“I visited Alex [Rubin] over winter break, and I was just sitting in his house with his mom when I said, ‘Hey, do you want to ride your bike across the country this summer?’ Said junior Emily Talkow. “And [Rubin’s] Mom just started laughing.
This summer, two WashU softball players, Talkow and senior Alex Rubin, were interned at Stroke Onward, a non-profit organization dedicated to reconstructing the identities of stroke survivors, one aspect of the process of often overlooked recovery. As part of their internship, the two players joined the founders of Stroke Onward on a cross-country cycling trip lasting about three months.
“Stroke Onward’s message and the meaning of this journey is so important,” Talkow said. “We didn’t even know what aphasia was until this summer. As a result of a stroke, aphasia is something that affects communication, but it doesn’t affect the intellect at all. It was eye-opening to see so many survivors. The subject needs education.
According to Stroke Onward, survivors face enormous challenges, especially with regards to physical abilities and communication which can shake and even shatter their sense of self.
The nonprofit was founded by former Stanford professor Debra Meyerson and her husband Steve Zuckerman after Meyerson suffered a stroke in 2010.
Meyerson was a professor at Stanford, and now she has trouble communicating. “Immediately after her stroke, she couldn’t say her name or the names of her children. It absolutely impacts your identity,” Talkow said.
Now, Meyerson’s goal is to help create a stroke care system that treats the whole person, physically and emotionally.
Talkow and Rubin have joined Stroke Onward on their annual cross-country bike trip: Stroke Across America. They began their trip on May 18 and ended it on August 24 in Boston. Beginning on the west coast of Oregon, the two bears covered 4,500 miles and 147,000 feet of climbing in 100 days, in a team of six riders.
The crew consisted of WashU’s two students, Meyerson, Zuckerman, another stroke survivor, a traumatic brain injury survivor, and Meyerson’s dog, Rusti. The crew was also followed by an RV which served as a mobile headquarters for the trip.
Talkow’s grandfather cycled across America three times. Boopah, as Talkow affectionately calls her, suffered a stroke a decade ago and is still recovering. As a result, she reached out to join Stroke Across America to honor her grandfather. Zuckerman returned his email asking Talkow to intern for the nonprofit while taking the bike trip. Talkow agreed and involved Rubin as a second trainee and cycling member.
As an intern for Stroke Onward, the junior helped organize and plan events for the organization. These events brought together stroke survivors and members of the local community to raise awareness of Stroke Onward’s mission.
“We had 15 different events, as we traveled across the country, that I had to help organize,” Talkow said.
Rubin, the Philadelphia native, joined Stroke Onward as a media production intern during the trip.
“For me, it was definitely a big decision to join,” Rubin said. “I don’t particularly like my major (architecture), so it’s not something I’m looking to pursue after college. So, I was in this weird limbo of what I wanted to do. I worked for WashU Athletics doing photo and video content and graphics, so I was looking to do something along those lines this summer.
“I was doing all kinds of social media content, from photo to video,” Rubin said. “[Meyerson] and [Zuckerman] also wanted to make a documentary about their stroke and recovery experience, using that trip as a basis to tell that story.
“I’m probably splitting my time [between] social networks and this documentary. I was working with an LA producer and videographer who worked remotely and met with us several times throughout the trip. A lot of my work ended up being filming and organizing media. One of the coolest things was learning to fly a drone to capture some really crazy footage,” Rubin said.
Both softball players worked 40 hours a week while cycling across the country.
On average, Rubin and Talkow woke up around 6 a.m., packed up their tent, and had breakfast.
“You want to get up early to beat the sun and [the] heat,” Rubin said.
The crew cycled 60 to 90 miles a day, with various breaks dotted around. After reaching their end point for the day, the student-athletes were wrapping up their softball practice in the evening – on top of an already grueling day of biking.
“It would have been much more difficult, but [Rubin and I] I didn’t ride my bike every day,” Talkow said. “We would go one day — the next day off — and alternate. So we only rode together for a few days. On the days we weren’t riding, we drove the RV and finished our work as an intern.
“At the end of the day, we were having dinner with everyone, which was always a really high point,” Rubin said. “We were just hanging out with [Meyerson], [Zuckerman]and Rusti, and they became like parents to us.
The journey, however, was not without its challenges. Rubin lists the day she rode from Darby, Montana to Wisdom, Montana as one of the toughest obstacles she had to overcome.
“It was gray and cold – my legs were already gassed before I even started, and I had only crossed one mountain pass by then,” Rubin said. “I knew I would have felt disappointed if I had stopped halfway, so I kind of decided it was all or nothing. It was literally the hardest workout I have ever done in my life. And I’m a gym rat – I train a lot – but it continued. And I was just like, ‘Damn, I’m gonna finish this thing.’ It was such a special moment after that day and the feeling of being on top of the world,” Rubin said.
The pass from Darby to Wisdom was 4,145 feet of climbing, the highest one-day elevation gain of the trip.
Beyond connecting and educating stroke survivors, Talkow and Rubin noted the unlikely connections they’ve made across the country.
“I realized how much we judge places and people. Time and time again in these small towns, we walked in with inherent judgments, and we were just shown every time,” Rubin said. “You wonder, ‘Who even lives here?’ And the response was usually the nicest people you’ve ever met. It’s a little slap in the face whenever you’re shocked by your own judgments.
“At the start of the journey, we were recording conversations with strangers with whom we felt connected. [to]”, Talkow said. “We kept asking the same question: ‘Where or how do you find happiness in your life?’ As you talk to people, you realize that almost everyone is talking about family and the people around them, very few have said anything material.
“One of my favorite responses was this fisherman in Ashton, Idaho at this little soda shop,” Talkow said. “It was this guy in the fly-fishing outfit, and he said, ‘I don’t need to find happiness, it’s just inside.’ Seeing how many good people are out there is something that has definitely opened our eyes. There is so much good out there.