In Conversation With: Brent Folan, nomad and mental health advocate

Through our weekly series In Conversation With, TheHomeGround Asia amplifies and celebrates the ideas, achievements and experiences of extraordinary individuals who are creating ripples in unique ways. In the seventh installment of this series, we speak to the globetrotting ‘Rio Olympics Selfie King’ Brent Folan, who has made Singapore a place of refuge during the pandemic since March last year.

World traveller, blogger, nomad.

Having first shot to fame in 2016 as the ‘Rio Olympics Selfie King’, US citizen Brent Folan has travelled to 103 countries across all seven continents, and has met celebrities the likes of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. 

His journey around the world started in 2013 with a simple goal: to visit the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

Having begun his career as a market analyst in the limestone mining industry, Mr Folan’s profession could not have changed more drastically after he was selected to be a global volunteer for the Olympics, following two years of interviews. 

Eight months before leaving his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, he approached various companies to seek sponsorship for clothing, offering the rights to his photos in return, and found two sponsors within a day. 

“I wanted sponsors that had clothes that show that I was from the United States,” he explains, leaving for the Rio Summer Olympic Games in August 2016 with a friend in tow.

ICW Brent Folan with track and field athlete Allyson Felix
Brent Folan’s first picture with an athlete for the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympic Games in 2016, with track and field athlete Allyson Felix, who was on the same flight. (Photo courtesy of Brent Folan)

The next few days were a whirlwind for the then 25-year-old, dressed in an iconic onesie emblazoned with the US flag. 

At the opening ceremony, he met business tycoon Warren Buffett after sitting in his seat – 15 rows off the field, front row centre. Then on the same night, he added basketball stars Kevin Durant and Paul George to a quickly expanding list of sports greats. 

“I called my family [and said], ‘Guys, there’s no way I can top this night. I’ve literally peaked, and it’s night number one of the Olympics.’”

Things only got better. 

After attending a basketball game between Team USA and Team Australia, a journalist from the Wall Street Journal approached him for an interview after hearing his story. 

“The next day I’m at Michael Phelps’s 400 IM (Individual Medley) finals, and just before he’s supposed to start swimming, I got the phone call, do the interview, and then an hour later my phone’s blowing up because the Wall Street Journal has dubbed me the ‘Forrest Gump of Rio’,” he laughs.

His adventures at the Olympics eventually led to the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to create a Facebook Live series with InspireMore through a trip around the world. He spent the next few years travelling, during which he met and fell in love with his Australian partner Caitlin George. 

The pair had made plans to move to Australia in October 2019, but tragedy struck. First, a near-fatal car accident involving his younger brother in 2019, followed by his father’s suicide, later that year. 

In the wake of grief, Mr Folan found himself taking care of his family, eventually joining Ms George in Asia in January 2020, intending to heal by immersing himself in travelling.

“I was in Singapore for a couple months, and then I flew to Bangladesh, Nepal, to find a tiger in the wild,” he shares. “The plan was to go scuba diving for a few months in Bali, go to mainland Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, to Japan for the Tokyo Olympics… and then fly to Australia and start my year-long visa there.” 

The pandemic has put an indefinite halt to his plans. Mr Folan eventually boarded the last flight from Nepal to Singapore in March, last year, where he has remained since. 

TheHomeGround Asia caught up with him on a stroll around Gardens By The Bay, to find out more about his globetrotting experiences, thoughts on mental health, and plans for the future. 

[NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]

Brent Folan: 2016 was my ‘Year of Yes’. [If] someone invited me on a trip, I would go. The first trip of the ‘Year of Yes’ was to the Grand Canyon. A buddy called me on a Wednesday night… He [said he was] going to go to the Grand Canyon and hike it. I looked at flights, found a US$120 round trip, called him back [and said]. ‘Hey, pick me up at the airport on Friday. I’m going with you.’ 

Every month, I went on a different trip. Where the ‘Year of Yes’ really changed my life was, I said ‘yes’ three years before, to go to the Olympics. Little did I know a ‘Year of Yes’ was going to turn into a lifetime of yes, that would start a trip around the world. 

TheHomeGround Asia: Why did you decide to begin your journey as a traveller? Was it something you’ve wanted since you were young?

