yan “Birdman” Parrott plans to achieve impossible—to run a marathon, swim a race, and perform a skydive … on each of the seven continents
… in just seven days.
Ryan will test the limits of his skill and endurance in the pursuit of a question: What can human physiology teach us about mental health and the brain’s capacity for healing traumatic injury?
A former Navy SEAL sniper, Ryan has devoted his post-military life to veteran and first responder causes. He grew up in Detroit nurturing a sense of patriotism, and like many operators, he joined the Navy after 9/11. Both of his grandfathers served in World War II and ever since he was young, he had his sights on the Navy SEALs. After the towers came down, he enlisted. After making it through BUDs, he was assigned to SEAL Team 7 out of Coronado.
On his first combat deployment in Iraq, Ryan was manning the gun turret on a Humvee when his convoy rolled over an IED. When it detonated, the force of the explosion sent him flying from the turret as if shot from a cannon, straight into the air. Recovering at the hospital from burns to his face and hands, someone who’d witnessed the attack called him “the Birdman.”
That moment—paired with the low-hanging fruit of his last name—created a name that stuck. And after his military career was over, Ryan became dedicated to caring for wounded veterans. He founded Sons of the Flag, a nonprofit focused on burn care for wounded Americans. The nonprofit has helped thousands of burn survivors and funded over $800,000 worth of medical fellowships.
Even immersed in the nonprofit world and caring for veterans, firefighters, and first responders who’ve suffered injuries, Ryan found himself struggling from his own. He found himself newly irritable with friends and loved ones. “Back then, you didn’t talk about trauma. But I could feel that something was wrong,” he recalls. “I felt hostile, like I wanted to fight everyone.”
In 2019, Ryan got a phone call from one of his teammates. His sniper partner, David Metcalf, had taken his own life.
“David was my true north,” he remembers. “We all have mentors we consider invincible, and then they’re not there anymore, you lose that sense of strength they provided for you.”
But ever curious by nature and motivated to seek a change, Ryan decided to unpack the nature of his trauma. In the aftermath of David’s death, Ryan decided to explore his own physiology as a way to understanding his psychology.
Even before military service took him to warzones, Ryan was always a thrill seeker. But in his post-military life, he took it to an extreme level.
“It takes a certain kind of daring to do base jumping,” he says. “I was terrified before my first big jump. I was 2,800 feet up on that mountain wondering how the hell I got myself into this.”
But somehow, Ryan found the resolve to make the leap, and he discovered a kind of flow state that many adrenaline junkies describe in the middle of extreme feats. The breathing slows. The focus narrows. You think of nothing else except the moment. When he’s in mid-flight, the terrain rushing below him at 140 miles per hour, Ryan no longer thinks of how irritable he is. There’s no hostility. No anger. Just the flow of air over his wingsuit and the thrill of the ride.
Ryan pursues extreme feats and pushes his physiology to the limits to gather data on how the human body recovers from stress and adrenaline.
“You can find all the research you want on the internet from PhDs and experts all you want, but there’s nothing that grabs your attention about that kind of thing. I want to do some thing epic and gnarly and make people turn their head, make people pay attention. And if I don’t do it myself, why should anyone believe me when I tell them that the causes, I’m working on are important?”
With his eyes set on the absurdly ambitious 7X Human Performance Project, Ryan will join four other former operators to achieve the seven-continent journey, pushing their bodies to climates from scorching hot to freezing cold, and dealing with the extreme differences in altitude and barometric pressure. The entire mission is in pursuit of data that they’ll immediately share with the medical world to better understand how physiology can affect brain health.
Each man training to complete the 7X mission received gut microbiome tests, stress tests, sleep tests, and advanced panels that cover everything from cardiovascular health to everything in between.
“This level of comprehensive testing helps paint a picture of overall health, nutrient deficiencies, and readiness for training for such an intense event,” said Thomas Pazdernik, Executive Director Sports Performance at Thorne. “By examining factors like sleep, stress response, and inflammation, we can determine what impacts health and performance for a mission of this caliber, and then we can supply the participants with the supplements they need in order to succeed.”
“Thorne was the first to get on board with this crazy plan.” – Ryan “Birdman” Parrott
Ryan believes that extreme adventure can unlock a happier, healthier brain. And he plans to prove it.
“When you look at the number of suicides in the veteran and first responder community, it’s absolutely astronomical,” he points out. “We’re damn good at breaking guys, and we’re good at teaching them how to eat like shit, perform on little to no sleep, and then after 20 years, we wonder why these people are falling apart.”
To lead a healthy life, Ryan believes, one doesn’t have to pursue extreme sports or push yourself to the limit. You just need a strong foundation. You need to pay attention to what you’re putting in your body, how much sleep you’re getting, and how you’re caring for yourself. That is crucial to addressing one’s psychological needs, especially if they’re someone who’s been exposed to trauma in the military or first responder worlds.
“If all we achieve by doing this crazy mission is catch the attention of one single person and convince them to pursue a healthier lifestyle, I’m ok with that,” he says. “Because this is supposed to be a force multiplier. Maybe that person will tell someone else, and then they’ll tell someone else.”
“It’s supposed to be a force multiplier.”