In 1992, two months after his 22nd birthday, Gabriel Cordell was en route to his first professional audition when an accident changed his life forever. Only a mile and a half away from home, his Jeep was t-boned and flipped, and Cordell was ejected from his vehicle, hitting a telephone pole that crushed his spinal cord. The accident left him paralyzed from his mid-chest down. After four months of recovery and physical rehabilitation, Gabriel continued to pursue his dream of being an actor, now as a paraplegic. He established his acting career on stage and screen, with credits including CSI, Dexter, and Numb3rs as well as national ads for IBM, Maxwell House and Pizza Hut. At the age of 42, Cordell focused on a different kind of role. He became the first person to roll across the United States in a standard, manual wheelchair — a 3,100-mile journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the final destination being his hometown of West Hempstead, New York. The inspiring trek is the subject of an award-winning documentary film called, Roll With Me: A Journey Across America. In 2014, Gabriel traveled to Israel and mounted a Roll for Peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, completing that 100km journey from Haifa to Tel Aviv in his wheelchair. In 2015, he teamed with the North Shore Animal League America and Bianca’s Furry Friends to raise money and awareness, by rolling 123 miles across Long Island, New York. As a motivational speaker, Gabriel Cordell finally gets to share his inspiring story of turning tragedy into triumph.
Warning: Adult Content, please do not play with children present.
The night before our No Barriers Summit began, our hosts Dave and Erik met with Gabriel Cordell at Squaw Resort at Lake Tahoe to record. Gabriel was scheduled to speak at the No Barriers Summit opening ceremony the next evening but came in early to meet with our podcast crew.
Throughout the hour, Gabriel detailed how he dealt with his car accident at age 22 that left him paralyzed from his mid-chest down. After four months of recovery and physical rehabilitation, Gabriel continued to pursue his dream of being an actor, now as a paraplegic. He established his acting career on stage and screen, with credits including CSI, Dexter, and Numb3rs as well as national ads for IBM, Maxwell House and Pizza Hut.
I started living my dream and my first audition. My first audition, like yes and bam I get into a car accident and I end up in the wheelchair.
At the age of 42, Cordell focused on a different kind of role. He became the first person to roll across the United States in a standard, manual wheelchair — a 3,100-mile journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the final destination being his hometown of West Hempstead, New York. The inspiring trek is the subject of an award-winning documentary film called, Roll With Me: A Journey Across America. In 2014, Gabriel traveled to Israel and mounted a Roll for Peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, completing that 100km journey from Haifa to Tel Aviv in his wheelchair.
In 2015, he teamed with the North Shore Animal League America and Bianca’s Furry Friends to raise money and awareness, by rolling 123 miles across Long Island, New York. As a motivational speaker, Gabriel Cordell finally gets to share his inspiring story of turning tragedy into triumph.
Gabriel dives deep into the dark places his injury and subsequent anger and frustration led him. His truthfulness is raw and real and Gabriel goes on to talk about what inspired him to stop doing drugs, to reassess his life, and to take on the athletic challenges he pursues. Listen to hear Gabriel’s story along with his new No Barriers Pledge.
Follow Gabriel on Facebook and Twitter at @rollwithmeusa and his website, gabrielcordell.com.
Watch his film: Roll With Me on Netflix and for more info on his documentary visit: Roll With Me: The Movie
——- EPISODE TRANSCRIPT ———
Gabriel: Deep down inside I still knew that even though I felt worthless my life was still worth something. I knew that. Deep down inside I still had that and the promise I made to myself. I didn’t forget about that promise. It’s easy to talk about the successes but what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle.
Erik: My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I’ve gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, climbed the tallest mountain in every continent to Kayak the Grand Canyon and I happen to be blind. It’s been a struggle to live what I call a No Barriers life. To define it, to push the parameters of what it means and part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way and that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists a map. That map that way forward is what we call No Barriers.
Dave: Today we meet Gabriel Cordell who was the first person to roll across the United States in a standard manual wheelchair, a 3100 mile journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Gabriel’s also a professional actor with credits that include CSI, Dexter and Numbers as well as national ads for IBM Maxwell House and Pizza Hut. As a motivational speaker Gabriel Cordell gets to share his inspiring story of turning tragedy into triumph.
Erik: Gabriel it’s really cool. We are here at Lake Tahoe in Squaw Valley at the beginning of our No Barriers summit so it’s really awesome. We’re psyched. You’re going to speak to our whole community tomorrow night and everyone is just totally excited about that.
Erik: It’s a beautiful place, beautiful temperature outside. There’s tons of snow in the mountains I understand. Isn’t it like all white above us?
Dave: It’s all white. There’s actually skiing still available here even though we’re in mid June. Which is pretty crazy. For those listeners who don’t know what the No Barriers Summit is you should check out nobarrierssummit.org but its this four day amazing experience of speakers and performers and hundreds of activities that you can choose from. Try something you’ve never tried before. We challenge people to come here and break through the barriers they’re facing in their life and to celebrate what’s possible despite the fact that most of the people who are in attendance are facing major challenges. It’s a moment in time where you can think about all that is possible despite the things that we’re suffering through and struggling with.
Erik: Yeah, it parallels our podcast because it tries to break through cliché and try to get in and dissect what this No Barriers life looks like for people and how people build the tools and the mindset to break through all those barriers. Same reason we started the podcast to really try to go deep. Gabriel Cordell we are totally psyched to have you here. First of all for everybody you pushed your wheelchair, cranked your wheelchair across the USA like over 3000 miles specific to Atlantic.