BF: I’ve always been fascinated with travelling. Nat Geo was always one of my favourite magazines to read growing up, just seeing photos of the world. 

But I never could figure out how I would do it. I got caught up in the corporate ladder. In the United States, you work right out of uni, and you’re working until you retire. And then you travel. Wow. Like, it’s when you’re that old. You know, [aged] 65 plus, you’re not going to be able to do the things you did when you were 20, 30, 40 years old. You have resources, but not the energy. And so it’s time and money. Those are the two things that you need to travel. 

With the selfies at the Olympics, when the opportunity for me to get paid to travel presented itself, I was 100 per cent in. The dream came true. Growing up, we did cruises. We did Mexico. But for me, it was my last year of uni, I went to the Galapagos Islands for spring break. Seeing penguins really got me thinking I need to see the world. Luckily, the selfies made that happen. It’s crazy.

ICW Brent Folan in onesie, Rio de Janeiro
Brent Folan in his iconic onesie, which caught the attention of Team USA at the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy of Brent Folan)

THG: What gave you the idea to take selfies with athletes?

BF: It was by mistake. My mum loves taking photos. She’s always been the photographer in the family. I’ve always loved documenting my life. I was thinking, what a fun way to share it on my social media. Who’s gonna believe that I actually met all these people, right? I could get an autograph, that’s cool. But how many thousands of people have autographs from all these people? For me, I can do a selfie. I could show my friends that I’ve actually met these people, and get an autograph afterwards. I never thought it would be hundreds of selfies. But that’s what it evolved into. It was kind of a joke because I didn’t think anybody would believe the luck I was having at the Olympics.

THG: Tell us a little bit more about your experience visiting the Olympic Village.

BF: My friend Sarah Scherer was on the rifle team. She was able to get me a pass to visit the Olympic Village for a day. What was really cool is I was a volunteer, so I had official credentials. The only thing different from mine and the athletes’ was one little letter. If you didn’t look close, you wouldn’t have been able to tell. I wore my credentials. So I just kind of put mine around, [and] was able to eat in the cafeteria with the athletes, had a cool behind-the-scenes tour that most visitors to the Olympic Village weren’t supposed to have. That’s where I got to meet the USA Women’s Gymnastics team. 

So we’re going to my friend’s room, [because] I wanted to see what the accommodations were like. When the elevator doors opened, five built girls came out. I was like. ‘Oh my gosh, no way, the final five.’ The [USA] Women’s Gymnastics team. Then five minutes later, in my friend’s room – her roommate was Virginia Thrasher, she won the first gold medal of the Games – I’m holding the first gold medal of [the] Rio [Olympic Games]. 

I never imagined being able to get access into the Olympic Village. And luckily, I met the right person years before when I was at university. And that connection, she really made my Olympic experience that much better. There was nothing I didn’t see at the Olympics. I was able to hit all the major events. It was all because of the power of selfies.

ICW Brent Folan with the USA Women's Gymnastics Team
Brent Folan with the USA Women’s Gymnastics team at the Rio Olympic Games, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Brent Folan)

THG: Tell us more about your most memorable celebrity encounter. 

BF: For the Olympics, it would be tied between Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Meeting Michael Phelps on Good Morning, America, that was just insane. Like, what a cool way to meet the face of the Games. Meeting Usain Bolt was on my own. That was a very, very, very difficult guy to meet. [I] had to avoid the Brazilian military twice. I met him the night of his last race, [he] was one of the last people that I met before he left the stadium. So that was cool. 

Outside of the Olympics, I got to meet Bradley Cooper on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange…[during] a business trip with my school. It was when Bradley Cooper was releasing one of his movies, and he was there, crowded by so many people. I was just gonna walk through and pretend I know him. So I walked through this massive crowd of people [and said], ‘Bradley, how’s it going, man? You want to get a photo?’ He was like, ‘yeah, absolutely.’

ICW Brent Folan with Michael Phelps at Good Morning America
Brent Folan with celebrated Olympian Michael Phelps, who photobombed him during a segment on Good Morning America, a morning television programme. (Photo courtesy of Brent Folan)

THG: What do you miss the most when you’re travelling? 

