Fifth Dolphins Cycling Challenge Turns Miles into Dollars for Cancer Research at Sylvester

A simple kiss said it all.

On a sunny Sunday morning, the second day of the fifth annual Dolphins Cycling Challenge to benefit the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Bonnie Crook gave her husband, Bob, a kiss for good luck as he and a group of cancer survivors and supporters were about to set off on the DCC’s inaugural 5K Run/Walk from the starting line at Sun Life Stadium.

Just 15 months earlier, Bonnie had been told to kiss Bob goodbye. A Miami oncologist had diagnosed Bob with stage 4 renal cancer and told him there was nothing to be done. Friends insisted the couple seek a second opinion at Sylvester, where the initial diagnosis was confirmed — but the prognosis they were given was very different.

“What the doctors at Sylvester told us was exactly the opposite of what we had been told before,” said Bonnie, her eyes tearing up as she spoke. “The surgeon said, ‘I can help your husband. I do this type of procedure all the time.’”

Today, thanks to the doctors at Sylvester who treated him, Bob Crook is cancer-free. When he crossed the finish line with their son, Justin, by his side, it was a moment of triumph that earned him a congratulatory second kiss from his wife.

“Without Sylvester, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said. It was a statement heard often throughout the weekend.

“Those are the most important words for us to hear,” said Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., the cancer center’s director. “Our doctors are specialists in the individual types of cancer they treat, and they are working tirelessly to develop new surgical procedures, new radiation oncology approaches and other treatment modalities that are at the cutting edge of cancer research. We are also striving to provide this cutting edge care in the most convenient and comforting way. That’s why the money raised by the Dolphins Cycling Challenge is so important to us. There are great advances on the horizon, and our cure rates are improving every year. Steadily, we’re turning the tide against certain cancers.”

As part of Team Sylvester, Nimer had just finished riding 176 miles over the two days, personally raising nearly $100,000 for cancer research.

The Dolphin Cycling Challenge began in 2010 and has grown steadily every year. It has drawn thousands of participants — 2,800 cyclists, runners and walkers this time around, supported by 700 volunteers — and significant corporate sponsorships, because every penny raised goes to fund cancer research. Everybody has been touched by cancer, directly or indirectly, so there was also a strong emotional component to the event-filled weekend.

The cycling events took place over two days, with six individual routes — three each day — ranging from 12 miles to 104 miles. The longest ride (176 miles) was comprised of Saturday’s Hurricane Hundred (actually 104) and Sunday’s Perfect Season Ride (72). The routes took riders through 27 municipalities in three counties, with 450 state troopers and police officers providing protective traffic control. The finish line, however, was back at Sun Life Stadium, where cheering crowds, music, food and drink, massages — and first aid when needed for a little road rash — awaited riders, runners and walkers alike.

All of the effort — both organizational and physical — has produced a big payoff for Sylvester, with nearly $10 million raised since the inaugural ride. Almost $3.5 million has been raised this year, and fund-raising will continue through February 28 at, toward a target of a record $5 million.

“It’s inspiring to ride with family, friends and colleagues,” said W. Jarrard Goodwin, M.D., Sylvester’s Chief Medical Officer, a five-time, 176-mile rider whose daughter, brother-in-law and sister-in-law had all come down from Maine to join him. “We had a great Sylvester team this year.”

“This is a very special event for the entire community,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs, Dean of the Miller School of Medicine and CEO of UHealth, another 176-miler who rides across the finish line each year with Stuart Miller, Chair of the UM Board of Trustees. “It’s an opportunity for people to come together with a shared commitment to fight cancer.”

Some participants rode in memory of family members or friends who had lost their battle with cancer, in the hope that the money they raised would save lives and spare others the same loss.

CC Schieffelin, a UM sophomore whose mother died last April, had ridden once before, but her loss gave her a new energy. The dual major in finance and management showed her aptitude for both subjects by putting together a 50-person team that included UM students, friends and family members, some of whom came from as far away as California and Massachusetts. In all, 33 from the team rode the 26-mile 1st & 25 course on Sunday — Schieffelin crossed the finish line with her dad, Steve — and raised $128,000.

“I just hope the money we raised can help save someone else’s mom,” she said.

Marc Gellman, Ph.D., research associate professor of psychology, and his wife, Jill Turner, rode the Miami Beach Touchdown Ride (29 miles) on Saturday and the 1st & 25 Ride on Sunday — all on a tandem bike, which Gellman wryly described as “another type of teamwork” — to honor her father, Manny Turner, who fought six different types of cancer before dying two weeks short of his 87th birthday. It was their second DCC ride, having ridden before to honor Gellman’s father, Sidney.

“My father received fabulous care at Sylvester,” said Turner, “and he was an inspiration to others because he never gave up.”

“Don’t give up” was a theme echoed by Ethan Zohn, a former professional soccer player, winner of the Survivor: Africa reality TV series and a Sylvester cancer survivor, who delivered a rousing pep talk to the 5K Run/Walk participants before joining them at the starting line. Zohn, who was diagnosed in 2008 with a rare form of lymphoma, had three unsuccessful treatments elsewhere before turning to Sylvester. Doctors there were able to put him on a new drug they had developed that has kept his cancer in remission for the past three years.

“Science is on our side,” said Zohn. “New drugs are being developed, but you need to be at a world-class cancer center like Sylvester to get access to them first. Their researchers are working to save lives every day. You need to have hope that one of their discoveries will be the right one for you. Never give up.”

Some of the Miller School’s scientists are both cancer researchers and cancer survivors. One, Bonnie Blomberg, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology, who said, “I’m not even a cycler,” nonetheless rode the Miami Beach Touchdown Ride on Saturday and the 1st & 25 Ride on Sunday in gratitude for her care.

“I can’t say enough about the treatment I received at Sylvester,” she said. “In my case, we had the benefit of early detection, but I knew I had a great team on my side.”

That sense of Sylvester caregivers being a supportive team for patients was frequently voiced by survivors who took part in the events. One of the most expressive was George Schwartz, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in late 2012.

“From a patient’s point of view, the medical attention and nursing care I received exceeded my wildest expectations,” he said. “From the moment I set foot in Sylvester, I was treated and cared for as if I were the most important person there. Without Sylvester, I probably would be looking at the ground from the other side.”

But Schwartz’s excellent care, and the stem cell transplant that saved his life and restored his health, almost didn’t happen. Another cancer center, which made the initial diagnosis, told him that he was too old for a transplant and that it was not available in Florida. Hearing of this, a family friend connected him to Sylvester.

“This completely changed the course of treatment for my dad,” said Schwartz’s son Jonathan, an executive with AutoNation, one of DCC’s corporate sponsors. “Without that, we would not have had a doctor or a program that would have treated his disease so aggressively.”

Jonathan rode Sunday’s Perfect Season Ride, which began in West Palm Beach, the last 12 miles of which overlapped the Dolphins Ride, which began at the Dolphins Training Camp in Davie. That is where he met up with his father and his sister, Alexandra, and the three rode the final leg together in celebration of George’s survival.

“Meeting up with them in Davie was very emotional,” said Jonathan. “I pushed hard because I couldn’t wait to get there. The last 12 miles were surreal because I remembered how he looked two years ago. I can’t describe how it felt when we crossed the finish line together, with him looking so strong and our family members there cheering him on. I’m all ready to sign up for next year’s event.”

A photo gallery from the 5th annual Dolphins Cycling Challenge (courtesy of David Sutta Photography) can be found here.

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