Gabriel: Yes sir.
Erik: For a standard wheelchair to go all the way across and human being in the wheelchair to go across the country. That’s pretty … You’re understated about that.
Dave: It’s certainly epic.
Dave: Roll With Me just to fill in the gaps. Roll With Me is the film that chronicles your journey and the experience and tells the story.
Gabriel: Yes it was quite a journey. That journey took me 25 years to figure out and the journey didn’t start out me being in a wheelchair. Life happens. Ironically I got into my accident going to my first professional audition. 25 years later here I am sitting in this room.
Erik: Focus on the adventure just of the rolling adventure. For everyone, you had like six people following you and these sounded like some crazy folks.
Gabriel: We were the bad news bears film crew.
Erik: [crosstalk 00:04:52] spell out some of these characters. When I read this I was belly laughing.
Gabriel: We had me, which is as flawed of a human being as you can possibly get. Then you had, let’s start with the director who was unemployed gay lesbian. We had a Marine who had PTSD who was homeless. We had two drug addicts. One was not even 24 hours sober. We had one that had self diagnosed with Asperger’s. Another one was an army vet. It was like the who’s who of no one. I got to tell you the heart, the commitment, the dedication to do this was unrelenting but it was without a doubt the most difficult part of the journey.
Erik: How did you assemble it? [crosstalk 00:05:52]
Dave: Where do these folks come from?
Gabriel: How do I collect them? Your qualifications are all four limbs have to work and you have to have a heartbeat. Seriously those were the qualifications because not too many people are just going to take all four months off out of their lives with no pay going across the United States at the pace of sleep. Whoever said yes pretty much-
Erik: Did you put a Facebook ad out or something.
Gabriel: I posted ads on Craigslist. I posted ads in Starbucks. I posted just everywhere I can possibly think of. No Facebook, nothing. Not at all just Craigslist.
Erik: This ragtag group of people they sign up and do you accept everyone or did you have to vet people? You’re not crazy enough maybe you have to stay in line.
Gabriel: Actually every person that said yes came on.
Erik: Was able to come.
Gabriel: Was able to come on except the one with the Asperger’s. I was having real problems with him before we left. I’m talking about fisticuffs. We were about to get into … But the dedication and his work ethic was just undeniable. I figured I’m not going to be with him too much because I’m going to be out on the road rolling and he’s going to be in the RV. It came to the point where I had to tell him you cannot come. Then I felt so bad because he committed so much up to that point to help us. He was actually the first person on my crew, the first person. We brought him along.
Erik: Was he a really big challenge during the trip?
Gabriel: Well put it this way we had to have a team meeting before we got out of California because everyone was ready to quit because of him. Literally everyone was ready to kill him like physically assault him and they were ready to leave and we weren’t even out of California.
Erik: What’s it like trying to manage that team? It’s like you set yourself up for extra emotional challenge.
Gabriel: Well listen I don’t know. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I just knew that I was good with managing people and personalities. I’m very fair. I honestly did it. I knew from a professional filming standpoint that we were way lower than the bar. Personally some of them I met the night before. Some of them I met a week before, so I didn’t know anyone. The only one I knew was my nephew and he was a mess.
Erik: We’ll talk about that because that’s really interesting. These people did they … Was it that you didn’t want to be lonely just cruising across the country by yourself or did you think it would be better for the story or you just intuitively said, «This might be interesting?»
Gabriel: Well it would be hard for me to go alone because just my catheters alone I would need a car, a trunk full, just my catheters. There’s no way I could have done it alone.
Erik: Got it. You needed a support team.
Gabriel: I needed a support team. 100%.
Dave: Take us through for our listeners who don’t spend their lives, any portion of their lives in a wheelchair. Obviously it seems just like an epic idea to roll across America but on a day to day basis what makes it so tough aside from the team? Just the physical feat of it seems phenomenal to me. Talk us through for someone who doesn’t know what that is, what’s going on a day to day basis.
Erik: Yeah at 70,000 feet of elevation. That’s crazy.
Gabriel: Well here’s what I can tell you. I know it’s going to sound weird but the rolling was not a problem. I tell you this because I trained like an animal. I was a machine. Before I left I already rolled a thousand miles just in training, just a thousand miles and 400 of those miles were probably just uphill at like a 15 to 20% gradient. The rolling it wasn’t difficult until we got to New Mexico, Deming New Mexico. That’s when I felt my first real pain, but for those two days. Otherwise I swear if I tell you that the rolling was not a problem. Now listen rolling in the heat in 100 degrees, rolling in the freezing cold at like two in the morning in the middle of the desert where there’s no one around for days, rolling in the pouring rain. Those were challenging. The actual rolling itself I loved it because me with nature and the people that we met along the way. Listen I saw America going five miles an hour.
Gabriel: I saw every crevice on the road so I took it in. I knew what I was doing. I had enough negativity with the crew that I didn’t let the rolling and the rolling was awesome. It was awesome.
Erik: That sounds almost like the time of peace.
Gabriel: It was.
Erik: On the trip.
Gabriel: It was my sanctuary. There was a point where … So when we first started; we were averaging 40 miles a day. We rolled anywhere from 10 to 14 hours.
Erik: That’s a lot.
