Josh George travels the world…fast.
We were thrilled to speak with Josh George, a champion racer and world record holder who has traveled the globe competing for more than a decade. In addition to being an accomplished athlete, Josh is a graduate of the University of Illinois, has been a contributor to the New York Times and is a public speaker.
We had the opportunity to ask Josh about racing, travel and accessibility and we hope you’ll enjoy the interview as much as we did.
You’re very well known for your prowess as a racer. What is your proudest accomplishment?
JG: I’ve been fortunate in my career to finish on the right side of the pack a few times, but my proudest accomplishments were definitely my wins in the Chicago Marathon in 2014 and the London Marathon in 2015. Before winning in Chicago I had spent 12 years training to become successful in the marathon. I had won some smaller races, but Chicago was the first time that I had won a major race with a large elite field.
Winning London the following year was proof to myself that Chicago was not a fluke. Though I was not favored to do well, my solid tactics coupled with my fitness allowed me to pull off the win. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt a sensation like the one I felt storming down the mall to the finish line with Buckingham Palace rising up behind me.
A lot of people have never had the opportunity to be in a racing chair. Describe the excitement that you must feel when competing at high speed.
JG: The racing chair is a fickle beast. When everything is clicking there is nothing like the feeling of flying down the road, watching the asphalt fly by as your arms pump in a fluid and rhythmic motion. Your head is position so close to the ground that speeds feel faster, and your heart races a touch more than it would otherwise. When it’s not clicking it just hurts, and you spend your training sessions convincing yourself that it is all part of the process. That’s the trade-off I guess.
What do you like most about traveling?
JG: Whenever I travel I try to imagine what it would be like to live in the place I’m visiting. My favorite trips have been the ones in which I find myself in tow with a local who is excited to share their home with me. I get caught up in the atmosphere and allow my imagination to spin tales of how my life would be. Plus, you typically end up finding the best spots when you step out of the guidebook and take up with the locals.
What are some of your favorite destinations?
JG: I don’t actually get to travel that much for pleasure. I am on the road a lot bouncing from race to race, and that is definitely enjoyable, but the races dictate where I go, not my own whims. I am fortunate to get to race in some amazing cities like Chicago, New York, London, and Tokyo, and I race an annual track series in Switzerland, whose rolling hills speckled by farms and backed by mountains look like real life versions of illustrations in fairy tales.
Of the rare number of trips I’ve gotten to take outside of racing my recent favorites have been a family vacation to the big island in Hawaii, and a trip I took with some friends of mine to Thursday Island in the Whitsundays, an island chain off the northeast coast of Australia. Both offered some of the most serine tropical backdrops I have ever experienced, and the people we met on Thursday Island were some of the most generous I have ever dealt with.
What challenges do you most often face when traveling?
JG: The biggest challenge when traveling is always accessibility. I am lucky in the fact that I am a hyper mobile wheelchair user and can typically wing it and have things workout good enough, however there have been plenty of times when this has gotten me in trouble. The first time I ever spent time in London I found myself stuck in an inaccessible tube station too afraid to go a few more stops to an accessible station as that would mean having to navigate the winding, nonsensical surface streets (this was before smartphones). I spent fifteen minutes climbing the five flights of steps to the surface so I could get to my hotel. I am fortunate to be able to climb stairs in my chair, though it doesn’t make it any less of an exhausting process.
How much research do you typically do ahead of your trips? What aspects of your journeys require the most preparation ahead of time?
JG: When I am traveling for pleasure my research typically goes into finding the best places to eat, whether that be via web searches or pestering friends. Outside of that I always ensure that the hotel I’ve booked is accessible and well located and then I wing it from there.
What advice do you have for individuals with physical challenges that are hesitant about travel?
JG: I feel like there is often an assumption that accessibility is only a physical issue. Are there ramps and curb cuts? Does the building have an elevator, wide doorways, a big enough bathroom? While these are all important factors, I have often found that the culture of the location makes a bigger difference to accessibility.
In 2009 I ran a half-marathon in Cali, Colombia. Cali is far from an accessible city physically. Despite that I never had an easier time getting around. I didn’t once run into a person who wasn’t willing to go out of their way to make their shop or restaurant accessible. They also did so with a nonchalance that robbed the situation of any awkward feelings of inconvenience or liability. The attitudes of the people I dealt with made an otherwise inaccessible city remarkably inviting.
Obviously, this will not always be the case. I tell this story, however, to illustrate what you can find if you take a chance and just GO. I would definitely recommend recruiting an “able-bodied” friend or two to join you (there are some places I wouldn’t vacation without one), depending on your situation, and maybe choose your destinations with more of a discerning eye. I, for example, will never choose to go on a vacation to a location offering the greatest hiking excursions ever, though if I can pop on a snorkel, or hop on a ski to experience nature, I’m there.
Outside of that I say go and explore with an open mind. The joy is in the journey, not the destination.
As you know, brettapproved’s aim is to help people with physical disabilities and physical challenges travel confidently by providing user-generated, accessibility-focused information. Why do you think a tool like brettapproved is valuable?
JG: I think brettapproved is invaluable for exactly the reason that I mentioned above. Accessibility involves more than elevators, ramps, and braille menus. It also involves the people working in the hotels and restaurants, the tour guides, shopkeepers, and museum directors. A tool like brettapproved will offer a more valuable and richer idea of what to expect when you travel and will imbue a confidence in the world traveler with a disability. Brettapproved will make it easier for all of us to indulge in our wanderlust.