Earlier this month we hosted our 10th No Barriers Summit in New York City. We’d always hosted our Summits in the mountains, but in an effort to bring the message to more people and build the movement, we decided to reach as an organization and debut it in the Big Apple, one of the biggest stages on Earth. Thankfully, that scary reach was rewarded by almost 2,000 attendees showing up from around the world, from Norway to India to Japan, and many of them first-timers. One of the great honors of my life has been that so many have trusted the authenticity of our movement enough to show up totally alone, with an open heart, and poised for growth and change. Thank you for believing in us.

The first day we took over the Intrepid, an aircraft carrier from WWII, now a huge Sea, Air & Space Museum, for our opening ceremony and a range of interactive workshops.

a photo of nyc skyline from onboard the intrepid
A beautiful day on the Intrepid for our first day of the No Barriers Summit, Credit: Pauline Shaffer
a photo of the crowd at opening ceremony during the kickoff to no barriers summit in nyc
Opening Ceremony – Day 1 of the No Barriers Summit, Credit: Todd Newcomer / No Barriers

Sam Schmidt, a former renowned Indy Race Car Driver, took the stage to kick off  the day. He spoke about his accident on the track that left him a quadriplegic and dashed his hopes of driving again. It was a career ending injury, and he fell into depression. But a few years later he teamed up with the folks at ARROW Electronics who were in the process of developing a Corvette Stingray that could be driven using just slight movements of the head. Together with Sam, they worked to improve the aptly named SAM Car (semi-autonomous motorcar) and he’s taken it to new heights. He’s driven at an outrageous speed of 192 mph on the track, and he’s throttled up Pike’s Peak to 14,114 ft. Sam’s story speaks to how far we can climb when we combine innovation with the human spirit.

a photo of sam schmidt in a wheelchair next to his corvette stingray the sam car on a race car track
Sam Schmidt at the track next to the SAM Car
a photo of the sam car that sam schmidt drives onboard the intrepid during the no barriers summit in nyc
The SAM Car from ARROW Electronics on display during day 1 of the No Barriers Summit, Credit: Todd Newcomer / No Barriers

After more amazing speakers and performers, we were then blown away by rapper, actor, and speaker, Ice-T. Ice has had a rough life and doesn’t mince words. He gave a talk straight from the heart (the only way he does it) and reminded everyone that mindset is most importantly a matter of perspective. “There is always someone out there who has it worse than you,” he said bluntly. “You gotta struggle in the darkness so you always have a reference point to f***ed up.”

a photo of ice t speaking at the no barriers summit in nyc
Ice-T speaking to our No Barriers crowd during opening ceremony, Credit: Todd Newcomer / No Barriers
a photo of participants the no barriers summit clapping during opening ceremony in nyc
The crowd at opening ceremony, Credit: Todd Newcomer / No Barriers
a photo of three smiling men wearing no barriers shirts from past summits at no barriers summit in nyc
Rocking No Barriers shirts from past Summits, Credit: Todd Newcomer / No Barriers

What I didn’t realize was I was about to have my own No Barriers moment.

Whitney Way Thore, star of TLC’s My Big Fat Fabulous Life, was leading a whole swarm of people in a dance lesson. Whitney has lived her life with PCOS (poly-cystic ovarian syndrome) that caused her to become insulin resistant and to gain weight at a rapid pace. Instead of submitting and existing on the sidelines, she began the No Body Shame movement (No BS), shattering people’s expectations of what a “good dancer” should look like.

a photo of celebrity and no body shame movement activist whitney way thore
Whitney Way Thore

I stood nearby listening to the music and laughter and was ready to move on before I was called out!! From the stage, Whitney addressed me directly and said I better join. Normally I would have slunk off but I’m the co-founder of No Barriers – what would that look like?