Gabriel: Right until we broke it up. The first shift was 20 miles and then I would rest for a couple of hours and then I would go do my next 20 miles shift. We did that for the first couple of weeks but it was taking its toll on me. Then we decided okay no more breaks. We’re just going to start and then roll. If I got to relax and take a break for 30 minutes and then continue to roll and then we’ll go back to the RV when we’re done. Sometimes I’d just say, «Come on I just want to go roll let’s go.» I just get the itch to go and roll. Sometimes it’s like, “Guys I can’t do 30 today. I just can’t.”
Dave: I mean first it just seems like the rolling was your Zen, your moment of peace and the team that supported you was the part that struggled at times but take us for our listeners who are just learning about this, what sparked this crazy idea to begin with?
Gabriel: Well, so I’m going to be a little corny right now. All right.
Erik: Corn it up.
Gabriel: When I was 18 years old, I made a promise to myself that by the time I turned 45 I’m going to do something extraordinary. I was dead set on it and growing up I always had this feeling that I was different from my friends, not disability different. Just I knew that I had something in me that I didn’t feel from them. They’re all successful and they have great lives. I just knew my path was going to be different. I thought acting was going to be my calling and it’s going to set me up to have a platform to, I don’t know, to inspire folks of the Middle Eastern ethnicity because that was before my accident. That’s what I was thinking. I want to give power to the Arabic people because sometimes we get a raw deal.
Erik: You were born in Tripoli.
Gabriel: I was.
Gabriel: I was.
Erik: Your family made it over to America and settled in Long Island.
Erik: That’s why that issue is personal to you, right?
Gabriel: Right. Just the whole thing. That’s what I wanted to do. I started living my dream and my first audition. My first audition, like yes and bam I get into a car accident and I end up in the wheelchair.
Erik: A couple of miles from your house.
Gabriel: A mile from my house. They say most accidents happen within a two mile or mile radius from your house. That happened. I was just, what? This sucks. I got to tell you I was fortunate enough to have been allowed to stay in a pediatrics ward. That is the single most important event of my life, the single most important decision, single most important time of my life out of everything I’ve done. Even the role because I to live with children.
Erik: You were 22.
Gabriel: I was 22. I just turned 22 and so I’m in this pediatrics ward and I’m looking all around me and it’s just devastation and just this ain’t nothing and that-
Erik: Why? You saw stories a lot worse than what had happened to you?
Gabriel: I got 22 years of health and normalcy. I got 22 years to live it up and with no problems. Here I come into this hospital and babies struggling fighting for their lives, kids dismembered and just every disability and illness you can think of. I’m just like holy I was blown away in the saddest, but most inspiring way. I was like, «Okay, time to elevate.» Because these children changed my life. They changed my mind set, my perspective on how I see things. Now it’s time for me to give what these kids gave me, give what I can give to the disabled community.
Erik: You’re paralyzed from the chest down?
Gabriel: Yes, T6. Pretty much three quarters of my body, but the most important factors I have left which was my arms and my cognitive skills. I thought, okay, now my journey changed. Now I’m going to inspire people to pursue their goals and mine is acting. I’m going to be an actor in a wheelchair.
Erik: Did that shift happen like I want to be an actor right away, or there must have been like … It sounds like seeing these kids change your perspective. Did you snap forward like that pretty fast?
Gabriel: I snapped forward. Well, put it this way. Six weeks after I was released from the hospital, I was back in New York City pursuing my acting career in a wheelchair. Just six weeks after I was released. I tell you these kids they injected an attitude in me that will carry me for the rest of my life. They’re the sole reason why life is good. Why life is good regardless of my circumstances. They are the sole reason. Of course I’d been inspired since then, but that was the pivotal point in my life. Acting I’d done … Got starring roles, commercials. I did modeling. I had moderate success and then I got a little break where I got a recurring role on a TV show called Dexter. At the same time is when I started dabbling in the bad stuff.
Erik: You got into drugs, didn’t you?
Gabriel: I did, like big time.
Erik: Big time.
Gabriel: Big time. One day I was getting ready to go on set and I decided, let me go make a pit stop at my dealers. I went and picked up and I got high before I went on set. Next day they called my agent and said, «We will no longer be using his services.» That just put me in a downward spiral, and I put acting on the back burner and sex, drugs and gambling became my life for the next five years. That’s all I did.
Erik: If you don’t mind me asking like what kind of drugs were you-
Gabriel: I started with cocaine and then I graduated to crystal meth, pills, drinking. I don’t like to throw marijuana in there because that’s just like the good friend that gets the bad rep. I got heavy. That was my life every day for five years.
Erik: Were you surrounded by that in the acting community, is that how you got exposed to it?
Gabriel: I was solo. I was a loner. No one knew. I lived with my parents. My girlfriend of nine and a half years broke up with me, and I got rid of my apartment, put all my stuff in storage, bought a mattress and went and lived in my parents 550 square foot, non accessible apartment. On the mattress for five years, they had no idea of my lifestyle. They had no idea that I was doing coke and crystal meth every day.
Erik: Do you think that’s … When you pinpoint that, is that from maybe stuff you hadn’t dealt with, like transitioning into a chair or do you think it goes deeper than that? What’s the why?
