Aron Anderson isn’t your typical millennial. For starters, the 29-year-old Stockholm resident travels more than 130 days a year, visiting children in war-torn countries and giving motivational speeches to audiences across the globe. He’s also penned an autobiography (Opportunities, which launched in August), appeared on TV, and raised millions for childhood cancer research. And then there are his athletic accomplishments: Anderson has summited Kilimanjaro and Norway’s Trolltunga, finished two IRONMAN competitions, skied across Antarctica, and biked from Malmö, Sweden to Paris. But perhaps most impressive is the fact that he’s done all of this without the use of his legs.
“Life can be pretty damn amazing, even if you are sitting down,” says Anderson, whose glass-half-full, no-holds-barred mentality drives him to achieve what most able-bodied mortals merely dream of. Anderson would know. After all, he used to be one.
The Nacka, Sweden, native spent the first part of his life a fully mobile, sports-loving kid before cancer crept into his back at age seven. The surgery to remove it at age nine left him bedridden for six weeks, unable to sit down for an entire year and permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
“I ended up in a wheelchair at very formative age,” says Anderson, who received his first racing wheelchair at age 10 and turned to athletics—like sailing, track and field, and hockey—as a way to regain his confidence.
He began racing in his chair competitively and at age 13, won the 100-meter race at the Junior European Championships, a victory that sparked a nearly decade-long whirlwind of competitions around the world. He competed for his home country in four separate Paralympic Games, including the 2008 Games in Beijing. But just as he was achieving the best results of his life, including breaking the Swedish marathon record in 2011, a sharp pain developed in his right hip. The only permanent solution? Hip replacement surgery, which shattered his dreams of competing in the 2012 London Games and derailed his flourishing career as a professional athlete.
“It left me in a vacuum, wondering what am I going to do now?” Anderson says. “I was in a bad place physically, and on top of that, I was broke and single, so it was really bad.”
In the midst of his funk, Anderson had coffee with a friend and professional adventurer, Johan Ernst Nilson, who proposed a plan to get Anderson back on track. The duo would climb Kebnekaise, a 6,882-foot glacial peak in Sweden that sits above the Arctic Circle.
“I was like, Come on, have you seen me? I’m in a wheelchair!” Anderson says of his initial reaction. But Nilson insisted that if there was a will, there could most definitely be a way. After weighing the pros and cons for hours and then finally just throwing caution to the wind, Anderson agreed.
The trek, a brutal 18-hour experience, required him to ditch the familiar confines of his chair and trudge up the mountain on crutches, crawl on his arms, and essentially just writhe forward using any method possible.
As he sat on the summit, exhausted beyond belief and peering out over jagged mountaintops and miles of icy nothingness, he marveled at the fact that the 9-year-old cancer patient was now a 25-year-old perched atop of the country’s highest peak.
“That experience really pushed me,” Anderson says. “It made me wonder what else is possible.”
For Anderson, that “what else” came in the form of more extreme sporting endeavors, a career as a motivational speaker, and a mission to raise funds and awareness for childhood cancer prevention.
“My main purpose is to inspire other people to follow their dreams and maximize their potential,” Anderson says. “It’s not about what abilities that we have, it’s what we do with those abilities.”
In the years since Kebnekaise, Anderson has embodied this sentiment by scaling even higher mountains (including 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro in January 2016), biking thousands of miles across Europe and swimming from Sweden to Finland in 2015, using only his arms to wade through 23 miles of 57-degree F water.
In December 2016, he became the first person in the world to reach the South Pole in a wheelchair, raising roughly $800,000 in the process. Temperatures averaged -22 degrees Fahrenheit during the 22-day, 400-mile trek.
His most recent accomplishment: nabbing second place in the wheelchair division at the IRONMAN World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii last month.
“The cycling course was the hardest i’ve ever done,” says Anderson, describing 112 miles of seemingly never-ending hills combined with the oppressive heat and unrelenting winds.
Such challenges, however grueling in the moment, are what drive Anderson. And when he’s not racing, he seeks that stimulation from others.
“I love traveling around the world and getting perspective by meeting new people and experiencing new cultures,” says Anderson, who ventured to Afghanistan this summer to meet with disabled children.
“I remember meeting this girl there in a really old wheelchair who could barely move herself,” Anderson says.. “But somehow she has an amazing outlook on life. It made me realize how privileged we are in the West.”
This isn’t to say that Anderson is immune to the ennui of everyday life.
“We all have bad days, where everything is shit and you just want to pull the covers up over your head and not get out of bed,” he says.. But he combats these struggles with a three-step formula he developed over the years.
Step 1: Create “micro goals,” like answering two emails or moving 100 meters. “Progress equals happiness,” says Anderson, and minor achievements can breed the confidence needed to tackle bigger challenges.
Step 2: Remind yourself of the why. “What is the reason I do what I do?” is a question Anderson often asks himself. More than not, the answer points back to his fundraising, which he says he does so that “no more kids should have to go through what I went through.”
Step 3: Take a step back. “I’ve never really been bitter about being in wheelchair,” says Anderson, who considers himself “superprivildged.” Such perspective is “a key in life and leads to gratefulness and thankfulness,” he says.
As for what’s next, Anderson wants to bike through Sweden—an approximately 1,200-mile route—and go kite-surfing in South Africa.
“I also want to get into skydiving next year,” he adds. “I still have to figure out a way to land without being able to use my legs…but I think it’s doable.”