“Welcome to Rome!”
Bystanders adorned in patriotic red, white and blue, some waving American flags and flashing signs, shouted cheers of encouragement and good wishes as about 27 injured veterans and supporters cycled down West Chestnut Street Monday afternoon.
Rome was among the several small-town stops on a 14-day bicycle trip from Canada to Washington, D.C. by the team of veterans representing three countries — the United States, Canada and Denmark.
They were treated to a spaghetti dinner by Rome Veterans of Foreign Wars Post and then enjoyed a hot shower and comfortable bed overnight at the Wingate Hotel at Griffiss Business and Technology Park.
The contingent included 16 injured veterans biking with nine able-bodied riders, also accompanied by support staff in some vehicles, according to the World T.E.A.M. Sports organization, which coordinated the event. The nearly 800-mile trip was geared to build awareness and provide inspiration.
Participants include veterans who served in Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Among their disabilities are loss of limb, paralysis, post-traumatic stress, brain injuries, and blindness in some cases.
Two able-bodied riders are serving as pilots for blind veterans using tandem bicycles, according to World T.E.A.M. Sports.
“The ride does two things: It provides people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in an athletic event of this magnitude and it allows communities to observe people with disabilities and highlights the fact that their disabilities could be merely nuisances and can easily be overcome,” said World T.E.A.M. Chief Executive Officer Van Brinson.
The event, the CanAm Veterans’ Challenge, was not veteran exclusive, Brinson said. Some T.E.A.M. interns and other supporters also participated.
Typically there are anywhere between 25-30 riders a day, he said.
As for why Rome was chosen as a stop for the cyclists, “It actually worked for routing purposes,” Brinson said. “We try to pick little scenic towns because they’re smaller and friendlier to stop in.”
The cyclists stopped and took about a half-hour break before a police motorcade escorted them to Wingate Hotel.
Firefighters also showed for the welcome with their aerial truck — the Stars and Stripes hanging from its extended ladder.
Jews Sondergaard was one of the wounded veterans who participated in the event.
A sergeant in the Danes Army, Sondergaard served in Croatia for 21 years as a United Nations soldier.
Sondergaard said he found the World T.E.A.M. foundation on the Internet. He participated in the Face of America cycling event in April and was then invited to take part in the CanAm Veterans’ Challenge.
“This ride is perfect,” Sondergaard said. “Everybody has been so nice and supportive along the way. It’s just such an honor to be part of this team.”
Christopher Levi, of Long Island, was longing for a shower as he and teammates took a breather while waiting for their police escort.
Asked what he thought of Rome and cycling through upstate New York, Levi said, “I served four years in Louisiana, so this community is pretty middle-sized.”
“I’ve been in towns where they called a shack their town center,” he laughed.
Sgt. Dan Bodden represented the many “neighbors to the north” who participated in the ride. He’s involved in the Wounded Warriors Project chapter in Canada and is also a competitive cyclist, so the CanAm Veterans’ Challenge was a perfect fit, he said.
“The ride is awesome,” Bodden said. “It’s actually an honor and privilege to be participating in such an event. And it’s actually a little humbling. When the people in the small communities we pass through realize what we’re doing, the support that’s extended to us” is tremendous “and we try not to disappoint them.”
The Rome Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2246 prepared an evening dinner for the group, which left Ottawa Friday and came to Watertown Sunday.
Today they headed to Cooperstown where riders would receive the opportunity to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Their final arrival in Washington, D.C., is scheduled for July 4 where they will participate in the National Independence Day Parade in the nation’s capital.