GOLDEN STATE TOUR Ride from Paso Robles to MB raises money for paralysis care
by Mark McDermott
Don McVicar isn’t big on riding bikes. He’s a waterman who has sailed around significant portions of the world and once trekked in Nepal. The idea of cycling 270 miles, through a California heat wave in the midst of a global pandemic, wasn’t exactly on his bucket list.
“Dude, I don’t even like to drive that far,” McVicar said.
Yet there he was one day last week, sprawled across a highway in Buellton, California, his bike laid out beside him after taking a little tumble at the very end of a 58 mile ride on day three of a seven day, 270-mile bicycle ride. Even more surprisingly, McVicar lay there with a smile on his face.
“Donald came in a little hot and took a tumble,” said Janne Kouri, the man responsible for this unexpected turn of events in McVicar’s life.
“I just couldn’t get my feet out of the strap,” McVicar said. “I was going like a half mile an hour trying to get my feet out and just tipped over. Right in front of everybody.”
McVicar was part of a crew of 20 riders who arrived at the Manhattan Beach pier Monday afternoon, completing “The Ride for Paralysis 2: The Golden State Tour.” The ride raised nearly $140,000 to help NextStep Fitness, a non-profit established by Kouri to give people with paralysis access to ongoing rehab and fitness training.
The cause had particular resonance for McVicar because 30 years ago he suffered a spinal injury while scuba diving. Fortunately, because he had access to good rehabilitation and because his paralysis was partial, McVicar is able to walk with the help of crutches. But he’s very aware that he’s one of the more fortunate among the 6 million Americans who have experienced spinal injuries. After their initial hospital treatment, most people who have suffered spinal cord injuries receive 31 days of rehab.
“I think people just don’t want to have that conversation,” McVicar said. “There’s just an uncomfortableness there. [Regarding those who are paralyzed], everybody is kind of like, ‘Oh they are doing their own thing over there. They are okay.’ When there’s definitely a lot of work to be done there, and a lot of help necessary.”
Kouri is both an example of what access to ongoing rehab and fitness can do and a major force in providing more access to exactly that kind of ongoing care. He was an elite athlete, an All-American football player for Georgetown University, when he arrived in Manhattan Beach two decades ago. One day in 2006, after a game of beach volleyball, he jumped into the ocean to cool off and hit a sandbar, shattering two vertebrae. He was told he would never walk again, and after leaving the hospital was shocked to discover there were no hospital-based, progressive rehab centers in the state of California. Because he had good insurance and financial means, he was able to go to such a facility in Louisville, Kentucky, and because of that he was able to achieve a remarkable recovery — within a few years, walking across the room with the help of a walker, and in 2012, in a moment famously captured by Good Morning America, standing up and slow-dancing across a room with his wife Susan.
His success was something he wanted others to be able to share. Of the six million Americans with paralysis, less than one percent receive the kind of ongoing training Kouri received. He set out to change this by founding NextStep, which began as a hospital-affiliated gym and rehabilitation center in Lawndale and has since expanded to six such centers in the United States and two internationally.
Kouri said the need NextStep addresses is both rehab and basic fitness training. He said while the absence of state-of-the-art rehab centers for those living with paralysis is little known, what’s even less understood is how important access to fitness training is for those people.
“You are sitting at home and don’t have anywhere to go,” Kouri said. “One thing a lot of people don’t realize about rehab and recovery is it’s all about overall health and wellness….People are not meant to be sitting down all the time.”
NextStep provides this missing link. The organization is affiliated with the Christopher and Dana Reeves Neurorecovery Network, which allows its centers to have access to the five top hospital-based rehab centers in the country, thus providing affordable, state-of-the-art facilities to thousands of people who otherwise would have little or no such access.
“Our mission as an organization, and the community around us, is to make sure anyone living with paralysis has access to rehabilitation and fitness,” Kouri said.
Like almost everything else, that mission has been made more difficult by the pandemic, since most of NextStep’s funding comes from galas and other events. But Kouri is the kind of person who always finds a way, no matter how daunting the obstacles. Last year, he launched “Ride for Paralysis,” riding his motorized “Permobil” wheelchair and electric Bowhead Reach trike from Manhattan Beach to Washington D.C. This year, he figured out a way to both downsize the trip while broadening involvement, organizing the seven-day ride from Paso Robles to the Manhattan Beach pier. Thus was born the Golden State Tour.
The stops were designed for fun — they included Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Santa Barbara, Oxnard, and Calabasas — but there was no getting around the grueling nature of the ride itself.
“I had a pretty bad crash on the first day. I wasn’t quite comfortable with my ride yet,” Kouri said “It’s always challenging when riding on the highway with trucks riding by you at 80 mph. It’s never easy, and then just being out there in 104 degree temperatures for six hours a day — it’s tough.”
One of the riders Kouri particularly marveled at was McVicar.
“Donald suffered a serious spinal cord injury from scuba diving, so for him to come on the trip was astonishing in itself,” Kouri said. “He was a wildman out there. He was going downhill at 50 mph, just blowing my mind.”
McVicar lived next door to Kouri a decade ago in Hermosa Beach and some of the experiences they shared made for a fast friendship. He likewise marveled at Kouri, who, beyond the cause itself, he said was an inspiration.
“He’s just a big presence,” McVicar said. “He literally played football for Georgetown and you can just feel his energy and his good spirit. To take on something like that and just forge forward — he’s just worked his ass off. And he knows how to round up good people.”
McVicar said the nightly stops on the Golden State Tour made every mile worth it.
“Man, the stops were unreal. They were so fun,” he said. “Great dinners, great camaraderie with everybody. We had plenty of time to sit around and eat and have a couple beers and a laugh, you know? Very cool.”
But the rides themselves also had their special moments.
“Bombing down Highway 101 and through the vineyards was really cool,” McVicar said. “Mainly, the comradery and energy of the people was pretty uplifting and a lot of fun.”
On Monday, when some friends joined at Playa del Rey and the group cruised into Manhattan Beach together, McVicar felt like he was seeing the pier in a brand new way — with the appreciation of 270 miles pedalled behind him.
“You know, I’ve been hurt for 31 years,” McVicar said. “And I’ve been really fortunate, man. I’ve sailed part way around the world, like a year in the Caribbean, and trekked in Nepal and skied for a disabled ski team and swam for the US disabled teams — like, some really cool stuff, I’ve been really lucky, you know? But there was something magical about this. It was very rewarding. And so when I saw the pier, I had a different perspective, like what an accomplishment for everybody, and for myself. I learned a lot about myself. It was just cool.”
McVicar, who raised $7,692, said his mission was to ride for those who can’t. “And so maybe they can some day,” he said. Shortly after returning home, he’d already received an email from Kouri about next year, asking for ideas about the next route they’d take.
“I’m thinking, yeah, downhill, dude,” McVicar said.
For more information, see NextStepFitness.org. ER
by Jen Ezpeleta