Gabriel: I know exactly why. I know exactly why. With these kids being in a pediatrics ward, these kids inspired me and gave me the no attitudinal barriers with that, no barriers. Without knowing no barriers. Just gave me that mindset, the no barriers mindset. Six weeks after I got released, I was back in Manhattan pursuing my acting. I focused on that. I didn’t focus on my disability, on what happened to me. I didn’t go through my emotional roller coaster, my ranges of emotions and the one thing that I was … I was a very sexual person. I was very sexual. Losing that, I got to be honest with you, that is more devastating than not feeling any other part of my body, more devastating than not walking was devastating. Then pooping on myself, peeing on myself, having to ask people for help, but I never addressed it. It all came to a head when I got into my first relationship, my real first serious relationship and it was the sex part was just not happening.
Gabriel: It just, we weren’t meshing, we weren’t clicking and she would tell me, I feel disconnected from you. When I touch your lower body, it just feels dead. When I touch your upper body there’s a lot of energy and we just couldn’t get on the same page. Then once we broke up, I started dabbling. I was already dabbling before we broke up. When we broke up is when I started doing it every day and then I realized I can get … It wasn’t a sexual release physically, but mentally I did some really shady stuff. How I dealt with it was I took my drugs and it put me in a state of mind where all my inhibitions, all my ethics and morals were gone. What I did was I became a … I describe it as a sexual predator. My goal was to go around and try to find women who are wearing very revealing clothes? If they’re bending down, I try to position myself where I can see my own pants. If they’re bending forward I try to look down their shirts.
Gabriel: I go and I position myself next to an escalator, so if they have dresses on, I can see up their dresses. I almost got to the point where I was going to have cameras put on my wheelchair and go into dressing rooms. That’s what I started doing. I started invading personal space. I was this, just bad.
Erik: Do you think that dysfunction, like you said you have cravings, it doesn’t go away. Then so, but how do you fulfill that? That hole gets filled with this dysfunction that happens.
Gabriel: Right, and that’s what it was. And for whatever reason-
Erik: You’re trying to fill this thing.
Gabriel: I’m trying to fill it and I convinced myself that this replaces the physical sex. This replaces it. In my mind, I’m getting mentally stimulated, because I can’t get physically stimulated. I can up here, my upper chest and stuff, but I can’t get really physically simulated so mentally it was working for me as bad as I was. As unethical and immoral as I was, it was working for me, and I was high, so I didn’t care. Obviously I’m living with my parents. I didn’t care about them or what they thought. You think I’m going to care about a stranger. That’s what I did for five years. I visited every mall, every outdoor mall, every Walmart, every Target, everywhere where I think there are women, I’d go and park in front of gyms and just park. I’m talking about binoculars. I was the voyeur of all peeping Toms and voyeurs.
Dave: I think that the story of … Just minutes ago we were talking about you’d found this passion and what you wanted to do with your life and the way you were with these kids who inspired you to have that passion. I think a lot of folks in our community, one, I think a lot of folks struggle to find what they’re passionate about and you had some of that. A lot of folks you’re going on a course and and all of a sudden you have some set of things happen and you lose that passion. Talk to me a little bit about in that time period, in those five years are you still connected to that other part of you that existed before that part of your life started where you were like, «I have a purpose and I have a passion and I need to get back in touch with it.» Or is that just gone during that period.
Gabriel: Day to day it was gone. Deep down inside I still knew that eve though I felt worthless, my life was still worth something. I knew that. Deep down inside I still had that and the promise I made to myself. I didn’t forget about that promise. I didn’t forget, even though it was deep down in me, it was still there. I literally just dropped off the face of the earth. I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t go out anywhere. I was literally MIA for five years. For five years. No one. That’s when people saw the film, especially people that knew me, their jaws drop because they had no idea. No, I didn’t have, it just, it all just gone. I didn’t have any motivation, any inspiration, nothing.
Erik: You’re owning this and how do you get back, how do you move forward? Because you were like … Sometimes those dysfunctions are just hard to get them under control. Because it’s like this stuff deep in your brain that you can’t … It’s very hard to change.
Gabriel: It’s so hard, especially when I found something, no matter how bad it was, I found something that gave me a little bit of pleasure and to give that up, as bad as it was and in the way I found it and I kept at it, I knew that it’s not me. It was a part of me, but it’s not who I truly am. My essence. One day, again, a normal day, I went and got my, and at this point I was doing crystal meth. I went and got the crystal meth and I’m high. My parents had a barbecue that evening. I was still high. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I decided to be their grill master. Well, that was the stupidest decision and probably subconsciously was probably the thing that got me clean. I was cooking the chicken and before I realized it, my leg was stuck on the bottom of 600 degree BBQ.
Gabriel: It was like stuck on there. Of course I can’t feel. I ripped my leg off and it’s just, my skin is like string cheese and I have this big. It’s probably the size of a small silver dollar pancake. I drive myself to the intensive care unit at the burn center, and they said to me this is bad. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to save the leg. We may have to amputate. I was in intensive care in the burn unit for one week. They did two skin graft surgeries. They still weren’t sure if they’re going to save the leg because I don’t have proper blood flow circulation. They didn’t think it was going to heal properly. You would think that would’ve woke me up, right? A week I get discharged. My brother picks me up from the hospital. I go home, and the first thing I do is I get into my car and I go to my dealers. Now remember my leg is in a brace. I can’t bend it.
Gabriel: It literally took me 20 minutes to get into my car because the way I had to position my leg, I was literally … My legs were spread on the passenger side while I was driving. That’s how bad I was. Then I realized doing what … I was high. I had this brace. My leg may be amputated. The first time I felt disabled in my life. I never felt disabled in those 25 years before this happened. I never felt disabled, just didn’t. When I burned my leg, and I had my leg, I had to deal with, my paralysis. I had two sores on my butt, open sores. I was a mess. That’s what got me out of it. Then I thought I’m 42 years old. I have three more years, three more years to make good on my promise. I was running out of time and I wanted to make something happen before my dad passed.