Now, people might think I’ve done some crazy adventures in my life, but mountains and whitewater don’t compare to twerking in public. I was miles out of my element but also surrounded by folks in wheelchairs, amputees, other blind people, kids, and Veterans. So I let go of myself and made a decision to embrace the moment. While Whitney danced along with us from the stage, she shouted encouragement in between breaths, teaching  us all sorts of new moves. By the end, we put it all together for a full song replete with moves like “dishwater hands,” and “earthquake hips.”

a photo of erik weihenmayer twerking at the no barriers summit in nyc
Attempting to learn to twerk. L to R: No Barriers supporter Mick Ebeling, myself, and co-worker Skyler Williams
a photo of erik twerking at the no barriers summit
Am I getting this yet? #JustKeepTryin
a photo of young women dancing on the intrepid during the no barriers summit 2018
Dancing on the Intrepid, Credit: Christopher Lee / No Barriers

After a day of adaptive yoga, painting, fencing, boxing, and Mark Wellman’s ubiquitous climbing wall, one last mind-blowing performance was in store for us; the adaptive dance team, Infinite Flow, joined up with the famed Evan Ruggiero, “the Peg Leg dancer,” who uses his prosthetic peg to tap out incredibly athletic and elaborate moves.

a shot of yoga on the intrepid in nyc for the no barriers summit
A very cool venue for a yoga class
a photo of a woman trying out mark wellmans climbing wall at the no barriers summit in nyc
Trying out Mark Wellman’s climbing wall, Credit: Christopher Lee / No Barriers
a photo of a man in a wheelchair next to a man with a peg leg and marissa hashimoto of infinite flow on stage at no barriers summit
Infinite Flow joins up with Evan Ruggiero “Peg Leg” for some high energy dancing, Credit: Christopher Lee / No Barriers

As it all wrapped up, everyone broke off to start gathering points around the city for a 24- hour scavenger hunt called The Questival. Dozens of teams competed in No Barriers themed challenges like “Take a 15 second video of you making a speech to total strangers about what No Barriers means to you, and by the way, it has to be on an escalator or in an elevator.”

a photo of aj hunt and kara brouhard teaming up for the questival in nyc as part of the no barriers summit
Reach scholarship winners AJ Hunt and Kara Brouhard join up to start a Questival team they called, “The Pink Ladies,” Credit: Pauline Shaffer
a photo of an aerial shot of people forming teams for the questival
Aerial shot of folks teaming up for The Questival, Credit: Todd Newcomer / No Barriers
a photo of four people learning to sign at the no barriers summit in nyc
Learning some sign language during the Questival as part of a challenge, Credit: Todd Newcomer / No Barriers
a photo of a group of folks with backpacks listening to directions
No Barriers supporter Moses explaining a Questival Rope Team challenge to a team, Credit: Christopher Lee / No Barriers
a photo of several no barriers flags inscribed with personal mantras from the no barriers summit in nyc
No Barriers flags with mantras from the Questival, Credit: Christopher Lee / No Barriers
a photo of folks enjoying their time at the questival in nyc as part of the no barriers summit
More teamwork during the Questival on the Pier! Credit: Todd Newcomer / No Barriers

The activities, the speakers, and the performers are all an integral part of a Summit experience but to me it’s the people I meet who make the Summit unique: folks like Reach scholarship winner Caitlin Conner, who at only 28 years old has experienced incredible loss. In 5 years she lost her brother, mom, step dad, mother-in-law and after a motorcycle accident she lost part of her leg in a below the knee amputation. Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, Caitlin has become a renowned athlete who boxes and completes triathlons. After the Summit she wrote, “They don’t tell you about how much the event truly has the ability to change you. I saw people cry tears of joy, I saw them break down barriers that they placed on themselves in their lifetime, but more importantly I saw them break down the barriers others have placed on them.”

a photo of caitlin conner smiling
Caitlin Conner

Karl Nguyen, from Baltimore, showed up in NYC for his first Summit, having heard about the opportunity from a friend. Karl was born with O.I., a brittle bone disease requiring him to use a power chair, but he wasn’t going to let the Summit pass him by. He rock climbed for the first time, fenced (he was undefeated!), and did yoga on the deck of the intrepid, with the NYC skyline in the background.

a photo of karl on his mat doing yoga at the no barriers summit
Karl doing yoga for the first time aboard the Intrepid
a photo of a man and two women smiling at the no barriers summit in nyc
Missy (center) also showed up alone despite her apprehension about getting around NYC and had a fantastic time

