Three years ago, LeRoy Hayes was overweight and shy.
"I used to walk around with my head down. I didn't talk to anybody."
At 5-6 and 283 pounds, the 10th grader was obese and pre-diabetic. Climbing the stairs left him panting. He was an unlikely recruit for the new bike team at his charter school in West Philadelphia.
The first few times he rode a bike, he was so wobbly that he needed a steadying hand. On the modest hill near the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, he would dismount halfway up and walk to the top.
"Every ride he went a little farther," says his coach, Ryan Oelkers. "You could see the determination on his face."
"I felt like my body was being pushed to its breaking point," Hayes recalled in the college essay he would later write. "Almost every night, halfway through practice, I felt like just calling it quits."
Every practice, Oelkers kept reminding Hayes: "Determination is the key to doing great things."
"It was his words that made the brutal workouts bearable," Hayes says.
Today, Hayes, 18, is a college-bound senior and captain of the cycling squad for the Pumas of Mastery Charter School, Shoemaker Campus. He is six feet tall and weighs a lean 179 pounds. He has finished first in several bike races, and last summer, after learning to swim, he even entered, and won, a triathlon. Nowadays, a 60-mile afternoon practice ride to Valley Forge and back is a breeze.
Poised and confident, he holds his head high and has emerged as a team and school leader.
Cycling has transformed not only his physique and personality. It has also fortified his character and turned him into a conscientious student. On the SAT exam, he achieved the school's highest score. He has applied to several colleges and is hoping to gain admission to the University of Vermont, which has one of the top cycling programs in the country and where he plans to major in biological science. He will be the first member of his family to advance to higher education.
"I'm a complete 180 degrees from where I was," he marvels.
Much of the credit belongs to Oelkers and the Cadence Cycling Foundation, a nonprofit started under the aegis of Cadence Cycling and Multisport, the retail store and training center for endurance athletes in Manayunk, where Oelkers was director of performance.
Oelkers, 37, a former pro cyclist, hatched the idea after seeing the reaction of children at a Northeast Philly elementary school to a 2003 visit by Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Marty Nothstein.
"They all wanted to know where they could go to learn cycling and how they could get involved," Oelkers says. He envisioned a program that would not only introduce city kids to cycling but also build character and prepare them for college.
"The goal is to find the next Lance Armstrong and also to teach life skills," Oelkers says.
During bike rides, Oelkers pitched the scheme to cycling enthusiast and Cadence Multisport president and CEO Jay Snider (son of Ed). Snider was game and launched the foundation in 2007.
Today, 140 boys and girls between ages 9 and 18 train and race on 13 teams in Philadelphia, Camden, and Wilmington. Cadence, supported by corporate and individual sponsors, supplies all the equipment (bikes, helmets, uniforms, etc.) as well as coaching.
The bicycle is not just a conveyance, says Oelkers, the foundation's executive director. It's a tool for broadening horizons, elevating aspirations, exposing young people to enriching experiences and exemplary adults. The more proficient riders graduate to local cycling clubs, such as the Quaker City Wheelmen, and all participants are encouraged to strive for college. Cadence offers SAT coaching, guidance in preparing college essays and applications and filing for scholarships and financial aid.
"Whether it's making it to the top of the hill, losing weight, doing better in school, becoming a professional cyclist, or getting into college, it's our job to help each and every one achieve their goals," Oelkers says.
While Cadence offers opportunities, it's up to the kids to turn those opportunities into accomplishments. Their willingness to do the necessary hard work was evident one afternoon last week when Oelkers led them through a grueling indoor workout. They sprinted on Spinning bikes ("C'mon, wind it up!" Oelkers urged, as their legs whirred). They scampered up four flights of stairs, ran down corridors, did push-ups, leg lifts, jumping jacks, and crunches.
"You don't see a lot of inner-city kids cycling," said Sam Cowans afterward. Co-captain of the cycling team, Cowans, 18, is president of the National Honor Society at Mastery and headed to Bucknell. "But when you see improvement, it gives you a sense of accomplishment. This helps me stay focused and stay on track."
Mastery freshman Brenea Mitchell, 15, who aspires to attend an Ivy League college and become a veterinarian, says of her cycling experience: "It's made me faster and stronger. I'm able to do more things and I'm more energetic. I'm determined not to be mediocre but to go above and beyond."
For information, call 267-973-5821 or visit www.cadencefoundation.org.
Contact columnist Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or email@example.com.