By John Hewko, Rotary International General Secretary
On 18 November, over 18,000 wheels will be gliding through the Sonora Desert. Those wheels will be propelled by 9,000 cyclists participating in the annual Tour de Tucson. Many ride for fun; many ride for the challenge of completing the long course of 106 miles; and many ride to raise money for humanitarian causes. Close to a hundred of those riders are fortunate enough to ride for nothing less than one of the greatest public health achievements in our time.
I count myself among those lucky few, as I will be riding to fundraise for Rotary’s flagship cause of polio eradication, pursued by Rotary members and their friends for more than thirty years. This year’s Tour de Tucson ride is another opportunity to bring us closer to the goal of a polio-free world.
So I will be taking on the challenge of the Tucson course with two wheels, almost 100 Rotarian riders and staff teammates from Tucson and around the world, and 1.2 million Rotary members in support. I’ll also be doing it with one new hip, which adds another challenge as I attempt the completion of my 6th consecutive Tour.
It all started five years ago, when I was attending Rotary’s annual Convention, hosted that year by Thailand. I was sharing a water taxi with Rotary club members from Tucson. I was already an avid cyclist, so the talk turned to cycling, and soon enough my companions told me about El Tour de Tucson. Our clubs in Southern Arizona already participated in the ride to raise money for polio eradication, so I immediately wanted to join them and see if we could maximize the fundraising potential.
This year’s goal is to raise $3.4 million, which will be tripled by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a total of more than $10 million. If we reach our goal this year, Rotary riders will have raised a total of $46 million for polio at El Tour over the last six years.
In previous years, I rode for time, setting myself a goal of less than five hours for the entire course, which I achieved in the 2015 El Tour. This year, with a new hip, keeping under the five-hour mark may be a bridge too far, but I won’t be short on motivation. Others who have put their weight behind our cause have completed events far more arduous. Minda Dentler, one of our Rotary polio ambassadors, and herself a polio survivor, was the first female wheelchair athlete to successfully complete the Ironman Triathlon (which involves swimming 2.4 miles, hand cycling 112 miles, and pushing a racing wheelchair for 26.2 miles).
In fact, it’s the remarkable stories of perseverance against polio that have pushed me through the tough post-surgery rehab sessions and long training rides. On the stationary bike I used for my initial training, the story of polio eradication was on my mind. It is one of great perseverance against the odds, in defiance of the prevailing logic which said it couldn’t be done. Look at India: the rules of public and even expert opinion dictated that a country of India’s size, population, and sanitation challenges could never become polio-free. Yet India has been free of polio since 2014, thanks to a monumental effort by Rotary members and our partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
When I was able to progress from the gym to my road bike for some outdoor cycling, the dedication and ingenuity of Rotary members kept me focused on the goal of all the miles I was slowly accumulating under my belt. Their dedication has taken many forms.
Our members have bridged cultures to reach every community with the polio vaccine. They have used all their powers of persuasion to convince fearful parents that the vaccine is safe for their child. They have engaged community and religious leaders to enlist their support. They have participated in national immunization days on a huge scale. For example, in Pakistan, around 40 million children under five are targeted by 250,000 vaccinators, and 2,208 social mobilizers.
Rotary members have also shown great creativity in spreading awareness about the cause. They have illuminated iconic structures across the world, from the United Kingdom’s Houses of Parliament to the pyramids of Egypt with the End Polio Now logo. Our members created the world’s biggest commercial when 100,000 people from 171 countries posted selfies in support of End Polio Now. They also created the world’s largest human national flag, composed of 50,000 people, in Chennai, India.
When I finally ride in Tucson, I will probably tire in the latter stages of the course, as it will be my first long-distance race since my unplanned-for hip replacement surgery. At that point, when my legs feel heavy and I hit a wall, I will keep in mind that finishing the course with my teammates will symbolize Rotary’s determination to finish what we started over thirty years ago, and eradicate a human disease for only the second time in history. That should carry me over the finish line.
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Written for and originally appeared in Tail Winds.