Ride Across America: Stanford Rowers David Evans And Austin Keeley Ride Against AIDS

Nov. 26, 2009

By Aaron Juarez
Stanford Athletic Communications And Media Relations

As families around America gather together to give thanks on this Thanksgiving, many people in the African nation of Rwanda have their own reason to give thanks for the intrepid philanthropy of a pair of Stanford student-athletes. David Evans and Austin Keeley, rowers for Stanford men's crew, spent their 2009 summer break cycling across the United States in a 'Ride Against AIDS,' raising over $40,000 for FACE AIDS, an organization which raises money and awareness for the plight of the Rwandan people who need food, water and basic medical attention to help treat the AIDS epidemic there.

Beginning their ride in Stanford, Evans and Keeley rode approximately 4,500 miles in 61 days across the North American continent, spreading awareness for their cause and taking in the breathtaking views that the United States has to offer. As the duo stopped in town after town, with a support car carrying their supplies shadowing them, they held presentations detailing their mission as well as the situation in Rwanda, made appearances on radio shows to talk about their trek, and spearheaded a grassroots effort to spread news about their mission. Along the way, the pair endured arduous riding conditions, crashes, getting lost a few times, a hospital trip, 47 stitches, as well as a determined dog named Bruiser, before triumphantly riding into Boston, Mass. to complete their ride.

'One of our teammates, Mark Murphy sent out an email, and a former rower, Jeremy Barton, had done this ride in 2007 with a friend,' Keeley explained. 'They raised $10,000 for FACE AIDS, and I thought this was the coolest thing, I had heard about the organization, which is based here at Stanford.'

FACE AIDS is a student organization founded by three Stanford students, Katie Bollbach, Jonny Dorsey and Lauren Young following a humanitarian trip the trio were a part of to a refugee camp in Zambia. The organization's mission includes raising money and awareness of HIV and AIDS in Africa. Symbolically, as Evans explained, the FACE AIDS headquarters are at Stanford, which is how the ride came about starting from there. Boston became the pair's final destination because it is the headquarters of Partners In Health, which is the organization where the money raised goes to and is then funneled to the organization's on-site facilities in Rwanda to be used to provide basic medical, educational, and living needs for the people.

From there, Keeley, while studying abroad in the fall of his sophomore year, sent an email to FACE AIDS looking for more information, and heard back while in Dublin. The organization expressed its thanks for Keeley's interest, which encouraged him to send an email out to gauge interest in a project for the cause. Evans responded to the email, and the pair began the task of planning their project in early 2009.

Austin Keeley, along with David Evans, rode across the U.S. to raise funds and awareness for the figth against HIV/AIDS in Rwanda

'We had our first moment when I picked him up for winter training in January, we kind of looked at each other and asked `Are we really doing this?'' Evans said. 'From December we had started thinking about it, and in January the wheels got into motion. We spent six months prior to the ride organizing the talks we would give, the presentations, and mapping out places to stay.'

But Evans and Keeley were not alone in planning of this epic journey. FACE AIDS provided a four-person team that was dedicated to the ride, helping plan and organize the logistics of the trip as well as fundraise. The group fundraised by writing letters to friends, families and rotary clubs, setting up meetings and giving talks to interested groups.

Following nearly six months of planning, presentations and fundraising, it was finally time for Evans and Keeley to mount up and begin the ride from Stanford to Boston. Over the nearly 4,500-mile trek, the pair would rise early in the morning to begin a day's ride, aiming to cover nearly 80 miles a day.

'We averaged for the trip about 80 miles a day,' Evans said. 'That really never skewed because in the beginning we were going over the Rockies doing anywhere between 60-80 miles a day, but towards the end of the west-to-east ride, in flatter terrain like in Kansas, we would make it up with about 100-120 miles a day.

The longest day in terms of distance covered for the pair was a 183-mile ride from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia, which Keeley nostalgically recalled.

