Although smaller in scope, the 2018 UnitedHealthcare Memorial Challenge delivers healing, community-building and truly memorable experiences.
This year’s UnitedHealthcare Memorial Challenge was highlighted by the return of a favorite member of the Project Hero family, the participation of many inspirational riders and the Danish military and unique experiences for which Project Hero Challenges are renowned.
Our first day featured an idyllic 52-mile loop through the Virginia countryside including a visit to Ashland, where our good friends from Boddie-Noell and Hardee’s hosted a tasty lunch at the Ashland Cultural Center. The Center is a stately former Civil War hospital in the charming small town, where friendly townspeople waved flags, rang cowbells and cheered us as we arrived. We completed the ride by returning to our hotel and ending the day with dinner and a movie, giving the riders a chance to relax and socialize before the next day’s trek.
This year’s Memorial Challenge featured the return of a beloved member of the Project Hero family, Sandy Hahn. An avid cyclist who has taken part in 49 Challenges and rides more than 3,000 miles a year, Sandy recently had spinal surgery, so was not yet able to ride with us during this Challenge. She has been married to Dave, one of Project Hero’s most superlative volunteers, for 53 years and was with us as a volunteer.
Riding with Project Hero has helped her put her surgery and recovery into perspective. “I look at Project Hero and the riders and realize we all have some challenges,” she said. “They have inspired me in the past and now they are even more inspiring to me. I feel privileged to take part in this and I am blessed to be here.”
Sandy was unable to get on a traditional frame bike so got a recumbent from Project Hero and within 10 days of getting the bike, logged more than 100 miles. “I don’t like it,” she said about her new ride. “It doesn’t go fast enough!”
Sandy is looking forward to getting back on a traditional frame bike and riding with Project Hero again. “I hope I can inspire them as much as they inspire me,” she said. “This is such a great family. I’ve been taught empathy and am getting a lot of that in return.”
The Danish military also joined us at the Memorial Challenge. Led by our good friend, longtime supporter and championship rider Jens Sondergaard, a superlative host of Danish riders came with him including his 14-year-old son Jesper, who worked with us as a volunteer and rode with us on the second day.
“We feel good,” Jens said before the start of the ride. “I can tell the riders are a little nervous and excited. We thank everyone for making us feel welcome. Project Hero is helping many veterans to lead better lives.” After the first day, Jens finished strong but was a little winded. “Yes, I’m tired,” Jens said. “But we’re ready for tomorrow!” (Jesper couldn’t resist. “I would have done better!” he exclaimed.)
The second day of the Memorial Challenge featured a challenging 92-mile journey from Glen Allen to Williamsburg, a unique experience in Richmond and several favorite annual stops when we are in Virginia.
Our day began with an unforgettable lap around the track at the Richmond Speedway where we took a group photo at the start/finish line! We then rode to the Richmond VAMC, home of one of Project Hero’s most successful programs, and then to Cintas for lunch, where the wonderful employees lined the road, waving flags and cheering. We finished with a visit to the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Williamsburg, where we enjoyed more Southern hospitality, and capped the day off at the annual bar-b-que dinner hosted by the Knights of Columbus, always a highlight of our Memorial Challenges.
Project Hero is always happy to welcome new riders, and Angel Cuellar was a first-time rider with us at the Memorial Challenge.
Angel is stationed at Ft. Lee in Virginia and began cycling in 2014 after an injury caused her to stop running marathons and Ironman competitions. She was introduced to Project Hero by Omar Duran and it did not take long for Angel to feel part of the Project Hero family.
“This has been an amazing week!” she said. “Everyone has taken me in from day one and Nikki Hunter has been a great roommate. She immediately took me under her wing and it’s been very welcoming.”
Angel is married to an active duty Marine, who is looking after her three children while she rode the Challenge. “In less than 48 hours with this group, it already feels like a family to me,” she said. “So much great conversation with all the riders makes the miles go by fast, and I love watching the low riders and pushers working together. All the camaraderie is really special.”
The third day of the UnitedHealthcare Memorial Challenge featured a 52-mile trek from Williamsburg to Ft. Lee that once again showcased the great experiences we have on Project Hero Challenges and the riders who inspire us.
One of the most inspirational returning riders at this year’s Challenge was Carlos Rodriguez. A resident of Hampton, Virginia, Carlos served our nation as a Marine from 1985-1993 and was injured during deployment as part of the Gulf War. He has undergone 19 surgeries and has his 20th and 21st coming up this September.
Carlos’ injuries have not stopped him from riding and from setting a wonderful example for everyone in the Project Hero family. “My doctors told me that physical activity is key to recovery mentally and physically,” he said. “I’m here, and I’m riding!”
Despite his injuries and all the surgeries, Carlos remains positive, especially about the role Project Hero has played in his life. “I have gone from 10 psych meds every day to two. You realize we have the ability to do more, to recover and even expect the unexpected and to appreciate where we’re at. For me, Project Hero has been a lifesaver, literally.”
Our final day of the Challenge began with a visit to the Liberty Lounge (opened early just for Project Hero) on historic Duke of Gloucester Street, where we were welcomed with remarks by Williamsburg Mayor Paul Freiling and historic figure Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg from the Continental Army of the Revolutionary War.
We left Williamsburg and rode to Ft. Lee, where we ended the Challenge in style at DeCA, the Defense Commissary Agency. Michael Dowling, the COO of DeCA, and Colonel Michael Townsend from Ft. Lee hosted a tasty lunch and we were joined by our good friend and longtime supporter Bill Curry from Pepsi, bringing an excellent conclusion to three great days of riding and community.
Our thanks go to our enthusiastic volunteers, outstanding supporting sponsors and all our riders for making the 2018 Memorial Challenge such a success.
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