The 2018 UnitedHealthcare Gulf Coast Challenge lived up to its billing as a brilliant and demanding way to roll into Project Hero’s 10th Anniversary year.   
From the gorgeous white sand beaches of Florida and Alabama and picturesque river crossings in Mississippi and Louisiana to pelting rain and angry headwinds, the event was aptly named: it was a challenging ride that took six days and crossed four states. 
For Project Hero riders, the challenge was more than that.  For them, the challenge was getting as much as they could out of a wonderful week of superb riding, fantastic scenery and unforgettable camaraderie.
ur first day featured a 116-mile trek that started at the Florida State Capitol building in Tallahassee, where we were joined by Florida Governor Rick Scott and Brigadier General Paul Chauncey Assistant Adjutant General of the Florida Army National Guard. We departed the capitol and rode along scenic tree-lined highways to our first stop at one of the highlights of the Challenge, our visit to Fort Braden Elementary School.
As hundreds of students crowded the driveway for our entrance onto the campus, we rode through a colorful display of patriotic and Project Hero signs and flags and the students, teachers and parents welcomed us, all gathering around the riders in the driveway with cheers of “USA! USA! USA!” It was a truly moving display of support and enthusiasm for America’s Finest. Our visit was also highlighted by a gracious donation to Project Hero by the school and a jersey presentation. Arranged by Optum’s Tom Moore, one of our great supporters, the school came through with flying colors and made it one of the most memorable school stops we have ever made! 
In addition to the great camaraderie and healing that are an important part of our Challenge rides, our Challenges give us an opportunity to meet new riders and welcome them into our Project Hero family.  
One of this Challenge’s first-time riders at the Gulf Coast Challenge this year is Frankie Reilly, an Air Force veteran with 24 years of service.  Frankie is from Melbourne, FL and is part of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center NICoE program.  Since meeting Project Hero’s Ray Clark, he rode a bike with a competitive goal for the first time just over a year ago, earned a Bronze medal at the Warrior Games last year after training for only three months and has been training for this year’s Warrior Games.  As part of his training, he enjoyed his first Challenge.  
“Project Hero is awesome and a one-of- a-kind organization,” he said after the first day.  “I always wanted to do something like this and Project Hero gives me hope and there is such amazing teamwork.  People here will do whatever is needed to help you, and the organization really helps address our need for wellness and mental health support.”
Day two started at beautiful Panama City, and the 60-mile ride began with light breezes under cloudy skies as we rode to Ft. Walton, but our amazing run of perfect weather days over the past several Challenges was destined to end.  As we rode to Camp Helen State Park, the sky darkened and the rain really started coming down. 
If there is anything that brings out the best of Project Hero riders, it is adversity.  Every member of our rider family has faced significant obstacles in their lives, all far greater than a little rain — or in this case pretty heavy rain — and this was no different: we just put on our rain gear and kept going!  Our dedication paid off as we arrived for lunch at the beautiful Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort as the rain abated and the sun peeked through the clouds for the ride into Fort Walton.
Our dinner that night was another highlight of this experience, hosted by the CFTA Church of Fort Walton, the party featured a great family-style meal and the congregation’s inspiring hospitality.  Project Hero rider Luis Diaz helped organize the event so, for that reason, it was his birthday, which resulted in his playing the role of a hilarious human piñata for the serving of dessert.
After the rain, our third day treated us to gorgeous blue skies as we rode the 70-mile route along the Florida coast from Fort Walton, FL to Orange Beach, AL. Despite the headwinds, the ride paralleled the scenic coast, where gorgeous white sand beaches meet the turquoise blue waters of the Gulf.  We enjoyed lunch at Blue Wahoo Stadium, the home of Pensacola’s minor league baseball team where we were welcomed by the Mayor of Pensacola and our old friend Dick Adams of Pepsico.  Dick is never shy about proudly showing off what he claims to be the first-ever Ride 2 Recovery tattoo and is one of our long-time supporters.  It was great to have him join us on this year’s Challenge!
“I’m sore and it was a battle, but I’m ready for tomorrow,” said Kevin DuBois.  A native and resident of Rhode Island, Kevin is a Marine who served five years and was deployed twice to Afghanistan.  He was injured in 2011 and as part of his recovery, he was introduced to Ride 2 Recovery while at the Balboa Medical Center in San Diego, CA.   
As both a Ride 2 Recovery and Project Hero participant, Kevin has seen our organization mature over the years and had good things to say about the 2018 Gulf Coast Challenge.  “The staff is amazing and things run smoothly,” he said. “The camaraderie is amazing. It doesn’t matter what level or experience of rider you are, Project Hero will get you on a bike and you can suffer with the rest of us!”
We finished the day at the Perdido Beach Resort, where the employees lined the driveway and cheered us as we rode in and later enjoyed a great dinner hosted by Wahlbergers and the OWA Amusement Park in Foley.  Hat tip to our old friend Matt Palmer, who helped set things up and joined us at dinner that included a City Councilman and members of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Tribal Council.
The fourth day of the UnitedHealthcare Gulf Coast Challenge gave us another opportunity to enjoy the beauty and hospitality of the great state of Alabama and celebrate International Women’s Day .
