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On a Mission of Peace

Mike Savicki, A90

To look into the eyes of the people along Vietnam's Highway One is to see the country as it exists today. The eyes of the old men and women are the eyes of the past. They have seen war, oppression, economic hardship and conflict. And they show the blemishes and scars of a difficult life in a developing country. The eyes of Vietnam's children are the eyes of the future. They see opportunities for growth, images of a brighter future and a belief in the possible.

For 16 days in January 1998, these eyes were focused on a singular team of American and Vietnamese athletes who rode 1,200 miles in the Vietnam Challenge, the first sporting event officially sanctioned by both the United States and Vietnamese governments in over 30 years.

Our team comprised American and Vietnamese athletes, able-bodied and disabled, men and women, Vietnam veterans and nonveterans. We were joined as well by notable athletes such as Tour De France Champion Greg LeMond, world-record endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, and political leaders such as United States Senator John Kerry and Pete Peterson, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam. Together we rode from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) on a mission of peace and reconciliation. Blind athletes rode on the back of tandem bicycles, paralyzed athletes rode handcycles, amputees pedaled with the assistance of prosthetic limbs. Able-bodied cyclists made up the remainder of the team.

As we rode south from Hanoi, we passed through the battlefields of the Vietnam War and the remains of abandoned air strips, bunkers and war zones. We were welcomed by Vietnamese men who once fought against Americans. We shared meals with families whose sons and daughters perished during the rage of war. And we visited classrooms overflowing with young children who wanted to learn more about democracy, American culture, fashion and lifestyles. Finishing at the steps of Reunification Hall before an audience of thousands, our team did something that 30 years ago would have been impossible.

In a world divided by cultural inequality, racial prejudice, religious persecution, ethnic strife and political injustice, it is amazing to see how something as simple as a bicycle ride can bring us together. Sports are a universal language spoken and understood by all people. And more sporting events like the Vietnam Challenge may be what our world needs to build one global community. These events have the power to heal and to promote understanding.

For many of the veterans on the Vietnam Challenge, the ride provided an opportunity to see Vietnam as a country and not a war. It gave them a chance to see that, just as their lives had changed since the war, so too had Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. I saw how their nervousness and anxiety gave way to feelings of excitement, accomplishment and teamwork; I saw friendships form between American and Vietnamese teammates who had similar disabilities or who pedaled their bicycles at similar speeds. In effect, the Vietnam Challenge was more than a test of physical determination and stamina; it was a case study about the need for understanding and the ability to forgive.

The Vietnam Challenge did not end when our team left Ho Chi Minh City. It lives on through school visits by team- mates, an interactive educational web site (www.askasia.org), and an Emmy Award­winning documentary, Vietnam Long Time Coming, from the creators of Hoop Dreams. Made in association with Sports Illustrated Television and World T.E.A.M. Sports, the film is a compelling account of our journey as seen through the eyes of several of the team members. Winner of the 1998 Emmy for Outstanding Program Achievement, among other national and international honors, the film is a social inquiry into how we can build bridges in even the most difficult circumstances. It continues to be an educational tool in colleges and universities around the world and is the centerpiece of an outreach program in secondary and post-secondary schools across the country.

The Vietnam Challenge taught me about my social responsibilities as a citizen: tolerance, open-mindedness, disability awareness, compassion and cultural sensitivity. Most important, it taught me about valuing and advancing diversity, embracing those whose views might appear different from mine. I realized that even the most ardent adversaries can, and should, understand that in the end, we all ride the same road.

Mike Savicki, a multisport disabled athlete, is the only athlete to have competed in the Boston Marathon on foot and in a wheelchair. He earned his MBA in 1994 from the Duke University Fuqua School of Business and is an associate director of World T.E.A.M. (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports (www.worldteamsports.org).

   

 

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