'We got started even before the sun was coming up,' he said. 'Riding on bike paths, on roads, going through a couple of states like Virginia, Maryland, and then into Pennsylvania.'

Along the way, the pair spent most of its nights pitching a tent at a campground, but in some towns was provided shelter in the form of a room and warm bed in the home of a friend of a friend or a local motel.

'We did a whole lot of camping,' Keeley recalled. 'We relied on friends of friends, and the generosity of people who would open their doors to us. We also did a thing called `couch surfing,' a website called couchsurfing.com, which is kind of like facebook profiles where you can find a place to crash at night. We were a little skeptical about it at first, but we were judicious about it and always had a backup plan in case something went wrong.

'But we found that to be awesome,' he continued. 'We got to meet many people living in these towns that we rode through, and we got to learn a lot about their city or town, which was really cool.'

The duo took as close as a straight west-east route as it could from Stanford to Richmond, Virginia, before turning northward and cycling up the Eastern Seaboard to Boston.

'We made a couple of detours for major talks, and we kind of planned the East Coast that way,' Evans noted. 'We went through the major cities, Richmond, [Washington] D.C., Philadelphia and Boston, so we hit all the major cities for that reason. But going across the country we went in a straight line for the most part, with some zigzagging along the way.'

With each stop on the journey, the pair would use all mediums of the media to spread their message and bring awareness to their cause.

'I think we focused mainly on newspapers, because the circulation of the papers gave us a better chance of reaching more people than having people have to come from varying distances to our presentations,' Keeley said. 'We also did some radio talk shows, and a handful of actual presentations where we did have people come to us. We did maybe five or six of those.'

A typical presentation would usually open with Evans and Keeley explaining the purpose of their ride, which gave them the opportunity to talk about FACE AIDS and the mission of the organization.

Keeley related the story of how FACE AIDS' founders, while working in Zambia, met a refugee suffering from HIV who was outspoken to her fellow citizens about the need for HIV and AIDS testing in Zambia. Her outspokenness in the face of what was seen as a serious social stigma in Africa inspired the group. What further inspired the group to take the stand was their return to Zambia, where they discovered that this refugee had succumbed to the illness, a passing that could have been prevented had she had access to basic life-saving medicines that carried only a minimal cost.

The outrage felt by the students led to the founding of FACE AIDS to inspire and mobilize students to help combat the HIV/AIDS problem in Africa.

Evans and Keeley would speak of their desire to be a part of this mission, as well as inspire their listeners by explaining that everyone could make an impact on global health issues around the world.

'That was generally our message,' Keeley said. 'That we were interested in FACE AIDS but also that students, no matter what you can do, can be empowered to do things to inspire chance around the world.'

In promoting these presentations as well as reaching out to newspapers and radio stations, much of that legwork was accomplished in the six months of pre-ride preparation during the winter and spring.

'That was a lot of what the preparation six months prior to the ride went into,' Evans said. 'We focused a lot on rotary clubs, but that fell through because of the timing, sometimes they only meet once a week or even just twice a month. For other cities and towns we would call ahead let them know we would be coming through in a week, call the local papers and radio stations. Sometimes that worked out the best, but we kept a strict schedule because we did have some big presentations set up in some cities, like Washington, D.C. and in Worcester.'

One of the pair's most memorable encounters came in Fallon, a city located in western Nevada. There, contact with a local rotary club helped set up a talk with the local newspaper, and an appearance on the local 92.9 FM station with DJ Latigo Travis. That appearance led to a helpful relationship in which Evans and Keeley, even after leaving Fallon, would call in to the show once a week to update listeners on the details and progress of their trip.

Evans related how the pair met the city's mayor and spent the night in a local church.

'We ended up meeting the mayor [in Fallon], the local church put us up for the night, so Fallon was a good example of how hospitable people really were as we rode across the country,' Evans said.

In Milford, Utah, the pair ran into Bishop Barnes, an official in the local LDS church, who was so touched by the experience and the message that his niece provided a room for Evans and Keeley at the hotel she owned, as well as breakfast the next morning before the pair got moving again on their journey.

