Thursday, September 11, 2008
One man can still make a difference
By Jim Caple
Lance Armstrong returned to the world of competitive cycling this week to national headlines. Dave Sylvester, meanwhile, will ride quietly into New York City on Thursday to complete a cross-country trip and honor a friend killed on 9/11.
I've written about Sylvester before, describing his bicycle trips across North America and the length of Africa. And he's written for this site as well, relating his ride across the breadth of China. Pardon me for writing about him again. I'm sorry, but the guy is just inspiring. And in a world where so much attention is normally devoted to millionaire athletes who do nothing but pad their own wallets, athletes like Sylvester deserves the occasional spotlight.
With three continental rides under his belt already, Sylvester set his mind on something different this time. He not only would ride from San Diego to New York, he would perform public service at each stop along the way. And so he spent exhausting hours pedaling from town to town and state to state as well as satisfying days and nights volunteering at centers for the blind, hospices for the dying, shelters for battered women and at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He saw the worst of humanity -- abused women telling him horror stories from their lives -- and the best. A woman in Roanoke paid for his hotel. Someone else give him 45 cents, saying it was all she had. An 89-year-old woman in a center demanded that he place a photo of him and another rider on her mantle before they rode off. "She's 89 years old and we made the cut of being suitable for framing," he says. "How cool is that?"
How cool is that? Sylvester rode across the Galveston causeway with a police escort while someone ran behind shouting, "One man can change the world! One man can change the world!"
He touched people and they touched him back. He counted people from five different faiths who said they were praying for him. "There was a guy in the hospice who says we added a week to his life," Sylvester says. "And then he dies four days later and I cried like I knew him all my life. And I only spent a day with him."
Sometimes a day is all you need.
Sylvester called me one afternoon in midsummer from Gila Bend, Ariz. -- is there any place that sounds hotter than Gila Bend, Arizona? -- to tell me that it was 114 degrees and his bike tires had punctured half a dozen times. But the worst moment was probably the day a trucker fired a pistol from his window just as he passed Sylvester. This was on an otherwise deserted road, and though Sylvester was unharmed, he had no idea whether the trucker would return. Imagine how frightening that must have been. But the great thing is that another man contacted him that same day just to see how he was doing. When they met up, it turned out the man was a huge John McCain supporter.
"He's got McCain stickers all over his car and I've got Obama stickers all over my bike," Sylvester says happily. "We shouldn't get along but there we were, just sitting there talking and sharing."
All these rides started because Sylvester was looking for a way to honor his friend, Kevin Bowser, who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. When Sylvester mentioned him this week, I could hear his voice cracking again. It's been seven years and he still is recovering from what was lost that day.
Sylvester doesn't know how many miles he rode this summer and he doesn't care. The miles don't matter. The people do.
"I'll never know what it's like to win the Super Bowl," he says. "I'll never know what it's like to win a gold medal. But those people will never know this feeling."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.