An Air Force veteran from Travelers Rest, SC, Sue Davis returned to Project Hero and this year’s Gulf Coast Challenge after an absence of several years. Sue’s first ride with us was on the Memorial Challenge in 2013 and she was so inspired by the experience, she helped us start our program at the Charleston, VA and rode every Challenge in 2014 and the 2015 UnitedHealthcare Gulf Coast Challenge.  After undergoing hip surgery in 2017, she started her comeback by riding the Marine Corps Marathon, where she won the Women’s Division against elite, international competition.  
Sue enjoyed this year’s Challenge.  “I rode with Delta the first day and was so excited to ride with Group 2 the next day I couldn’t sleep!  I have been welcomed back by old friends and made new ones.  I love helping others ride and helping other riders grow,” she said.  “I have realized I have a purpose, that you can make a difference in the world even if it is for one person.”
Starting from beautiful Orange Beach, we enjoyed a wonderful reception on Day four as we rode through Gulf Shores Elementary and High Schools and then to the OWA Amusement Park, where a huge American flag waved above us as we rode between Foley and Orange Beach fire engines and police cruisers lining the entrance along with employees, firefighters and police cheering us on.  Our tasty breakfast was hosted by the Groovy Goat restaurant and we were joined by the Mayor of Foley, the Chief of Police Dave Wilson, the general manager of OWA Amusement Park and the amazing staff of OWA and the Groovy Goat restaurant for a tasty breakfast, lots of great photos and a jersey presentation.
As we left our new friends at OWA, the wind began to pick up, making today’s ride as challenging as the past two. But adverse conditions always bring out the best of our riders: the camaraderie really showed in all three groups and our superb caravan drivers and mechanics worked hard to ensure no rider was left unsupported or left behind.  We headed to lunch at the USS Alabama in Mobile, fighting strong headwinds along the way.  Our arrival at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park was cheered by a local Veteran’s Motorcycle Club and local supporters and our lunch there was hosted by the VFW.  We returned to the USS Alabama for a delicious Southern-style dinner (including some of the best bread pudding any of us have ever tasted) hosted by UnitedHealthcare.  Our good friends and long-time supporters Joe Ochipinti and Tom Moore spoke, and we presented Joe with a signed jersey as a token of our appreciation for all he has done for Project Hero.
On Women’s Day at Project Hero, we were honored to profile Jill Walsh, one of our most accomplished riders who is on her first Challenge.  A former New York State Trooper, Jill lives in Syracuse, NY and is among the most successful competitive Paralympic cyclists in the world.  Her accomplishments include numerous victories at the national and international levels including National Championships in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 (yes, she is planning to take home the prize also this year) and Silver medals in the road race at the Paralympic Games.  
“I did not know Project Hero worked with first responders, she said.  “I found out they did and that led me to sign up for the Gulf Coast Challenge. Project Hero is all about military members and first responders helping each other. Everyone has made me feel very welcome.”
Day five brought a delightful change from the past days of rain and wind: we had a tailwind! Our riders enjoyed sunny skies as we left Mobile, AL on our way to Gautier, MS, for lunch at one of our favorite Gulf Coast Challenge stops, the Ocean Springs VFW Post 42.  Along the way we rode past Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, MS, as their employees lined the road, holding signs of support and cheering our riders, and the US Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, where we met and honored the service of World War II and Korean War veterans.  It is always a special honor for us to visit them and our riders truly enjoyed the experience of meeting with older generations of America’s Finest.
Our final dinner of the Challenge gave us an opportunity to recognize our outstanding volunteers, sponsors and supporters, including awarding the first “Selfless Service Award” to volunteer Michelle Arroyo.  The dinner was highlighted by special guests including our host Dave Parker, who has ridden with us in past Challenges, Joe Ochipinti of UnitedHealthcare and Major General Gregg Kennedy, Assistant Adjutant General –Army of the Mississippi Army National Guard.  The delicious dinner also featured great music by Dave’s band.
Our final day took us on a 90-mile journey from Gulfport, MS to New Orleans, LA. The skies were threatening rain from the start and it was great to be joined by riders from the New Orleans VAMC, Glenis Thompson and Adam Caborn.  We gathered outside the city and were escorted by the New Orleans Sheriff and Police Departments as our riders made an impressive patriotic peloton riding into the Crescent City and our closing celebration at the Louisiana Superdome.  We were greeted there by New Orleans Saints player Trey Edmunds and Saints cheerleaders, UnitedHealthcare supporters and the American Red Cross, who served us sandwiches, drinks and snacks and, finally, a bit of rain, which passed quickly and left us in bright sunshine for the rest of the day.  We were honored to also be joined at the ceremony by New Orleans City Council member Helena Moreno, Col. Tom Friloux, Director of Operations and Plans for the Louisiana National Guard, Dr. John Heaton, MD Chief Medical Officer of LCMC Health, and our fantastic supporter Joe Ochipinti of UnitedHealthcare.   We presented bikes to two of our most inspirational riders, Kennedy Ross and Michelle Mansell. 
“Project Hero is a family and if you want to reach out, there is always someone there to help you,” said Sue Davis.  “The riders know they have a lifeline when they need it and that they are not alone. This year the experience is much more health focused than in the past.” 
The 2018 UnitedHealthcare Gulf Coast Challenge was a great success due to spirit and love our riders show for each other, the efforts of our dedicated American Legion riders, support of dozens of police and sheriff throughout our journey, our friends at UnitedHealthcare and the American Red Cross.  We thank them all!  
“Project Hero is different from other organizations and events because the other rides are just fundraisers,” said Jill Walsh. “But this ride is about doing the ride. Project Hero does the little things right that make it really good.”

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