Along with the hospitality of the people and communities they met along the way, Evans and Keeley also gained a sense of appreciation for the sights, sounds, and history that the United States has to offer. The pair described seeing breathtaking views during the ride, as well as visiting and riding by historical monuments, old Civil War battlefields, and other memorable sights.

'It was cool seeing all of the Civil War stuff and seeing a lot of historical sights,' Evans remembered. 'When you're biking you get to experience that so much more, it is so different from driving. Not only the smells and ambiance you get while you're riding, but you really get to see the countryside a lot more.'

But the trip was not without its hairy, and sometimes comical moments. First, in the final descent of the Rockies, Keeley took a curve too fast and took a painful crash over a guardrail. He picked himself up and made sure nothing had been broken, and was ready to pronounce himself fine until Evans spotted a not-so-subtle amount of blood soaking through Keeley's shirt and down his thigh.

Keeley ended up with a laceration across his chest as well as a gash in his thigh that 'butter-flied,' in the words of Evans. After having to hitchhike down the mountain before finding transportation to the hospital, the wounds, on his knee, quadriceps, and chest would end up needing a total of 31 stitches to close up. The injuries would keep Keeley off of his bike for the next week, but the story of his hospital visit provided a welcome moment of comic relief and irony in the form of a 'Big' connection.

After the doctor entered the room with a needle to numb the wounds, Keeley was asked how he got into his predicament, and took the opportunity to tell the doctor about FACE AIDS and his and Evans' ride. When asked where he went to school, Keeley revealed that he was a member of the Stanford men's rowing team.

'So right before [the doctor] sticks me with his needle, he says `Yeah, I ran the 400 meters at Cal' then shoves it into my chest,' Keeley laughingly recalled. 'He was really good-natured about it, and we did a little bit of the Cal-Stanford ribbing and the rivalry thing.'

The resulting week off the bike left Evans to bike by himself through Kansas, with Keeley in the support car.

'We planned these 100-120-mile days, but I ended up waking up every morning to a 30 mile-an-hour headwind,' Evans said. 'Usually on these rides you can draft behind the other guy, but being by myself there was no drafting. I would wake up at 5:30, get on the road trying to beat the wind, and I would bike from 5:30-7:30 by myself. I was singing to myself, having conversations with myself, I went insane. You can only listen to Dave Matthews so many times. I would get off the bike and they wouldn't even recognize who I was. I just wanted food and to be left alone.'

Once Keeley rejoined the ride, the pair ran into a four-legged nemesis named Bruiser in Missouri that did its best to cause more pain and injury.

'We turned a corner and there's this big Rottweiler in the middle of the road,' Evans said. 'I booked right by him, the dog chased me and was right on my back wheel, but Austin got nervous and decided to stop.'

'I learned something about out-running dogs on our ride,' Keeley chimed in. 'Its like basketball, if you beat the dog with your first step, you're in the clear. But if they shuffle their feet and get in front of you, you're in trouble. So Dave books it, gets past the dog, but then the dog turns around and looks at me. And it barks and sprints straight at me. So I turned around and headed straight to San Francisco.'

Eventually, the dog's owner would come out and bellow 'Bruiser, come here!' before hauling in the dog and allowing Keeley to pass.

'Dave didn't come back for me,' Keeley said.

'I was waiting around the corner, no idea where Austin was, then I hear the dog barking. And I thought, `Austin just died.'' Evans added.

Despite those hiccups and escapades in the journey, Evans and Keeley reached the seaboard, with just a northern trip to Boston remaining. With a lot of friends on the East Coast, the pair agreed that that portion of the trip was enjoyable and even rode past its pace in order to have some extra time to see the sights.

When the pair finally entered Boston, they were greeted by friends and family, and held a brown-bag lunch with Partners In Health and gave a final presentation.