Gabriel: Then I went and remembered, in 2011, two years before the roll, again, I was high and I just literally finished doing my line of coke. I come outside and I’m rolling through this parking lot and a guy stops me. He goes to me, «Excuse me.» And I’m thinking to myself, «Dude, you’re going to ruin my high. You’re going to ruin my high.» He goes, «Can I just get one minute?» I’m like, «Yes.» He goes, «Listen, my name is so-and-so. I’m inventing a new kind of wheelchair and I want to pick your brain. I’ll pay you for your time.» I thought, «You’re going to pay me, that’s more money for drugs.» That’s all I thought about. The guy calls me, I go there. I sit with him, and in an hour he gives me 50 bucks. That’s a gram of coke for 50 bucks. I was like, «Yeah man, whenever you want to call me buddy, call me.»
Gabriel: There was a seed that was planted in that parking lot on that day. I didn’t know about it, but the seed was planted. Then after two years later, he calls me and attests to me, I built my chair. Come and check it out, the first prototype, I want you to ride it. I was like, «All right.» I went and I checked it out and I rode his wheelchair. It was more like a rowing kind of chair. It wasn’t using your arms on the wheels. It was like a rowing.
Erik: Very cool.
Gabriel: Then my brain started going, and then I went home. Of course there’s more to the story, but just to cut it short and then I thought, «I can give this guy the greatest campaign he could ever imagine.» I said to him, «Hey, what if I roll your wheelchair across California? You think anyone has ever rolled a wheelchair across California?» I’m thinking to myself, I went and did research. I’m like, «No one’s ever rolled a wheelchair across California. What? This is crazy.» I’m doing more research and he goes, «Really, let me think about that.» Then I go home and I’m just like, California is big and it’s hilly. I’m like, «Has anyone ever rolled a wheelchair across America?» Then I went and did research. I’m like, one guy’s name pops up, two guys, names pops up, George Murray and Phil Carpenter. They rolled across America in a modified wheelchair in 1983. What? I was blown away. I thought to myself, has anyone else done this, and then I did more googling.
Gabriel: A guy, Mike King, he pushed his wheelchair from Fairbanks, Alaska to Washington, D.C. which was 5,000 miles. I was like, «That’s it. This is it. This is it. This is the extraordinary achievement that I’ve been searching for, for 25 … This is it.» It started making sense. Everything started making sense. I went and I told the guy, I said, «Forget California, dude. I’m going to roll across America in your wheelchair.» He goes to me, «What?» I’m like, «I’m going to roll across America in your wheelchair.» I’m like, «You just have to pay for it.» He said to me, «That’s going to be expensive.» I’m like, «Yeah. That’s going to be the greatest campaign you’ll ever get, ever.» He goes, «Let me think about it.» Then a couple of days he calls me. He goes, «Listen dude, you’re nuts, all right. Whether you even going to do it or not, just the thought of thinking about it, you’re nuts.» He goes, «I’ll do California with you.» I said, «You know what, dude? No. I don’t want to do California. Because if I did California and I got scared, then I will never attempt America. I don’t even want to go there. I just want to just jump in.»
Gabriel: And he goes to me, «I’m sorry I can’t.» I said, «Okay.» I stopped convincing him, but the idea stuck. On June 30th, 2012 at 11:59 PM I had my last cigarette. I had my last line of coke because it was coke that night. I had my last drink, everything. The next morning I went cold turkey. I joined the YMCA and eight months later I started on my roll.
Erik: Incredible. And lingering a little bit more on the addiction part and the sexual stuff, I don’t know. In a weird way going blind, people they forsake you. Today is just like a perfect example on my airplane. The person, I give them my ticket and they hand it back to my friend. They don’t hand it to me. They’re like, «Is he … Where’s he sitting.» That kind of thing. I think when you go on a wheelchair, are there some similarities there where you start to feel inadequate, especially as a dude. You’re like looking up at people. Do you think there’s some ego and some stuff that gets mixed in there?
Gabriel: I tell you, I’ve been fortunate enough. I always thought of myself as the most accessible unaccessible person you’ll ever meet because I never allowed anyone a moment to ever look at me as if I was disabled. Whether it was my energy or whether the words that were coming out of my mouth. Of course I’ve had those, especially when you travel. I think for the most part, I make myself feel more adequate than anyone else. I got to tell you, in the next three weeks, I’m going to be testing myself big time. Emotionally I’m going to be putting myself in a very vulnerable situation. I’m going on vacation. How can that be vulnerable? I’m going to an island. I’m going to the beach. I’m going to Jamaica. I have not gone anywhere like that for 20 … Since I’ve been in a wheelchair. Because when you go to Jamaica with your significant other, it’s about walking hand in hand in the beach.
Gabriel: Unfortunately for me I tried to stay away from things that made me feel inadequate. For the most part, I don’t allow people to treat me that way. If someone did that to me, I would tell them, «Excuse me, you can hand it to me.» Or excuse me, you can talk to me. I’m down here, but you can still talk to me. Kind of thing.
Erik: I think that’s very relatable, that idea of, well, hand in hand walking on the beach. It’s like my kid, he plays soccer. I’d love to be able to kick a soccer ball with him, but I avoid it because I can’t do that. You avoid those situations and you fall into a little bit of safety sometimes.
