Going For the Gold: A story of courage, determination and self-discovery

By Annemarie Blanco | July 21, 2015, 6:47 p.m. (ET)

Seth McBride, pictured above, competing on day nine of the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games against Great Britain. 

Twice a week, Going for the Gold will highlight a member of Team USA’s Parapan American roster leading up to the games beginning on August 7. Features will take a deeper look at a member of each of the 14 Paralympic sports that the U.S. will compete in during the 2015 Parapan American Games, held in Toronto. The eighth installment spotlights wheelchair rugby athlete Seth McBride (Portland, Oregon).

Paralympic medalist, avid traveler, writer extraordinaire; it’s impossible to describe Seth McBride in just a few words. He’s seen the world, won two Paralympic rugby medals and embarked on the journey of a lifetime. McBride’s life is truly one for the storybooks and thus it’s important to start the tale from the beginning.

His love of sports and physical activity began at an early age. Raised in Alaska, McBride tried everything -from team sports to mountain biking to skiing. A spirited child with the world at his fingertips, everything changed when he was 17. In 1992, McBride broke his neck after over rotating on a backflip during a ski trip in British Columbia. As a result, he has lived as a quadriplegic for the last 14 years.  

After a grueling period of recovery, McBride discovered that his love of sports did not have to be lost; instead, he found that wheelchair rugby and adaptive sport would become a main purpose in his life.

“After I had my accident I was sort of just looking for something to do since I wasn’t very active,” McBride explained. “Just having that competition and athletic outlet was a huge part of being successful in my life.”

For seven years, McBride traveled the world for competitions, trained six days a week and experienced the glory of the Paralympic Games. An event, he says, that is unlike any other in the world.

“It’s unreal how much bigger of an event the Paralympics are than anything else we do at the Paralympic level,” said McBride. “Everything from the crowds to the media coverage to the intensity of the competition, it’s just bigger on an order of magnitude than anything else.”

While he loved the sport tremendously, long years of rugby competition took a toll on his body and his spirit. In 2012, after winning a bronze medal in the London Paralympic Games, McBride decided it was time to retire from rugby and check another item off of his bucket list.

“I was getting exhausted from playing the sport at a national level for seven years going year-round,” described McBride. “I’d always wanted to do a big physical expedition trip since traveling has been a big part of what I do.”

And, what an expedition he completed. In the fall of 2013, McBride and his then fiancée Kelly, packed their bags and traveled south. Starting in Portland and ending at the southern tip of South America, the couple went on a nearly 11-month bike expedition. With no outside support, just a bicycle, trailer and handcycle, the two traveled nearly 6,500 miles.

“It really hammered home to me the importance of being to see the world and make daily activity a continuing part of my life,” gushed McBride. “I’m happiest when I’m out moving and seeing the world.”

But, the journey was not an easy one. Weather conditions caused health complications and the pair was forced to cut their trip short, down from their original plan of biking 10,000 miles.

“It was definitely more difficult and more intense over a long period of time than anything either of us has ever done,” said McBride. “Because of my injury, I don’t sweat at all so trying to pedal for eight hours a day through 90 degree temperatures and 90% humidity was difficult to say the least.”

Each step chronicled on their blog the Long Road South, the trip became a period of self-discovery for McBride. As he cycled for countless hours each day, McBride realized that he wasn’t quite ready to leave rugby behind quite yet.

“I remember some of the days when we’d be out in the middle of nowhere, and you’d have to get another 20 miles down the road because you don’t have any food or don’t have any water,” McBride recalled. “Your body is really capable of a lot more than you think it is when there are no other options. It really made me think about training for the Paralympic level.”

“While I was out there, I had plenty of time to think and realized I didn’t want London to be my last experience with wheelchair rugby. We ended up with a bronze medal in London and that was a pretty big disappointment for us. Stepping away from it for a little while, I found out how important rugby was to me and I really wanted another chance to go back and compete at that level again.”

After returning from South America and his recent nuptials to Kelly, McBride is back to his old ways. A combination of endurance, speed, strength and court drills, he trains five days a week in preparation for the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games that begin in early August.

For Team USA’s wheelchair rugby team, Toronto is a must win if they want a ticket to Rio next summer. With only one automatic qualifying spot, gold is on everyone’s mind. Without a top spot, the road to the Paralympic Games will be a lot more difficult to obtain.

“For us, it’s definitely getting a chance to play Canada again and trying to get back to our winning ways,” said McBride. “Canada has beaten us in both the London semi-finals and the last world championship semi-finals. We’re not used to losing in the semi-finals so Toronto is a huge deal for us.”

“We have a really good team dynamic right now. It’s a mix of people that have been around for a while with some fresh faces as well. After the last couple of major competition results, we’ve sort of had to reevaluate and rethink how we’re doing things. It’s given people a lot of motivation and willingness to learn and recommit ourselves to the fundamentals, how we want to do things as a team moving forward.”

When he’s not focused on rugby, which is rare these days, McBride is working on a book about his journey south. He’s also launching a website – Wandering Arms – which is focused on adaptive sports, travel and fitness. A recent graduate of Portland State University, McBride completed a degree in non-fiction writing and hopes by sharing his experiences he can help other athletes who have gone through similar situations.

Parapan American rugby competitions will be held at the Mississauga Sports Center beginning on Saturday, August 8th and concluding on Friday, August 14. The U.S. men’s roster features many Paralympians including: Chuck Aoki, Joe Delagrave, Chad Cohn and Adam Scaturro. For more information on the upcoming Parapan American Games visit Toronto2015.org.