal, my mother arrived to be my protector. I know now she was just as afraid as I was but she chose to never show me her fear. Instead she came into my hospital room every single day with a smile on her face and an air of positivity, daring me to dream about the future.
She kept asking me questions like: “Colin, what do you want to do when you get out of here? Let’s set a goal.”
My immediate response: “Mom, I’m screwed. The doctors say I may never walk again normally. What hope do I have? Life as I know it is over.”
But her positivity was unrelenting and infectious. In three days after she arrived, she was sitting on my bedside and I announced my goal: “Mom, when I get out of here, I’m going to one day compete in a triathlon.” Not something I’d never done before and looking down at my legs it seemed rather unrealistic. But with a tear in her eyes, she nodded and wrapped me in her arms as only a mother can.
It was many more weeks until I was released from that Thai hospital. I still hadn’t taken a single step. I was carried on and off the plane and placed in a wheelchair when I got back here to Portland.
The next morning, I was in my mother’s kitchen. My mom said to me, “All right, Colin, now I know you’ve got this big triathlon goal but today your goal is to take your first step.” She then grabbed a chair from our kitchen table and placed it one step in front of my wheelchair. “You need to figure out how to get out of your wheelchair and step into that chair.” It took me three hours that day to work up the courage and strength to take that first step, but I did it.
The next day she had moved the chair five steps away, and the next day ten. Each day I could take a few more steps until finally after many weeks I regained my ability to walk. And then one day jogged — jogging felt like flying but jogging was a far cry from running a triathlon. So for the next 18 months I grinded with my goal in mind and finally a year and a half after my accident, it was time for me to take a shot at my dream.
I showed up in Chicago to compete in the triathlon. I dove into Lake Michigan to swim the first mile. I got on my bike, rode 25 miles, put my shoes on and ran 6.2 miles to the finish, crossing the finish line. I had done it. I had achieved my goal.
And there was one more surprise in store for me that day. I hadn’t just finished the race, I had won. Thank you. Placing first out of more than 4,000 other participants.
The first thing I thought about were those months in the hospital imagining what would have happened had my mom not forced me to look towards the future and set a measurable goal. Through his tragedy, I’d learned an invaluable lesson. I had learned that life will test us with setbacks but these situations aren’t permanent. We have full control of our choices to keep moving forwards one step at a time. I had learned that we all have reservoirs of untapped potential that can achieve great things. The biggest thing standing in our way: our own minds.