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Colin O’Brady recounts his journey from burn victim to professional triathlete to breaking the Explorers Grand Slam record

— Interview by Erin Beresini


Colin O'Brady

On May 27, 2016, former ITU pro Colin O’Brady shattered the coveted Explorers Grand Slam record, climbing the highest mountains on all seven continents and trekking to both poles in 139 days. (Previous record: 192 days.) It’s a feat he’d never have accomplished, he says, without the endurance he got from triathlon training — a sport he might never have picked up had it not been for one horrific accident.

A high school swimmer and soccer player, and 100-meter breaststroker at Yale, O’Brady decided upon graduating college that instead of flying back home to Portland, he’d bike as part of a trip his fellow Yalies do every year to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. “I was 21 years old and never clipped into pedals,” he says. The cross-country trip jump-started his wanderlust. When he got home, he took the $10,000 he’d earned from painting houses every summer and set out to see the world. He met his future fiancée on the first stop in Fiji, continued on to New Zealand and Australia, then on to Thailand.


USAT Magazine: You were jumping a firey rope in Thailand? 
O’Brady: It’s not something I dreamed up on my own. It’s fairly common in Thailand to do that activity. The rope wrapped around my leg and splattered kerosene all the way up to my neck, put my entire body on fire, and I jumped in the ocean to put out the flames. From my mid-thigh down on both legs, and on my right hand, I was pretty severely burned. I ended up in a tiny Thai nursing station and ended up undergoing eight surgeries, then was transported to a hospital in Bangkok where I spent a month without walking. The doctors told me I may never walk again normally because of the scar tissue on my knees and ankles. It was a pretty scary time physically and emotionally. I was 22 years old.


How’d that make you think, “I’m going to do a triathlon?”
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but my mom came to the hospital and slept next to me in the hospital for a month. It was a ton of downtime, a lot of time sitting there healing. I was in an emotionally devastated place, having been a high-level athlete. My mom was like, “Let’s stay positive! Let’s set a goal together.” We started talking about different things and I landed upon triathlon. 

She got on the computer and started reading to me about the different distances and how it’s done and I said, “Yep, that’s it. That’s gonna be my goal. I’m going to totally recover from this and complete a triathlon.”


What was your first race?
After rehab in Portland, I got a job trading commodities in Chicago. Around the one-year anniversary of my accident, so January 2009, I signed up for the Chicago Triathlon. I was like, I have eight months to train. I can finish this race.


And then you won it.
I’d joined a gym that had a small triathlon training group. I made friends with a guy who had a coach on the outskirts of Chicago and he said I should meet his coach — that he was coaching these 14-year-old kids who were going to be amazing at triathlon one day. I went out for a group ride and remember being totally exhausted. I met Adam Zucco, Ben Kanute’s coach when Ben Kanute was 14. So these little 14-year-olds my friend was talking about were [2016 Rio Olympian] Kanute, [former ITU pro] Lukas Verzbicas, and [ITU racer] Kevin McDowell. Anyway, when I crossed the Chicago Triathlon finish line, I was stoked. I did my goal. I finished an Olympic-distance race. The doctors [had] told me I may never walk again, and I just did a triathlon. I had no idea until three to four hours later when I looked at the results that I was the first amateur. Then Adam told me he thought I could turn pro. I moved to Australia about a month later to train.


And then you hit the ITU circuit?
I mostly raced ITU from 2010 to 2014. At that point I’d done what I’d set out to do. Of course, I’d have loved to make an Olympic team. Other than that, I’d totally lived my dream, traveled all over the world. So I felt like it was time to pivot — to continue to push my body, set a massive goal, try to break a world record, and build a platform to support kids’ health. We [O’Brady and fiancée Jenna Besaw] dreamed up the idea [to go after the Explorers Grand Slam] in October 2014.

Colin O'Brady


So you decided to race an IRONMAN?
In terms of physiology for this mountaineering project, it made sense for me to race an IRONMAN — longer slow-twitch, Zone 1, Zone 2 type of training. So I raced IRONMAN Japan in August of 2015. Maybe it sounds different than climbing mountains, but they’re really not that different. Climbing the Seven Summits is a super long and intense endurance pursuit that also requires a ton of mental toughness — kind of sounds like an IRONMAN to me. All of my triathlon training, and training over a decade, is the reason I was able to set the world record. There’s no doubt in my mind.

To read more about O’Brady, visit