Nov. 8, 2013 at 8:10 PM ET
When he's on the road, no one notices his wheelchair.
Maybe that's because they only see Seth McBride's handcycle.
McBride, 30, is a former Paralympic gold medalist who with his partner, Kelly Schwan, has embarked on a yearlong, 10,000-mile cycling trip from Portland, Ore., to Patagonia, Argentina. He wants to be the first person with quadriplegia to complete a trans-continental cycle tour without a support crew.
Their inspiring journey landed the couple on National Geographic Traveler magazine's Travelers of the Year list, which celebrates 18 “individuals who travel with passion and purpose, have an exceptional story to tell and ... can inspire us all,” according to the magazine.
McBride, who was paralyzed in a skiing accident at age 17, travels on a handcycle, wheelchair in tow. He describes himself on the pair's website as a someone who has "lived with quadriplegia for 12 years." While he relies solely on arm strength to pedal, Schwan has use of her legs, so she is towing their gear for the entire trip – more than 100 pounds' worth.
“We're sort of a dog-and-pony show with my handcycle and her huge, loaded-down bike,” McBride said. “Lots of times people can be unsure if they see someone in a wheelchair what to say, or they feel a little awkward. The handcycle doesn't elicit the same response, because maybe they don't know what it is or they don't know I use a wheelchair … we've had great conversations because people are curious.”
McBride and Schwan left Portland, Ore., on Sept. 22 and planned to cross the border into Tijuana, Mexico, on Saturday.
The pair met at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, where Schwan, an occupational therapist, volunteered for TEAM USA and McBride's wheelchair rugby team brought home the gold. Since then, they've traveled throughout Asia and Europe. “Kelly and I have done enough travel together, we knew we're good travel partners,” McBride said. “That's one of the things that brought us closer together. Knowing that in weird and stressful situations we're compatible and work together was a pretty great thing to know. We get a lot of strength being around each other.”
The plan for this trip was born during a month spent biking around Ireland.
“The idea of leaving our home in Portland and going south on one road until we get to the other side of the world is pretty cool,” said McBride, who's also traveled in Southeast Asia and taught English in El Salvador. On their blog, he writes that “Patagonia ... is the ultimate end-point … [it] has a special pull in the hearts of the restless, hopefully one strong enough to carry us over the Andes!”
“It's amazing what you can do once you start pushing yourself," McBride said. "Go out and try to be active – you'll probably be surprised at what your body can do. When you get into a habit, it becomes easier when you face the hard bits, having the confidence that you can get through this.”
The bikes change their own perspective, too. “Seeing the world from a bike, you have a whole new appreciation than when you're being powered by something gasoline,” Schwan said.
“When you're traveling in automobiles, you're not using your body that much,” McBride added. “You can feel almost lethargic getting to new cities.”
Schwan hopes their adventure encourages people to “get out and move and see how it changes their perspective.”
“As an occupational therapist, my job is to get people to move,” she said. “Moving is healing.”
The National Geographic recognition is “an amazing honor,” McBride said. “It's a nice validation – we thought we had a pretty cool idea, and it's cool that people recognized it. We've been amazed by all the support.”
“They are a power pair,” said National Geographic Traveler editor at large George Stone, who oversees the Travelers of the Year program. “Power pedalers, audacious in their endeavor, a complementary team and amazing individuals.”
With some 9,000 miles still to go between now and next September, the power pair has settled into the ride. “The most surprising thing is how normal it feels to be on your bike and ride 40 miles a day,” McBride said. “It's funny how just about anything – no matter how adventurous it seems on the outside – seems normal when you do it long enough.”
Follow Dana McMahan, food, travel, and fitness writer: @danamac.