Gabriel: You do. You do absolutely.
Erik: You stay out of those uncomfortable moments, right?
Erik: You got to find a different way to walk on the beach with your girl.
Gabriel: Just saying, there’s a motivational speaker, his name is W Mitchell.
Erik: Yeah, I’ve heard of him.
Gabriel: You’ve heard him. I was listening, he goes before my accident, there were 10,000 things I can do. After my accident there are 9,000. Do I focus on the thousand that I can’t or the 9,000 that I still can? For a long time I was focusing on the thousand. Even though I was pursuing my dreams, being an actor and doing this, but that was just surface, it wasn’t penetrating. This Jamaica trip that I’m taking, yeah, I’m going to Jamaica, but that’s not what this trip is about for me. This trip is about being vulnerable, being courageous in a way of letting all my guard down, and if I need help and if I’m going to expose myself in a very unmanly un-
Erik: [inaudible 00:36:58].
Gabriel: Right. I’m willing to do that because my life’s goal is to continue to grow, continue to elevate myself. More than anything be an inspiration to someone, but it’s really hard. It’s really hard and you get it Erik. My girlfriend has two boys, 11 and 12 years old. When they’re with their dad, they’re all these play fighting and running and jumping. We went to the beach and we went hiking and things like that, things that I can’t really do with them. It’s a really … It’s a hard thing to swallow. I don’t know if I’ll ever over that. I don’t know if I will ever get over that, which is fine. It doesn’t mean that’s going to confine me. I don’t think I’ll ever have the emotion of, who cares? No. I do care. It does suck. It does suck that I can’t walk hand in hand with my girlfriend in the beach and there’s no … I’m not going to sugarcoat it, just like it sucks being paralyzed. Now, is life great? Life is incredible, but it doesn’t mean the situation does it suck.
Gabriel: It has nothing to do with have the negative mindset. It’s just, call a spade a spade. I don’t know anyone who wants to be paralyzed. If you can go ahead and that whole cliché of if I had it all over to do again, would you choose the same path? I probably would wait five minutes longer before I left my house that morning.
Erik: That’s honesty. I like that. I really appreciate you saying that. Because people say like going blind or being paralyzed was the greatest gift I’ve ever had.
Erik: It’s like, I don’t know about that.
Gabriel: Bullshit, but what it taught me was how stem strong I am, and how resilient I am. That’s what it taught me and that I will never trade. The actual experience of it, it sucks.
Dave: Erik talks about this moment when he got down from his Everest expedition, where his lead guy, [PV Scaturro] was his name.
Dave: This is the very day the expedition … He’s reached the summit. Turns to him and says, «Don’t let Everest be the greatest thing you’ve ever done.» Now that you have done this extraordinary thing and you’ve done this wonderful film that chronicles it and that was the fuel to get you over a period in your life that was very dark. What’s the new fuel? Does that fuel last? How do you continue to find that thing that drives you?
Gabriel: After, so I rolled America, I went to Israel. I rolled for peace there. I rolled across Long Island and I had rolled over 5,000 miles within those three years. It’s not like actual … If you took it, it would have been like just over a total of a year, 5,000 miles even though it extended into three. I thought my rolling, what am I going to do next because my body can’t take it. I’m in pain every day.
Erik: You can’t just go and top that, you know what I mean? You can’t go, «I’m just going to roll across the world now.» Because your body, you can’t sustain it.
Gabriel: If somebody said to me … Let me tell you something, Erik. If someone came to me today and said, I will fund you, would you roll across the world? I would say yes.
Erik: Forget the pain. You would do it anyway.
Gabriel: I would do it. I would do it. You know what, I’m just going to share this and even though I’m going to talk about it tomorrow, I’m going to share it anyway.
Erik: Because this will come out after [crosstalk 00:40:40]. So don’t worry about letting anything out.
Gabriel: I was shut. My body was broken and I didn’t think I had any more rolling left. Then I had a two year hiatus, and within those two years, again, it’s about elevating yourself in any way possible. Not just physical achievements, mentally, emotionally. 2016 my dad gets sick, gets diagnosed with cancer and I become his primary caretaker, me, the guy in the wheelchair who brought him to all his chemotherapies. The guy in the wheelchair who’s pushing my dad, who’s in a wheelchair in the hospitals, here I am pushing my dad in the hospital in a wheelchair. People are looking at me like, «You need help?» No, I don’t need help, man. I got this. I got this. That was the single most difficult thing I’ve ever been through in my life, was taking care … For those eight months. It took a physical toll on me too because of the stress and the emotion.
Gabriel: You hold a lot in. It took a physical toll on me besides emotionally and mentally and then I … Me and my girlfriend decided we’re going to take in a foster kid. We took in an adult, a teenage foster kid and that was a challenge like no other. Talk about elevate.
Erik: How old was he, when you brought him?
Gabriel: When we got him, he was 19. He was 19, and he was homeless and he stayed with us for a year and a half. I think I aged 10 years in that year and a half. It was trying, because the kid was collateral damage. I was like, okay, all this stuff is good, but I’m missing connecting with nature. I’m missing something. My agent goes to me, «Hey, have you ever heard of a guy named Erik Weihenmayer?» I reluctantly said, no. This was a year ago, last June. I said, no I did not. Then he started talking. I was all right Mark I need to get off the phone. I need to check this guy out. I get off the phone I go on YouTube and I see you. I’m just like, “Are you [inaudible 00:43:01]?”
