There will come a time during this weekend's Tri-State Trek that members of Team America will find themselves challenged. Their legs and lungs will burn. They'll think about giving up, giving in, because they can give no more. And it's that moment, when their physical and emotional endurance is taxed to the brink, that they will push on towards the finish.
They'll do it, simply, because they can, and because Steve Saling cannot.
More than 30 Team America riders will particpate in the 270-mile Tri-State Trek, which starts in Newton Friday and ends in Greenwhich, Conn. on Sunday. They'll do so in honor of friend Steve Saling, and in the hopes of finding a cure for ALS, a debilitating disease that Saling was diagnosed with in 2006. The team has thus far raised $39,839 of its $39,940 goal, and in the five years they've been doing the ride, have raised more than $85,000 for the disease.
“It’s not just curing the disease, you’re helping this person, this friend of yours,” said JP resident Rinaldo Dorman, a first-year rider. “You can talk to him, you can look at him and say ‘I’m going to do everything I can to help.’ He’s in a wheelchair, he can’t do the bike ride, but I can.
“Chuck McNamee is always saying ‘It’s hard to say I can’t do it.’ He can’t do it, I can. It’s whether or not I will.”
Saling certainly cuts an inspiring figure. The former landscape architect was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gherig’s Disease, in October of 2006. It's a disease that paralyzes the body but leaves the mind completely unaffected. Saling met Dorman and third-year rider Eric Mearns shortly after his diagnosis, and both were shocked by the quick progression of the disease. In the beginning he maintained most of his mobility. He could still drive his car. Talk to people. Walk around with the help of a cane. But every time his friends saw him, the disease took a sharper and more drastic hold. Suddenly instead of driving a car he was driving a wheelchair. Concerns about whether he could talk were replaced with those about whether or not he could chew his food.
And yet, in spite of these physical difficulties, Saling focused his efforts on improving the quality of life for himself and those like him. Last August he opened the Steve Saling ALS Residence in Chelsea, the world's first ALS residence. The fully functional home is capable of being operated entirely by a laptop on Saling's wheelchair, which he can control using eye movement. He can change the temperature, open and close windows, even order movies on Netflix. It was a project he helped design, raised funds for, and made a reality.
"What’s affected me or made me more interested and willing to do the ride is seeing how much hes had to fight and what he's accomplished," Dorman said.
"He can maintain a level of independence for himself and other patients. His only option really was to go in a ventilator in an assisted living care facility where his roommate was going to be 80, 90 years old, or nothing. There really wasn’t another option for him. He didn’t accept that. He chose to make an option."
So it is for this man and the roughly 30,000 other Americans affected by the disease, that McNamee and Jamaica Plain's Gabe Cohen started riding in 2007. Since then the team has taken off. With 32 participants this year having raised just shy of $40,000, Team America is the largest in the event. In the nine years the Tri-State Trek has existed, it has raised a staggering $2.1 million dollars.
The team received significant corporate sponsorship this year from Reebok, Harpoon Brewery and a number of Jamaica Plain businesses such as , , and . Saling remains very active in the team. Every year he designs the jerseys, shows up at fund raising events and practice runs, and emails back and forth with the riders.
It's a fully supported ride, which means there will be a staff of volunteers tending to their needs. Rest stops will be stationed every 15-20 miles where athletes can take a break, grab a drink and ready themselves to continue the push.
Not that it'll be a walk in the park. Temperatures over the weekend are supposed to soar well into the 90s, and even without that the three-day ride is a monumental challenge in and of itself.
There is little doubt, however, that should they need it, a wellspring of inspiration will be well within reach.
"It’s pretty cool because Steve comes along in a van that’s driven by someone else," said Mearns, a employee. "Last year he had some cowbells dangling from one of his canes that stuck out the window. He was able to move his left hand just enough to move the stick which in turn rattled the cowbells.
"So we'd be riding our bikes and you'd hear off in the distance. You'd be in pain or it would be really difficult and you'd be beat and hungry and then you’d hear bells jingling in the background and it would be Steve in a van pulling up next to you. It would really get you going."
You can donate via Team America's Tri-State Trek web page.