VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Cancer’s ultimate victory came calling just when a 20-year-old Chickasaw woman was waging war to defeat it.
Sierra Welch was a few days into a grueling 4,700-mile bicycle trek from Austin to Anchorage when the devastating news arrived.
Her boyfriend, Drew Herbort, relayed the unthinkable—his grandmother, Omie, was gone. The breast cancer she valiantly battled proved too aggressive and too tenacious. The family set upon the agonizing task of funeral preparation.
The University of Texas senior accepted the news from afar, disheartened, saddened and very conflicted. She struggled to decide whether to stay on the road or abandon the effort.
Her emotional turmoil was not necessary.
It wasn’t time to stop and grieve, the Herbort family told her, it was time to ride, forcefully and with renewed determination, in honor of Omie’s memory and a hat doff to Sierra’s own brother who survived an especially vicious form of cancer 26 years earlier.
Finding peace amid anguish
Sierra found solace in the Texas 4000 Summer Ride, the longest annual charity bike ride in the world to raise cash for scientists toiling to discover that elusive lethal cocktail to obliterate cancer.
“I talked to Drew and his family. They wanted me to stay on the ride and continue. It was really, really difficult not to go home and be with the family. Before she passed, I was sending her pictures of my trip daily,” Sierra recalled. “And even though I wanted to be at the funeral more than anything, I knew by staying on the ride, I was doing the next best thing to honor her memory,” she added.
Sierra’s father represented the Welch family at the Fredericksburg funeral.
Rolling up the Contributions
Sierra and other Texas 4000 riders surpassed the initial contribution goal of $250,000 before any of them put foot to pedal to depart Austin.
The bicyclists decided $500,000 seemed like a sound figure to pursue.
When Sierra and her team rested and recouped in Seattle July 13, the half-million dollar goal disappeared as contributions rolled in.
The group then determined $580,000 had a nice ring to it.
As bicyclists chug onward—approximately two days of travel remain—the team has surpassed the $580,000 goal and it looks as if more than $600,000 will be raised when the Anchorage city limit sign looms large at trip’s end.
Intense Hatred of Cancer
Sierra is the youngest of five children. She was not yet born when her brother, Jake, lay dying at 2 years old; a cancerous growth discovered attached to his brain stem.
Physicians recommended unconventional intervention—tough, aggressive and expensive. The insurance provider said “no” because it was an experimental protocol. However, traditional treatment was accompanied by a withering 10 percent success rate.
Sierra’s father, John, vigorously argued with the powers-that-be that Jake be part of the experimental treatment. The insurance providers relented when doctors at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas joined the fight.
Jake is 28 now and served four years in the U.S. Navy. He was recently discharged and is completing his degree at the University of North Texas in Denton.
“I ride for my brother. I ride for Omie. I ride for science. I ride for hope. I ride to beat cancer for good” Sierra exclaims. “My brother and all the other children who fought for their life lit a fire deep inside of me. I have witnessed family members, friends and complete strangers go through this fight. My fire and passionate hatred for cancer has only been fueled. It is now an insurmountable inferno.”
Sharing the Hope
Embarking on the Texas 4000 mission accords Sierra the ability to share her passion. Joining the group is not for fair-weather participants.
The last 18 months, Sierra has immersed herself within the organization, bicycled 1,500 miles, spent countless hours in community service and played an active role in planning every aspect of the 2014 excursion.
Comprised entirely of University of Texas students, Sierra is a Human Development and Family Science student whose desire is to use her education as a life specialist for children.
Seventy-nine UT riders are advancing on Anchorage following three separate routes – one through the Sierras, one through the Ozarks, and lastly the Rockies. Ironically, Sierra is forging ahead on the Sierra jaunt.
Along the journey, students visit with people tragically touched by the disease. They listen to stories, share their own and even bed down in sponsors’ homes if fortunate enough to elude camping overnight. They visit hospitals. They encourage involvement. They hope for a cure.
Getting to Know Her
Sierra has departed Canada and now is in Alaska. All riders will converge together on the trail and take Anchorage en masse probably on August 8.
You can meet the young Dallasite via the Web at http://www.texas4000.org/rider/2014/sierra/sierra-welch/.
Sierra is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and cousin to Tessie Lushanya Mobley (1906-1990) one of the world’s most famous and beloved operatic sopranos in the 1940s and 1950s. An inductee of the Chickasaw Nation Hall of Fame, Mobley was known as the “Songbird of the Chickasaws.”
“This is the most amazing and beautiful experience of my life,” Sierra proclaims. “We have met cancer survivors and heard their stories. We have met families of those who lost the fight. I am so proud and humbled how the Texas 4000 comforts and encourages them as we all desperately seek a cure.”