Erik: [crosstalk 00:43:04] you can say it. We’re semi family.
Dave: There might be bleeps.
Gabriel: Are you effing kidding me? Then I watched farther than the eye can see. I was bawling. I could not believe what the hell I was watching. I could not believe. You shook me to my core. The last time I was inspired was when I was in the pediatrics ward. That’s how much you shook me to my core. I thought I got to do something. I have to do something. There is no … I’ve done nothing. I’ve done nothing compared to this guy.
Erik: There’s always more.
Gabriel: I thought I need to climb my Everest.
Erik: There is a bombshell coming here Dave.
Erik: I know. I feel it. It’s coming.
Erik: This is like an announcement.
Erik: I know.
Gabriel: I’m going to say this. It’s going to go down in podcast. I can’t go back. I thought I need to climb a mountain. I need to climb a mountain. I need to climb the highest mountain I could possibly climb in North America. Well I’m sorry, in the continental United States because I hated traveling. Traveling is a pain for me. I started doing research and Pikes Peak Mountain comes up. Pikes Peak, the highest peak on the southern front range of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a fourteener. I didn’t know what that meant because I’ve never seen the Colorado Rockies. I didn’t know how big they are but I knew they were big. I started doing research. Has anyone ever rolled up Pikes Peak Mountain? One guy came up and his name is Dr. Glenn House. Dr. Glenn House rolled it. I’m like, «What wheelchair did you use?» He used a modified chair. He used a chair with tailwind technology. Now if anyone knows about wheelchairs with tailwind technology, one push and you’ll go for a long time. It’s like having a little motor.
Gabriel: I thought no one else has done this on assisted in a regular chair. No. I went and I thought there’s my Everest. I teamed up with the brain injury alliance of Colorado and I was like, «I’m going to roll up this mountain.» Done. I’m doing it. I’m like this freaking guy just summited Mt. Everest.
Erik: That was almost 20 years ago.
Gabriel: It doesn’t matter. For me it was that day, for me you did it last year because that’s when I discovered it. I said dude this guy … And then he did the Grand Canyon. What is it, the Colorado? I’m I need to do something I because I will die if I don’t. I will underachieve; I will be a failure if I do not. He goes okay. I trained my ass off for three months. This past September I became the first person to summit Pikes Peak unassisted in my wheelchair.
Erik: This last September.
Gabriel: This last September. It took me nine and a half hours. Let me tell you something.
Erik: Putting my fist out for a fist bump here for the podcasters.
Gabriel: It’s incredible. Let me tell you something. It was solely because of you.
Erik: It’s good, we can inspire each other.
Gabriel: Solely because of you. That’s it didn’t end there Erik. Now in my head I’m this guy did all seven summits and he did the Colorado River. I’m just like, I’ll never live up to that. I just won’t. I can at least make my own path. I figured let me roll up as high as I can up America which I did. Now the third leg up of what I believe is the trifecta for wheelchair endurance is let me roll it in the most extreme conditions I possibly could.
Erik: I’m liking this.
Gabriel: It was supposed to happen next month but my body is not recouping the way you used to. I’m going to be 50 years … I’m going to be 49 in September. Next year on my 50th birthday I pledge to you and to you and to you and to everyone listening that I am going to attempt whether I finish or not that I am going to attempt to roll the Badwater 135 across Death Valley next July.
Erik: Good for you.
Gabriel: Which will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, harder than America.
Erik: Big time.
Gabriel: If I do that then I feel that I am worthy enough to be in the same sentence as Erik, if I do that and the only reason I am doing that is because of what this man did to me and how he shook me to my core. No one holds a candle to him. No one.
Erik: You’re making me squirm.
Gabriel: You know what good.
Erik: I’m the man of the 80s. You can compliment me if you like.
Gabriel: No, because honestly Erik you have no idea. Then on top of that after I did Pikes Peak which can I say something that’s really bad, I did it as a smoker.
Erik: You’re still smoking?
Gabriel: I’m trying to quit. I mean that’s how bad I wanted it. This can’t happen in Death Valley because that’ll just … It just won’t happen.
Erik: The Death Valley thing is amazing now. There’s this catch 22 because the decision to do it is the cool thing and the commitment to it. The training and all that, but if circumstances happens so that you do fall short you’re not a failure. You’re not a failure. I know you want to drive yourself and you want to do this thing. You have to have this really driving attitude. If a massive snowstorm comes in and you fall a little bit short you’re not a failure. It’s the decision and the commitment to do it. I’m really psyched and proud that you’re making this pledge.
Gabriel: Thank you. Listen, deep down inside I know, I known that I’m not a failure. If I never rolled another mile in my life I know I’ve done things that most people could only dream about. I understand that. I want to set a precedent.
Erik: You want to get it done?
Gabriel: I want to set a precedence just like you set a precedence for blind people. I want to set the same precedence. Yes it will not make me a failure if I do not make it but it’s going to hurt really, really bad because I got one shot at this. It’s not the role itself that’s difficult. It’s the training. With me I’m always rolling? I’m always as using my arms. Even when I’m not training I’m still doing something.
Erik: You’re still training.
Gabriel: I’m still training so it’s nonstop for me. It’s not like a person who’s an athlete who goes and trains and then he goes home and he relaxes. There’s no relaxing for me. It’s just constant, constant, constant. The fact that my body is … Because I have a partially torn rotator cuff. I have major arthritis. I have now I developed scoliosis. I have my spinal cord from my lumbars. They’re just shot.
