Not only did we have the best weather and some of the most scenic and enjoyable routes we’ve ever had for the Memorial Challenge, we kicked off the ride at the Vice President’s Residence at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. At the VPR, we were honored to meet Vice President and Mrs. Pence and VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, as they officially launched the ride.
The Vice President spoke to us, and his gracious remarks of support and encouragement for Project Hero and our participants were complemented by a prayer by Mrs. Pence. We presented signed Project Hero jerseys to the Vice President and Secretary Shulkin, and our Women’s Initiative participants, including multiple Gold medal-winner and Project Hero rider Shawn Morelli, presented Mrs. Pence with a signed Women’s Initiative jersey.
Hundreds of media outlets nationwide carried the story, and the appearance along with the Vice President’s remarks generated tremendous positive publicity for our organization and sponsors.
We left Washington and rode under sunny skies through beautiful Virginia countryside escorted by an impressive cadre of motorcycle police from Prince William County. We rode along the scenic Prince William Parkway into Manassas, where we were welcomed by Marc Aveni, the vice mayor of Manassas, and Congresswoman Barbara Comstock.
Steve Gray, one of our first-time riders in the 2017 Memorial Challenge, is retired from military service with the Coast Guard and his Memorial Challenge story epitomizes what our organization is all about.
A resident of the Kansas City, Missouri, area, Steve suffered spinal injuries during his service and uses cycling as part of his physical therapy. Steve is a substitute teacher who lost his son Zachary to a heroin overdose in 2015, so he rides with Zachary’s photo on his bike to honor his son. He trained for this Challenge and felt great at the end of his first day. “It was hard in some places, but Ray Clark and Jayme Brown helped me a lot. I just want to get better as a cyclist and am determined to finish this ride,” he said. Steve not only finished the ride but was named Most Inspirational Rider as a result of his outstanding and courageous efforts during the Memorial Challenge.
The ride from Manassas to Fredericksburg was rich in Civil War history and began with a visit to the battlefield of Manassas I and II, site of the first major victories by the Confederacy in the War. At Manassas, the silent statues and green fields were bathed in fog, providing a dramatic and appropriate setting for our visit to a place where so many made the ultimate sacrifice.
Each day seemed to improve over the previous one as we then enjoyed a fabulous day of riding through the beautiful tree-lined country roads of the Old Dominion State on our 62-mile ride to Richmond. Along the way, we were cheered by schoolchildren, law enforcement and local residents waving flags and cheering on the riders.
The fourth day of the Challenge showcased some of the unique experiences for which our program is known. Leaving early under sunny skies, we headed to the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, the home of one of our flagship HUB programs where hundreds of Veterans have achieved the hope, recovery and resilience that is our hallmark.
VA employees waving flags and signs cheered our arrival as we rode under a huge American flag onto the campus.
Herbert Jones, a local resident and member of the McGuire VA program who served three decades in the Army including two tours of Iraq, took part in his first Challenge Series with us this year.
Despite only getting his first road bike from Project Hero in April and only training for a month, Herb did a great job as part of the peloton this year. “My goal is to ride and finish the entire Memorial Challenge next year. So for next year’s Challenge I’m going to train better and train differently. I’m a big guy and am going to lose some weight too, so when I get skinny I’m going to look like John Wordin,” he said.
We enjoyed another beautiful day under sunny blue skies as we finally reached Virginia Beach. The ride through the countryside of Virginia is one of the most popular rides of the year for good reason – it was a simply fabulous way to reach our final destination, which was capped off by taking part in the Patriotic Festival on the beach in Virginia Beach.
After overcoming the annual challenge of transferring our bikes and riders from Hampton Roads to Norfork we rode to the Geico Headquarters where we were met by John Pham, the Regional Vice President, and a host of employees waving signs and flags and cheering for us as we rode in. Our good friends from the USO were also there to add to the festivities.
We were also met at Geico by Claus Hjort Frederiksen, the Danish Minister of Defense, and Lars Gert Lose, Danish Ambassador to the United States, who were there both in support of Project Hero and their countryman Jens Sondergaard, who rode with us throughout the Memorial Challenge and is a member of the Danish Army Joint Defense Staff.
A resident of Viborg, Denmark, Jens is an expert wheelchair basketball player and hand cyclist who heard about Project Hero while taking part in Warrior Week and Invictus Games. An avid cyclist, he rides three to four times a week and has enjoyed this year’s Memorial Challenge.
“It’s been perfect,” he said. “It’s like one big family and I thank everyone for treating me so well and making me feel so welcome, especially Mike Arroyo and Pat Ryan. I can see Project Hero is helping many Veterans get better and pushing them to lead better lives.”
Jens is determined to achieve that goal in the near future. “I want to come back to complete the Century,” he said. Jens will compete in wheelchair basketball and recumbent cycling at the upcoming Invictus Games in Canada so plans to return to ride with Project Hero next year.
Our final day of the 2017 UnitedHealthcare Memorial Challenge presented by Boeing completed one of the most enjoyable Challenge experiences. We enjoyed with a 32-mile ride under sunny skies with an ocean breeze through Virginia Beach including Fort Story. We were honored to be joined on the ride by Lars Gert Lose, the Danish Ambassador to the United States.
A Memorial Challenge so memorable deserved a noteworthy conclusion, which took place as we attended a great live concert and party celebration on the beach that night. The event included a meeting with Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (following his skydiving entrance) and a heartwarming presentation by John Wordin on behalf of Project Hero of new shiny blue cycling shoes to Herb Jones.
The Challenge also gave Project Hero a second opportunity to use the innovative HEROTrak PTSD monitoring device. Continuing Project Hero’s partnership with Texas A&M, the HEROTrak used in this Challenge incorporated numerous improvements suggested by riders who wore the device during the Texas Challenge.
The HEROTrak was worn by more than 50 riders during the Challenge, and the data is being collated and analyzed by Texas A&M with results to be provided to Project Hero next month. Project Hero thanks the riders who participated in our second HEROTrak study, and we look forward to their support at the Great Lakes Challenge in August.
The 2017 UnitedHealthcare Memorial Challenge presented by Boeing was a success due also to the dedicated and patriotic American Legion riders who helped keep us safe on the roads every day and the numerous police and sheriff from throughout Virginia who escorted us through towns big and small.
One of our riders of whom we are most proud, Shawn Morelli, joined us for the 2017 UnitedHealthcare Memorial Challenge presented by Boeing. Shawn is a rider whose story, personal character and dedication to cycling epitomizes what a powerful force Project Hero can be in the lives of Veterans with injury and PTSD.
When asked how she felt returning after a brief absence to Project Hero, Shawn said, “It’s my first ride of the year and I just love the feeling you get when you ride with this group. This lets me return to be among friends who are dealing with the same things as me and who really care. Being here, it just feels like home.”
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