It’s no secret that I have a strong passion for philanthropy. I’ve been an ambassador for St. Jude for nearly a decade and I will never stop leveraging all of my success as a tool to better the lives of others. For me, this desire to pay it forward began when I was a teenager after my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Being witness to her fight against it and realizing how ruthless the disease can be inspired me to help those who need it the most. She tragically lost her battle just a couple years before I turned pro, in 2005, and I dedicated my entire career to her memory.
While my grandmother’s battle brought the harsh reality of cancer home for me, I also found inspiration in Lance Armstrong’s story after reading his book, It’s Not About the Bike. Regardless of what ultimately came of Lance’s achievements on a bicycle, the fact of the matter is he still overcame cancer and was able to return to compete at the highest level of his sport. That in itself is incredible and I found it relatable because of everything I had watched my grandmother endure. Lance focused on living life to the fullest, despite the adversity he faced, and that was something my grandmother personified in her battle. That positive mindset also helped me keep my strength for her, no matter how tough things got. She took control of her life every step of the way, even though the disease did all it could to prevent that, and Lance did the same in his battle. I was determined to follow their lead.
Beyond his ability to beat cancer, what Lance built and accomplished through The Livestrong Foundation in many ways represented what I hoped to someday have the opportunity to do. Through my relationship with Nike I was able to express my interest in becoming a Livestrong ambassador during the 2009 season, hoping to begin my own philanthropic journey.
I met Lance at his Hope Rides Again event in Los Angeles and felt extremely fortunate to be recognized by Livestrong as an athlete ambassador they believed could help broaden their awareness with a new audience. I wanted to contribute to the cause however I could and we collectively decided that my introduction to the ambassador program would be a perfect fit for the 2009 RedBud National during the Pro Motocross Championship.
This annual visit to Michigan is arguably the biggest event on the championship calendar. The race takes place over the Independence Day holiday each year, which means the atmosphere around the event is a celebratory one. All the fans, riders, and bikes are decked out in red, white, and blue, and the energy of the crowd is at its peak all day long. It’s a must-attend event that every racing fan needs to experience. There’s really nothing like it and it felt like an ideal place to show the world I had joined the fight with Livestrong.
The support I received in making this ambassadorship a reality was incredible. Every member of the Factory Suzuki team embraced the opportunity and Nike stepped up in a big way to supply everyone with Livestrong shirts, hats, and shoes. To top it off, Fox provided me with a yellow and black set of gear, including a custom-painted helmet and a Livestrong butt patch.
I felt an immense sense of pride when I first rode out onto the track for practice with that gear on. My grandmother was heavy on my mind and I was just so overwhelmed with emotion because I was finally able to do what I had wanted to do from the moment she passed away. I was continuing her fight against cancer by helping others. It felt incredible to represent the Livestrong brand at such an important event for our sport, and to this day I still remember all the cheers of support I received from the fans whenever I was on the track. They realized how significant this moment was as well and didn’t hesitate to make sure I was aware of that.
Admittedly, I put some extra pressure on myself to really perform well. I was in a really tight championship battle in the 250 Class and needed to try and gain some ground. There’s no better way to do that than to sweep the motos and go 1-1, so I was determined to do just that and give Livestrong the best possible exposure I could. The day started off perfectly with a much-needed win in Moto 1 that allowed me to gain a big chunk of points. I was feeling great and was right where I wanted to be to start Moto 2, with a shot to jump into the early lead. To this day I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but the next thing I know I experienced one of the most unusual crashes of my career while trying to make a pass for the lead. It looked bigger than it really was, but my focus shifted away from winning and instead became about minimizing the damage in points. I fought hard and was able to salvage an eighth-place finish. It was certainly disappointing given everything going on that day, but that effort put me into a four-way tie for second overall. Even though I got the worst of the tiebreaker and finished fifth, I was able to leave with my head held high given I didn’t lose any points in the title fight.
The day, and that opportunity with Livestrong as a whole, ultimately proved to be the gateway to my increased philanthropic efforts as my career moved forward. My time representing Livestrong was truly memorable as it allowed me to learn about charitable efforts, meet some great people, help those who needed it the most, and keep my grandmother’s memory alive. Most of all, it allowed me to understand that this cause, the fight against cancer, was so much bigger than myself or my sport. It was ultimately about humanity and the opportunity to help others who don’t have the same resources. We’re always going to be more successful collectively versus individually. That was something I learned early on in my racing career and it’s what I loved the most about being part of the efforts of Livestrong and eventually St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Now that I’ve hung up my helmet and my boots, giving back is at the core of passions in life. I will continue to do everything I can to better the lives of others. I am so grateful that this race played such a significant role in my life, both on the track and particularly off of it, and I’m glad I was able to share this fond memory with all of you.