Erik: None of this stuff is sustainable is it?
Gabriel: It’s not sustainable. I need to figure out what I’m going to do … How I’m going to continue to elevate and more importantly then accomplishing these goals is the effect, is the response I get from people. That to me is what keeps me going. It’s not the achievement itself; it’s what I do to people. How people react to me. When I was climbing Pikes, everyone was on their bikes bicycles and they’re struggling and people looking at me like, “What? You’re rolling up this mountain with your arms dude.” I can’t tell you how many people stopped me.
Erik: Gave them the fuel for moving there from-
Gabriel: I can’t tell you how many people stopped me and said, «I wanted to stop but I’m looking at you and there’s no way I could stop now.»
Dave: Well you guys heard it here first listeners. The pledge.
Gabriel: The pledge.
Dave: The No Barriers pledge has been taken on radio here on our podcast.
Gabriel: I can’t believe I just did that.
Dave: I know you announced it to the world and I think for the listeners-
Erik: We’ve never had a big breaking news on our podcast. This is a first.
Dave: I know. I love that we’re introducing this concept which I think drives a lot of our community forward which is take a commit … Make a commitment. When you say it and you state it whether you write it on your No Barriers flag, you stated to your friend, you stated to yourself. Most importantly you make that commitment and it propels you forward. It gives you hope and meaning and purpose. That’s what our No Barriers pledge is all about. We have kids that do it. We have vets that do it. We have people from all walks of life that make that commitment. That commitment can be the fuel whether you achieve it or not it is the fuel that pushes you forward. This idea that you are in the process elevate yourself and elevate those around you is so powerful.
Erik: Maybe you carry a No Barriers flag with you when you do it.
Gabriel: 100%. Are you kidding me?
Dave: Gabriel where can we listeners learn more about you and follow your adventures? Is there somewhere we can go?
Erik: Roll With Me and all the good-
Gabriel: Well following me is going to be difficult because I’m terrible at social media but I do have my Facebook page Roll With Me USA. Then also my … I’m not even sure what my Instagram one is but my Twitter is also Roll With Me. My website gabrielcordell.com. Anything I have on and I have it posted on there, 2020 Death Valley. It’s on there too. That’s pretty much and my Facebook Roll With Me USA.
Dave: Where can we watch Roll With Me? Is it-
Gabriel: Yes please if you can. It’s on Netflix.
Gabriel: Roll With Me it’ll be on there for another two and a half years. Please watch it. Tell your family, tell your friends, tell your coworkers.
Erik: I’ve read a lot of really good reviews on it so-
Gabriel: You have?
Gabriel: It took six years to make the film to get the funding and just the right people that have the vision. It’s been a blessing and that’s all I can say.
Erik: Well Gabriel we are honored to have you here. Thank you so much for opening up and sharing your personal story.
Gabriel: This is so exciting.
Dave: And for making Erik squirm a little bit with that story. Erik as you listen to that conversation as we shared that conversation, what are some things that stood out for you?
Erik: Well I mean honestly this is a big one. This is a really big podcast. I mean Gabriel was very honest. We talk about like this idea we really want to dissect this No Barriers life and how hard the journey is and there was no BS in this one. I love that. This idea that sometimes when you transition from one thing to another, able bodied to a wheelchair and then these things get really out of whack because maybe you don’t process all the changes and all the feelings of loss. These addictions get totally out of whack and start manifesting themselves in really bad unsustainable ways. I think that is a really fascinating thing. Then how do you then pull yourself out of that? How do you commit to getting back to that life of purpose that maybe you had at 18 years old? I think that’s a really important thing for all of us to think about.
Dave: True. For me I was fascinated by so much of the conversation but one thing that really stood out for me that we see in our communities like this fire that people have inside of them to do something extraordinary. When Gabriel was talking about how he discovered that he made that commitment when he was in his 20s that I’m going to do something extraordinary by the time I’m 45. Then there’s this whole period of his life that goes completely the other way and completely dark and anything could have happened in that period. It’s still the thing that fueled him out of it was this you often call it Erik, the light inside of him, the crave purpose and meaning. He knew something extraordinary was within him. Somehow in that moment that he talked about when he was on that drive with his legs stretched out and then this terrible moment and he’s it has to end here.
Dave: I still have that thing inside me. Once he stripped through all the shit that he’d been through, there was still that fire to do that thing that he had dreamed of and he just needed to bring meaning to it. I think how to help people find that is a passion of mine because all of us I think have it somewhere in us to know that that is there. How do you discover it and how can you use it to propel you forward is something that fascinates me. Well thank you so much for spending your time listening to this week’s podcast. If you enjoyed the conversation please take a moment and share it with someone that you know. Take a moment and like this podcast. One of the best things you can do to help us is to spread the word about No Barriers. We did mention the No Barriers Summit in this podcast and if you’re interested in joining us at our future summit next year we’ll be in San Francisco so you can check that out at nobarriersusa.org. Thank you so much.
Erik: Thanks everyone. No Barriers.
Dave: Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. Special thanks to the Dan-Ryan band for our intro Song which is called Guidance. The production team behind this podcast includes producers Didrik Johnck and Pauline Schaffer, sound design, editing and mixing by Tyler Kottman, graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Karly Sandsmark and Jamie Donnelley. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.