The $20,000 that the pair raised in donations was matched by Partners In Health, bringing the total to $40,000. That money was sent to Rwanda through Partners in Health, and there, as explained by Keeley, it becomes 'unrestricted' money, meaning that it can be distributed by the people on the ground who know best what the people there need. It can go to things such as secondary education, medical needs, and even day-to-day living needs.

'Partners In Health was magnificent,' Keeley said. 'The central idea is that the wealthy take care of the sick. Right now they have hospitals working in nine developing countries around the world and they provide free comprehensive health care to anyone. If you need water to take your pills, they provide you with water, they provide you with pills. We're associated with their hospital in Rwanda, and we're proud and humbled by that.'

Following the journey, Evans, who flew back home to Victoria, British Columbia, and Keeley, a native of Worcester, Mass., reflected on the impact as well as the experience of their journey across the U.S. and their mission to bring awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.

'In terms of physically doing the ride, it was one of those things where you get up everyday, just bike, do a segment and it doesn't seem like that much, but then to look back over the summer and string together all those segments, it was pretty remarkable,' Keeley said. 'In terms of talking to people, we were really happy with the reactions we got from people. People who hadn't thought about this before were really receptive and wanted to know more.'

'For me, the coolest part is that as athletes, especially in rowing, we're used to working everyday, we get up at 5:30, we go to practice, we go to classes, then we practice at 3:30 so we're used to these long days,' Evans noted. 'So the summer felt the same way, you're biking everyday but I don't feel like I biked across the country. It was kind of cool to look at maps and see all the stops, so that's the physical side of it.

'In terms of the experience, I was humbled by the entire thing,' Evans continued. 'It's pretty cool that we were organizing it and having these people you don't even know donating amounts of $1,000, and that when you give these talks that people are moved by what you're doing. You realize how privileged we are, being a student who gets to go to Stanford, coming from a good home where your parents provided for you. The whole experience to me was really humbling to me.'

While Keeley had a relatively short journey to his hometown of Worcester, Evans and his parents caught a flight back home to the West Coast, where he had the unique experience of flying across the very country that he had just spent 61 days cycling across.

'The plane ride was one of the biggest epiphanies for me,' Evans said. 'I got on the plane and realized I was about to take a six hour flight across a country that it took me over six weeks to bike across. Looking out the window it felt weird seeing the land just zooming across.'

It is a testament not only to the physical endurance that Evans and Keeley possess that made this cross-country trip possible, but also to the dedication and passion that they have for the mission of FACE AIDS. And a good chunk of that passion, as Evans and Keeley acknowledged, was fostered by the support of Stanford Director of Rowing and men's head coach Craig Amerkhanian.

'That's one thing that I thought was so cool was the support that Craig gave us,' Keeley said. 'What struck me the most was that Craig will often talk about the problems that exist in the world and how rowing is a microcosm how the work that you do here sets you up for the work you're supposed to do out there, with the important stuff. Having our coach's full support for us on this trip was really, really cool.'

'We talked to Craig at least once a week, more or less, he pretty much became a second dad to both of us, always worrying about us and checking up on us,' Evans added. 'Craig's a provider, that's what he's always been to us. He's one of the biggest role models in my life because of that.'

With their trip now firmly under their belts, the pair also learned a lot in terms of the effectiveness of its message reaching the desired amount of people, which will go a long way in the planning of the next ride they are planning, Keeley explained.

'We did find that some things we thought would work ended up falling though for logistical reasons because we're on the road, so that's tough,' Keeley continued. 'But one of the things we're working on now is organizing the ride for next year, signing up riders, and working really hard to get the logistics tied down so that next year we can reach even more people, raise even more money and make more presentations.'

Through about 4,500 miles, 31 stitches, aches and pains and sore muscles, and most importantly, $40,000 in aid to provide basic living and medical needs, the people of Rwanda can count David Evans and Austin Keeley among the many things they have to be thankful for, as can the Stanford Community for having two outstanding representatives of the ideals it holds so important.

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