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Climbing Brothers to Share Adventure Stories at Culver Academies

04/18/11 Climbers Timmy and Sean O’Neill will bring their unique, entertaining, and enlightening stories of ascending sheer cliff faces and rock formations, including El Capitan in California and Castleton Tower in Utah, to Culver Academies. The twist that makes the tales extraordinary and transcendent, though, is that Sean is paralyzed from the waist down and makes the ascents with his brother without the use of his legs.

The two will speak at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday (April 20, 2011) at Eppley Auditorium on the Culver Academies campus before an all-school assembly. The presentation is part of the Vaughn Family Outdoor Leadership Series. A small number of free tickets are available to the public.

Funded by the generosity of the Robert C. Vaughn family (Robert CMA ’74, his wife, Fallon, and their children Robert Jr. CMA ’06 and Browning CGA ’08), the Vaughn Family Outdoor Leadership Series was established to introduce Culver students to adventurers and explorers who share their outdoor experiences, challenges, and passions.

Sean was paralyzed in 1993 after breaking his back in an accident during a “leap of faith” from a bridge in Memphis, Tenn. That forced, to say the least, a change in perspective for the brothers.

“Sean is the one who was paralyzed, but I wanted to relieve that paralysis, take away that paralysis,” Timmy said. When they decided to try, and ultimately succeeded, at climbing together, Timmy said that “it allowed me to be free by accepting my brother’s limitations.” And by understanding those limitations he was able to go beyond thinking about them to understand what Sean’s capabilities are.

After some practice climbs on an old water tower, the brothers drove from Pennsylvania, where they are originally from, to Wyoming, to scale Devil’s Tower National Monument, a 1,267-foot monolithic rock formation. “We both realized we’d bitten off a large endeavor,” Timmy said. But the only way to go was up, and go up they did, giving Sean the distinction of being the first paralyzed person to climb Devil’s Tower. Other climbs followed, with the El Capitan ascent being at the top of the achievement list.

After that first and subsequent climbs, Timmy traveled around the country giving solo talks about the brother’s adventures. Sean came to one of the Q&A sessions and they found people were really interested in the introspective answers Sean had to their questions. So much so that Timmy realized he was “only telling half the story.”

So now the brothers speak together about their experiences when they can, not only to teach audiences about overcoming limitations, but also to show how everyone can realize their own capabilities, and those of others.

“You’re in a pressure cooker scenario when you’re up there (on a climb) for several days,” Timmy O’Neill said. “You’re tired, you’re highly uncomfortable, there’s fear – ‘Can Sean make it? Will he overheat? Will my mom be mad at me if he dies?’ ” (Be ready for plenty of jokes with these guys).

“(When) you’re hanging on the side of the wall . . .  We’re all disabled up there. We’re connected by (ropes), you can’t get around so much. It levels the playing field.”

In the end, Timmy says, they end up with an inspiring message of overcoming adversity that they will be sharing with Culver students.

About Culver Academies

Located on Lake Maxinkuckee in Culver, Ind., Culver Academies is a boarding school offering a college-preparatory curriculum for boys and girls in grades nine through 12.

Annually, Culver has an enrollment of 800 students representing more than 40 states and 25 countries. Approximately 21 percent of the students are international, coming from such countries as Canada, China, Ecuador, Germany, Korea, Lithuania, Mexico, and Taiwan.

Culver’s mission is to educate its students for leadership and responsible citizenship by developing and nurturing the whole individual – mind, spirit and body – through integrated programs that emphasize the cultivation of character.

Founded in 1894, the boys’ school, Culver Military Academy, is based upon a military-type system used to teach self-discipline, responsibility, and leadership. Culver Girls Academy, founded in 1971, is based upon the prefect system, with girls practicing democratic, self-rule to achieve similar values.

The Academies and the six-week Culver Summer Schools & Camps, with an enrollment of 1,400 for boys and girls ages 9-17, operate on the same 1,800-acre campus in Marshall County in north-central Indiana.

NOTE TO EDITORS: For more information about Culver Academies, visit

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