Another new face was US Army Lt. Col. James Bishop, who I met randomly. James happened to be sitting across the table from me at a meal where he introduced himself and told me some of his background. After his deployment, James came home with post-traumatic stress. It was all exacerbated by 4 lower back disc ruptures that required spinal fusion. However, James is now using his experience to elevate other vets. After work, he can be found volunteering to teach fellow vets resume and interview skills. He also volunteers building homes through Habitat for Humanity and leads veteran expeditions for No Barriers. In fact, James told me excitedly that he was leaving in a couple weeks to lead a No Barriers Grand Canyon wilderness expedition, sponsored by Raytheon!

a photo of james bishop in his army uniform at a baseball game with george w bush and two females
James Bishop with former President George W. Bush

And then we have our faithful supporters like Ron McGinty who recruits and sponsors dozens of foster kids to attend the summit as well as youth expeditions in wild places around the country. Heather Stone is another believer who brought 10 girls from the Boys and Girls Club of Collier County in Florida.

a photo of kids posed in a group shot in front of staten island ferry sign
Ron McGinty’s group having a great time in NYC
a group of girls posed in an airport smiling with sweatshirts that all say boys and girls club
Heather Stone’s group of girls ready to take on Manhattan!

The Summit wrapped up with our No Barriers LIVE event in Central Park where performers and speakers took the stage to show No Barriers in action. Deaf Jazz musician Mandy Harvey sang, Raegan Sealy performed a rap she wrote specifically for No Barriers, Ice-T came back to drop more inspiration, deaf DJ Robbie Wilde spun, and Nick Demeris, a renowned artist gave us a crazy improvised beatbox performance, and more. The night closed with a bang when Judah and the Lion took the stage putting on an epic show, with an unbelievable set.

a photo of judah and the lion playing to fans in central park during no barriers summit closing ceremony
Judah and the Lion ending the No Barriers Summit on a high note at No Barriers LIVE, Credit: Christopher Lee / No Barriers
a photo of a young man holding up a no barriers flag at the no barriers summit event in central park
In the No Barriers spirit for No Barriers LIVE in Central Park, Credit: Christopher Lee / No Barriers
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Celebrating No Barriers in Central Park, Credit: Christopher Lee / No Barriers

There was uncertainty about having our Summit in a big city. We had grown comfortable with the format of running our summits in the mountains. Navigating the culture of the concrete jungle was intimidating and complex. But, we learned an important lesson: No Barriers is not about “place.” No Barriers exists in our people and their stories. It’s a powerful belief that what’s inside us can transcend all barriers. And it is ultimately our community who will spread this movement around the world. I’m biased of course, but I think the world needs a little more No Barriers.

a photo of three girls who are laughing at the no barriers summit in nyc
Having a blast during the Questival with friends, Credit: Todd Newcomer / No Barriers
a group of youth pose together in front of sam car on the intrepid at the no barriers summit in nyc
Posing in front of the SAM Car, Credit: Todd Newcomer / No Barriers

As always, events like this take a rope team. I first want to acknowledge Tom Sullivan, No Barriers Board Member and Chairman of one of our largest corporate sponsors, Cabinets to Go; Tom was the one with the vision and foresight to host in NYC.

a photo of a video billboard of no barriers summit announcement in times square
No Barriers Summit featured in Times Square, Credit: Jody Podpora

In addition to Cabinets To Go, a huge thanks to all of our sponsors: Coors Light, Wells Fargo, Gracious Home New York, Prudential, Philips, ARROW Electronics, MASCO, Aerotek, Accessible Dispatch, and Northwell Health.

a photo of a list of sponsors of the no barriers summit in nyc
Thank you!

*And a huge shout-out to the incredible staff and volunteers at No Barriers who pour their hearts into bringing this event to fruition each year.

Mark your calendar for our next No Barriers Summit in Squaw Valley on Lake Tahoe June 13th-16th in 2019.

Cover Image Photo Credit: Christopher Lee / No Barriers