O'Malley Recovers From Life-threatening Injuries, Finishes ROAR

Alumnus hospitalized by life-threatening injuries while raising money for The Ryan T. O’Malley ’99 Memorial Scholarship in 2,665-mile cycling race miraculously recovers and crosses finish line.
John O’Malley ’87, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Retired, enjoys a moment of triumph at the U.S.-Mexico border at Antelope Wells, New Mexico, Oct. 8.
John O’Malley ’87, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Retired, enjoys a moment of triumph at the U.S.-Mexico border at Antelope Wells, New Mexico, Oct. 8.

When John O’Malley ’87 embarked upon The Tour Divide in support of The Ryan T. O’Malley ’99 Memorial Scholarship June 10, he figured it would take him about a month or so to traverse the race’s grueling 2,665.7-mile route from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S.-Mexico border in New Mexico; that was before, of course, a life-threatening accident about 125 miles from the race’s finish line landed the retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel in an intensive care/trauma unit July 15.

Just 84 days later, on what would have been his brother Ryan’s 45th birthday, O’Malley returned to the scene of the accident determined to finish the race’s final 125 miles.

What happened in-between, of course, might be called a miracle.

“John truly is an iron man,” said Helene O’Malley, John’s mother. “The blessed Mother and Ryan were looking down on him.”

“John is a world-class athlete who completed a world-class endurance cycling event with a world-class effort and … some other-worldly help,” said John “Jack” O’Malley, Ph.D. ’64, professor of psychology emeritus at the University and John’s father. “God is good.”

A Lifelong Love

John’s love of cycling and adventure began when he was growing up in the Green Ridge section of Scranton.

“Bikes were a big deal back then, and if you had one, you were a lucky kid,” he said. “ For me, the bike became an instrument of exploration, discovery and freedom.”

As the oldest child of Dr. O’Malley and Helene, John shared his love of cycling with his five siblings, especially Ryan, his youngest brother.

“As a kid, time and distance had little meaning,” he said of the hours they spent exploring the NEPA area together. “We’d just ride, inspired by the adventure and the natural beauty of the region.”

Upon graduating from the University, John began his military career in Ft. Carson, Colorado, where he started racing mountain bikes. Since then, he has continued to ride and race, competing in triathlons and adventure races throughout the country.


After Ryan's passing in 2011, his family established The Ryan T. O’Malley ’99 Memorial Scholarship in his memory to enable Computer Science students of limited resources with an interest in fitness to attend The University of Scranton. Since that time, Ryan's family and friends have raised more than $150,000 for the scholarship, much of it through ROAR: The Ryan O'Malley Annual Race, a 5K fundraising event the family organized from 2013-2017.

When John and his family settled in Monument, Colorado, he became so inspired by the expanses and terrain he saw while on two wheels that he proposed the idea of funding Ryan’s scholarship through an annual bike ride. In 2018, John embarked upon the inaugural ROAR: The Ryan O’Malley Annual Ride by cycling the 500+ miles of The Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango in Ryan’s memory. While John rode The Colorado Trail again for ROAR in 2019 and 2020, he was sidelined by injuries and knee surgery in 2021.

The Tour Divide

On June 10, John embarked upon ROAR: The Ryan O’Malley Annual Ride for the fourth time by participating in The Tour Divide in support of The Ryan T. O’Malley ’99 Memorial Scholarship.The Tour Divide follows the “Great Divide Mountain Bike Route,” a 90 percent off-road trail that follows the Continental Divide through Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. Established by the Adventure Cycling Association in 1998, it is considered the most important off-pavement cycling route in the world. Prior to beginning The Tour Divide, John said he was looking forward to riding for “family, community and the well-being of others.”

“I ride to remember and honor our brother, Ryan,” he said. “I ride to give back in some way to the community who nurtured us. Through the ROAR and Ryan’s scholarship, we help to provide students with limited financial resources the opportunity to attend The University of Scranton.”

The Tour Divide’s race clock runs 24 hours a day, and the self-supported riders aren’t allowed any outside help other than the ability to access public facilities along the way. Participating cyclists must carry their camping equipment, food and water through long stretches of remote mountain wilderness, pristine river valleys, open grassland and desert while risking injury, mechanical failure, treacherous weather and encounters with potentially dangerous wildlife.

They also, apparently, need to watch out for dangerous human life.

The Accident

After riding for more than a month in the Tour Divide, John was involved in an accident in the early morning hours of July 15 near Silver City, New Mexico, about a two-day ride from the race’s finish line.

“I was struck by an apparent hit-and-run driver on Hwy 180,” he said. “Although there were no witnesses to the incident, and I remember nothing of the accident, being intubated on-site, nor the Medivac flight, the nature and extent of injuries to both sides of my body, and damage to my bicycle, helmet and other gear verify that this is what happened.

“Hospital staff came to the same conclusion as well, based on my overall condition.”

John was found by two motorists sometime after the accident who alerted the police, and he was airlifted to an intensive care/trauma unit in El Paso, Texas.

“I sustained a traumatic brain injury with a skull fracture and a few subdural hematomas/ subarachnoid hemorrhages,” he said. “A complement of body bruises and cuts, a broken nose, broken molars and some torn cartilage/ligaments (knee and shoulder) complete the ‘needs repair’ list.”

After a 12-day stint in El Paso, where John was joined by his wife, Kathi, his mother-in-law, Karen, and his sister, Julianne Phillipp, M.D. ’91, a Virginia-based pediatrician, he was transferred to a rehab center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he received occupational and cognitive therapy for an additional four days. Since then, he has continued outpatient care with a team of doctors and therapists in Ft. Carson, Colorado, and his recovery has been nothing short of miraculous.

“A CT scan about three weeks ago showed everything was healed up,” John said. “I owe much of my recovery thus far to believing wholeheartedly that I will heal and become stronger … most of this belief comes from the love and support of my family.

“I can also say that being an athlete and a soldier has contributed directly to where I am right now. Coordination, reaction, balance, strength and agility have been developed through training/drills my entire life and helped me immensely during initial evaluation and therapy.”

Crossing The Finish Line

John and Kathi returned to the scene of the accident to finish what he began in June Oct. 7. Although he was quickly greeted by heavy rainfall that transformed the terrain from a navigable dirt path to a thick “peanut butter mud,” he traveled about 80 miles in approximately 10 hours of cycling, leaving him with just 45 miles to go to his goal.

On Oct. 8, John finally crossed the finish line of The Tour Divide 120 days after embarking upon it.

“The Tour Divide is truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that stays with you and changes you for the good,” he said. “There is no easy way out there and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

All things considered, John remains grateful for the experience, especially for the more than $12,000 his efforts raised for Scranton students.

“The greatest / proudest part of the ride was what we raised for Ryan’s scholarship fund,” he said. “To all who pledged – thank you.

“Your kindness fueled me daily out there and will help young men and women receive a great college education.”

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