BF: [At] the speed that I was travelling, I didn’t really have time to miss anything. Every three to five days, I was moving to a new country, I was moving to a new city. It was pretty much nonstop. When you’re going that fast, and you’re meeting so many people every single day, your senses are on overload because it’s always new food, new sights, new smells. 

It’s not until you stop during a pandemic [that] you realise ‘wow, I really do miss my family.’ I love my mum and brother so much. The one thing that would make my travels perfect, was if they could have been with me the whole time. So I’d say they are the ones that I miss. It’s the family and the friends you make. You’ve got three to five days sometimes with these people, [and] you become closer with them than some of your lifelong friends. You say ‘goodbye’, you say ‘see you later’, and you never know where you’re gonna see them again. So that’s tough too.

ICW brent Folan at the Marina Barrage, Singapore
Brent Folan spends an afternoon with TheHomeGround Asia at the Marina Barrage in Singapore.

THG: What are some of your favourite countries to visit?

BF: I’ll give you my top five. Number one would be Brazil. Rio is my favourite city in the world. But I’ve been to Brazil three times now. That country just has so much to offer, some of the best sights on the best beaches. What’s cool about that country is you’ve got the beaches right next to the mountains. You can hike and surf [on] the same day. 

Number two would be South Africa, Cape Town. What’s cool about South Africa is the mountains, the beaches, but then you get the wildlife. And that’s what’s really special. 

Number three would be Lebanon, I had the best food in the world, in my opinion. You got the features, you got the mountain. So that’s a nice little setup for a tiny little country. 

Number four would be Myanmar. I think it’s very cool. It’s a hidden gem of Southeast Asia. I wish they weren’t making such bad headlines right now. But it’s a beautiful country when everything’s good.

Tied for fifth would be Australia and Guatemala. Guatemala is one of the best volcano experiences ever. You’re in Antigua, you hike all day, you get to the summit of Acatenango volcano, and then just across the way is this volcano (Volcan de Fuego) that erupts every 15 minutes. Australia speaks for itself. I’ve been there a couple times now, and Sydney is one of my favourite cities as well. But then going to Uluru, seeing the red Outback, seeing the wildlife there, there’s so many animals there that can kill you. That makes it exciting. 

ICW Brent Folan with penguins in Africa
Brent Folan with penguins in Africa. (Photo courtesy of Brent Folan)

THG: What were some of the most bizarre things you’ve eaten? 

BF: I really did like balut (a fertilised duck egg that is boiled). It tastes like a hard-boiled egg, but the crunch of the bones… that was weird. Another thing is batod, it’s a small grub in Borneo. I ate mine live, it was wiggling on my plate. You just bite the head off and it’s filled with this milky cream that’s thick. I didn’t mind it; it’s not something I’m going to go out of my way to do. I had horse meat, steak tartare when I was in France. 

THG: What were some of the most dangerous moments you’ve had?

BF: One would be when I was in Nepal, just before lockdown. We were trekking for tigers. What’s cool about Bardiya National Park is you’re trekking on foot, not in a jeep. So you’re with the wildlife, hiking through this park trying to find tigers. 

We’d found a tiger the day before. There was fresh tiger poo. We could hear the tiger, but it’s quite a dense forest, so you can’t really see too far. My guide was freaking out because there was a tiger that could jump out to get us. 

Less than an hour later we stopped for lunch. We’re eating at the river, and this massive wild female elephant, which is quite rare for Nepal, came out of the forest and [it was] just sort of looking at us. The elephant scared my guy more than the tiger, [because] they’ll trample you dead, it’s pretty crazy. I was at peace with it, I really didn’t mind it. And then no joke, an hour after that, we’re trekking, my guide stops, his foot goes down, something shoots out. A king cobra. So it’s like [so many close shaves] within three hours. 

THG: Would you describe yourself as a nomad? What are some misconceptions people have about that label, and what does the term mean to you?

BF: I would say ‘yes’. Even though this past year, I’ve been in one location. When you’re moving that quick… I mastered living out of a backpack, one bag [for clothing] and one bag [for equipment]. 

So a massive misconception is if you’re going to travel the world for years it’s going to be crazy expensive. It doesn’t have to be as expensive as everyone thinks. If you did one year around the world, to 45 countries on six continents… I only spent 25k that year. The next year included the World Cup, even more countries – I think 41 countries –  but I only spent 15k that year. 

