If you enjoy travel and adventure, you know what it means to push yourself.
To test your limits. To meet new challenges and get outside of your comfort zone.
Erik Weihenmayer has been the living embodiment of what it means to shatter pre-conceived notions about what is possible.
He is one of the world's foremost adventurers, having conquered Mount Everest, climbed the Seven Summits, kayaked the full 277-miles of the Grand Canyon's treacherous whitewaters, and finished the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. These are just some of the top achievements on Weihenmayer's list.
Now, consider the fact that Weihenmayer is blind.
The 50-year-old Fort Collins, Colorado, resident has been working hard for more than three decades to create a new template for how people facing challenges can live their best lives and do what they love.
He lost his sight at the age of 13 to a childhood disease and refused to let that hamper his life. To help others, too, Weihenmayer co-founded No Barriers USA in 2005. The nonprofit organization offers support and a range of resources to fulfill its mission to "unleash the potential of the human spirit. Through transformative experiences, tools and inspiration, we help people embark on a quest to contribute their absolute best to the world. In the process, we foster a community of curious, brave and collaborative explorers who are determined to live the No Barriers Life."
In that spirit, the organization also hosts the annual No Barriers Summit. This year, the event takes place in New York City at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. It will unite 1,500 select attendees to collaborate, share experiences and put forward new ideas and concepts that can help more and more people reach their goals and potential no matter what challenges they face.
In the lead up to the No Barriers Summit, I met up with Erik and other members of his No Barriers team to do some kayaking in the Hudson River (see video at bottom of this post).
Then, we had a chance to chat about some of the goals for his organization, the summit and what he hopes his life and experiences can teach anyone who is facing obstacles or challenges.
5 Questions with Erik Weihenmayer of No Barriers USA
A: It's grown a ton. We felt that there was a potential movement here and lots of people who would want to join because a lot of people struggle in the world. They are on the sidelines, not in the thick of things and not the best version of themselves. They feel like they're missing something.
They get shoved to the sidelines for a variety of reasons. Physical disability is a big one. Things like trauma or PTSD or brain injuries. Or maybe just human, invisible things like anxiety and fear.
So, we knew that this movement was potentially massive worldwide. So, then the idea was how to grow it, and we've been trying to do that in fits and starts over the last 15 years.
Now, we impact more than 10,000 people a year, and the summit will be a really amazing opportunity to showcase the message of No Barriers in front of a citywide audience.
We've been going to these incredibly beautiful mountain cities (recent summits have been in Colorado and California, for example). We wanted to take it out of the mountains and bring it into people's faces.
There are a lot of city folks who would not experience this message unless we brought it to them.
Q. What innovations or other developments in adaptive sports are you most excited about these days?
A. Represented at the summit, for instance, is Sam Schmidt. He is a huge hero of mine. He crashed his race car and is a quadriplegic, and with the help of this company called Arrow Electronics, they built him a car that he is able to drive with his eye movement. He's driven that car more than 100 mph, and he'll be there with the Arrow Car.
A project like that is inspiring for everybody. I don't care if you have a physical disability or not.
Another person who inspires me is Mandy Harvey. She's a deaf musician who went deaf while in college during her music program, which isn't a very convenient time to go deaf in your life.
But there is a remarkable adaptability in the human brain. Scientists call it neural plasticity.
So, if you can figure out a way to get information to Mandy (who discovered she still has perfect pitch), then she can sing songs.
She uses a simple app on her iPhone that tells her when she hums something whether she's in tune or not. She's able to learn songs, and she has written her own music.
She sings barefoot, so she can feel the vibrations of the music. And she has all these visual connections with her band, so she knows when to go in or go out.
So, No Barriers is about, yes, innovation, which is hugely important. But at the same time, it's also about the human spirit.
Q. You just had a milestone birthday, turning 50. What will you do to celebrate?
A. I have tons of trips. I'm going back to a Himalayan peak called Ama Dablam that I failed at 18 years ago. It's a 22-and-half-thousand-foot peak; some says it's the most beautiful mountain in the world. In December, I'm going to climb for two weeks in Wadi Rum in Jordan.
I'm feeling really fit, feeling really good, actually. I don't plan to slow down.
Q. What have you learned over your decades of facing challenges that can also help people not look at age as a barrier, too?
I climbed Everest back in 2001 with a guy who was 64 years old. That just shows me that, you know sure, the body does break down eventually, and that's reality. But you can push it for a long time.
You will slow down, but not in a predictable way that you might think.
For me, it's been a little bit of not falling into the trap of that I have to do something harder and higher and riskier. That gets you in trouble and is shallow. It becomes more about your resume.
I think the No Barriers message is about that map that we're building in our lives. It's not like a very neat and prescribed map. It's more like a map that propels you in very unexpected ways forward.
You have to be committed to riding the energy of life to discover new things and not settling for getting shoved to the sidelines.
Q. What is your best piece of advice for people who are reluctant to get out of their comfort zones?
A. Sometimes, what we need is just a kick start. Sometimes that No Barriers journey is so tenuous. People end up at some plateau in their lives. How do they kick start themselves into moving forward?
We get people who just have the courage to jump in and take part in the No Barriers experience, and that becomes the catalyst to them taking on something in their lives.
We call them No Barriers pledges. Whether it's writing a book or getting a job or starting a business. That thing that you were just scared to do, you make that pledge and say "I'm going to do it."
We've had soldiers get off of pain killers and work their way out of trauma.
What I'm saying is that sometimes you get stuck a little bit, and you need to find a way to unstick and make changes in your life. No Barriers could be a part of that unsticking process.
The No Barriers Summit is October 5 and 6, 2018, in New York City.
Thanks for reading,