WESTPORT —You could not have asked for a better day for the CT Challenge Bike Ride. Riders, volunteers and supporters filled the field at the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Westport on Saturday all celebrating one thing: survivorship.
When Jeff Keith and John Ragland co-founded the CT Challenge in 2005, their hope was to focus on supporting those affected by cancer and giving them a place to come after treatment to regain strength in body, mind and spirit.
“It’s all about getting strong after treatment, because treatment can absolutely demolish a person,” Director of Marketing and Communications Pam Dey said. “If you go through a cardiac event or orthopedic surgery, you go into rehab, you’re given physical therapy and you’re given some sort of rehab program. Cancer survivors get nothing. They’re dropped off a cliff, so we’re all about changing that.”
By focusing on the benefits of exercise, nutrition and wellness, the Challenge Center has been able to do just that for all of those who seek its services, including rising Fairfield Warde senior basketball and baseball player Giacomo Brancato.
Brancato was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma last winter and has been working with the CT Challenge in the gym to keep his body strong after chemotherapy treatments.
“They’ve been really helpful,” Brancato said. “The gym there is really clean, and during chemotherapy you can’t really get sick, so at a regular gym you’d probably get more germs.”
Brancato weaved his way through the tents of all of the different teams that came out to ride for the cause, but what made Brancato’s first time as a part of the event truly special was all of those who were taking the time to support him in his battle, including the Fairfield Ludlowe boys basketball team.
Led by their head coach, John Dailey, he gathered his players together after Brancato’s AAU coach Paul Krumins approached him about the CT Challenge event.
“He asked if I wanted to put a team together or ride on Giacomo’s team, and I said absolutely,” Dailey said. “So, we put our basketball team together. A lot of these guys are friends with Giacomo even though they don’t go to Warde. It is one town. There are two schools but it is one town, so he’s like one of our own. We wanted to show our support in any way that we could and this was a great platform to do it.”
After learning of Brancato’s diagnosis around the time of Ludlowe’s Holiday Tournament, it happened to be that his last game of the season would be against Ludlowe in its gym.
“It just kind of turned out to be a really good rallying point for Giacomo with the game and the rivalry, but it was also a great way to get the town involved and to support him in his battle, which was great,” Dailey said.
Dailey and the Ludlowe boys joined teams alike in the ride, including other public school teams such as Monroe and even college basketball teams from Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University, all there to show their support for those touched by cancer.
Director of Rider Recruitment Gillian Clark attested to all of the support that schools around the area have been providing for the cause, just like the basketball team did for Ludlowe.
“It’s great for them to learn at a young age about giving back,” she said.
Everyone who was at the event had someone different to honor, a different inspiration and a unique reason to celebrate survivorship. There was CT Challenge board member and captain of Team Ride Sally Ride George Richards and his family, who rode in tribute to his late wife. Richards had everything to be happy about when his youngest daughter Kate joined him for the first time in the 10-mile ride. Honorary co-chairman of the event Bobby Valentine wore a huge smile as he crossed the finish line. Valentine, an avid cyclist, said he was inspired to ride because of all that the Center stands for.
“Great people doing great things,” Valentine said. “Jeff Keith is an inspiration for so many over the last decade, and to put something like this together is just spectacular.”
Then you have kids like the Ludlowe basketball team, rallying behind Brancato and supporting his fight and everything he has done with the Center, showing that even though they may be rivals one or two nights on the court, when one of their own needs it, they can count on support.
“When news comes across that one of your friends is afflicted with such a terrible situation health-wise, you want to do anything you can to show support and help them out,” Dailey said. When I kind of put the team together, a lot of them jumped right on board and were very willing to raise money and ride this morning. We had a great time, and it was great for Giacomo to see those guys from Ludlowe there today showing their support.”
“I would’ve probably never found out about this, like I didn’t know about it last year or the years before, but I wish that I could have done it before I got diagnosed,” Brancato said. “It means a lot. Everyone who participated means a lot. Throughout this whole thing, everyone has just helped a lot.”
Brancato and the support that has rallied behind him in the past six months is exactly the kind of spirit that the Challenge strives for, and truly what the Ride is all about.
“I just think it’s valuable from a lot of viewpoints,” Dey said. “They’re funding a very worthy cause, but it’s what it does for them and their character and where that leads to the future, and that they are connecting with a part of our population that is exploding — cancer survivors and people who have been touched by cancer — it’s just good from a lot of different levels. It supports what we’re trying to achieve here.”