And I did not rough it. I used couchsurfing, which is a cool way to meet locals. There’s ways to make it cheaper, to make the trip go longer. You do not have to be a millionaire to travel nonstop for an extended period of time. 

Brent Folan with a lion in Antelope Park
Brent Folan with a lion at Antelope Park, Africa, which is dedicated to the conservation of the African lion. (Photo courtesy of Brent Folan)

THG: What are some challenges that you face from constantly being on the move?

BF: Making sure you have the right currency. Some countries don’t accept cards, but luckily credit cards make that easy. 

Something else you’d run into is not speaking the same language. That shouldn’t prevent you from travelling; Google Translate works very well, there’s ways to communicate without just language. 

I think that’s a challenge that I love. Getting into a country, having to figure it out, and being able to make friends with people, even though we don’t speak the same language. I absolutely loved that. 

THG: How have your experiences with travelling changed the way you look at human connection?

BF: What’s really cool is everyone has a story to tell. And you can’t learn enough stories. I’ve learned there’s no right way to live life; you just have to do what makes you happy. The more stories you hear, the more global you become, and it reaffirms or changes the way you think about certain things. 

THG: How does it feel to be in Singapore for the past year? What do you do when the travel bug bites?

BF: It’s very ironic that I got stuck in the 20th smallest country after [visiting] 103. For a tiny red dot, it’s been so nice seeing everything that this country has to offer. I’ve been spending a lot of time in nature. I think the national park system here is wonderful and I never imagined so many species of animals living among us. It’s been really fun. I could not have asked for a better place to be stuck in during the pandemic, I’m very grateful that I was in Singapore.

THG: What do you do for a living now since travel for leisure is practically impossible?

BF: I now work for a tech company here in Singapore. I was [blogging] full time, so my first year was sponsored, and then I worked quite hard. I started a couple of businesses in uni, and I was a finance major, so I invested a ton of the money that I made. The next few years, I was just travelling, I was able to live off of my investments. I still am, but now I’m doing contract work for a company based in Singapore. That’s a tech startup. Because I’ve been stuck in an area, [since] the world’s closed. It’s been fun, different, going back to the workforce. It’s been nice, but I’m hoping to get back to travelling very soon. 

THG: Besides your passion for travel, what inspired your activism in the mental health space?

BF: My father’s suicide. I think mental health has always been a big thing. But living through a suicide, it becomes an important part of your life because then you have more empathy for the people who, who have been through it and unfortunately, the people who are going to go through it as well. Living through that horrendous night made me realise just how important mental health is.

THG: What are some of the lessons that you learned from grieving and healing?

BF: It’s okay to not be okay. When you live through a horrible experience like that, you are going to have rough days. You don’t have to be 100 per cent all the time. You’re going to have good days, bad days. And you’ve got to embrace what comes with each day.

It’s very important to just seek help, have someone that you can trust to talk through it. Friends and family are great, but there are trained professionals who will help you.

Brent Folan at Fitz Roy
Brent Folan in Monte Fitz Roy, a mountain in Patagonia, Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Brent Folan)

THG: How have you and your family furthered mental health awareness since 2019?

BF: We started a fund to help families who have been affected by suicide as well. We haven’t been able to do as much as we’d want to, just because of the pandemic. I’m hoping as time goes on, we’ll still [be] able to make a big difference. The pandemic really threw a wrench in the plans.

The biggest thing that I did was I shared the entire story. My goal was to save at least one life. Prevent one person from doing that to their family. People from around the world reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I was contemplating suicide, but because you’re able to show me what happens on the aftermath, I will never put my family through it.’ It was amazing, the difference just sharing our story made.

THG: What gave you the strength to keep on going in those dark times?

BF: Just the love of my friends and family. Knowing that there’s still so much life that I want to live, things that I want to keep doing. 

It wasn’t until about the day after [I found] my father [that] it hit me: He’s never gonna see me get married. He’s never gonna be a grandfather. There’s so many major milestones that came into my head that [he will miss]. One decision he made changed everything. And yeah, I think that that’s something else that kind of changed me as a person. To get through those dark times, you have to have that solid friends and family group. If you don’t, talk to a stranger. There’s gonna be people that will listen to you. No matter how alone you feel, you’re never truly alone.

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