Road warriors make a difference

When Holly Warlick and the Champions for a Cause crew made a stop in Utah, a Lady Vol fan who had recently lost her daughter to breast cancer approached them to talk. It's encounters like that that keep the basketball coach and foundation co-founder Nikki Caldwell on the road every year to raise awareness about the devastating disease and funds for those fighting it.

The annual motorcycle trek began this month in Sturgis, S.D., and ended last week, after six days on the road, in Las Vegas, Nev.

Traci Smith, a resident of Knoxville, Tenn., and longtime supporter of the Lady Vols, has driven the recreational vehicle, which hauls the trailer of gear, as part of the Champions support crew each year since the foundation formed in 2007. This May, Smith drove to Sturgis from Tennessee and then back home from Nevada.

The penultimate day of the motorcycle caravan included a journey through the Flaming Gorge region of Utah with snowfall and freezing temperatures awaiting the riders.

"It was a little unexpected," Holly Warlick said. "We didn't expect the snow and the sleet."

Photos of that leg of the trip are on the Champions for a Cause Facebook page.

The trickiest assignment that day likely was Smith having to navigate the RV in those road conditions.

"She does a great job," Warlick said. "She drives it like a truck. If she ever lost her job (back home in Knoxville) she could be a truck driver. We have a core of people that go every year and are very committed."

That core includes a few hardcore motorcycle riders who make sure Caldwell and Warlick stay safe in the pack.

"It makes Nikki and I feel comfortable," Warlick said. "They make us feel very safe. They map out the trip. We have a couple of guys in front of us and a guy behind us to make sure we're doing the right things and staying safe. It got a little touch and go there (in the Gorge) for awhile."

After arrival in Nevada, the Champions crew visited the Comprehensive Cancer Centers, a stop organized by physicians back home in Tennessee. That visit included a session with Dr. Lawrence D. Gardner, whose practice is devoted exclusively to breast care with emphasis on breast cancer prevention and treatment.

"We had a chance to sit down and have a Q&A with him," Warlick said. "He had his nurses there with him. We spent about two hours with him. He was very informative."

Warlick and former Lady Vol player and assistant coach Nikki Caldwell started Champions for a Cause to raise awareness about breast cancer and also funding for research and support of those fighting the disease.

Caldwell, who got hired by LSU in April as the women's basketball head coach, acquired a purple motorcycle at the start of the trip.

"She saw a purple bike and bought it in Rapid City (South Dakota)," Warlick said. "They said they discontinued the color and they gave her a great deal on it so she purchased the bike while we were on the trip."

The bikes were shipped back home after the ride ended, and Warlick flew into Tennessee.

Next year's trip hasn't been finalized, but will likely include the state of Louisiana since Caldwell is now at LSU. Warlick said a warm climate would be welcome. The past two years, the rides have been to New York and back and South Dakota to Nevada.

"We're trying to tie in Nikki being in Baton Rouge," Warlick said.

The Champions had an additional former Lady Vol along for the ride this year in Jody Adams, who played for Tennessee from 1989 to 1993 – thus overlapping with Caldwell as a player and being coached by Warlick.

"I think she is going to try and go back next year," Warlick said. "It was good to have her."

This year's trek was one of the remotest with long stretches through Wyoming and Utah. That didn't stop the interaction with supporters, who waved from the road, spoke to the crew at stops and offered donations.

"We ran into a lady who is a real big Lady Vol fan whose daughter just passed away from breast cancer in Richfield, Utah," Warlick said. "She saw our trailer and came up and said she was big Lady Vol fan and her daughter had just passed away eight months ago.

"I know it brings back memories of all her daughter went through, but she was very appreciative of what we were doing."

Warlick and Caldwell are identified by their ties to Tennessee and lifelong careers in women's basketball, but they have both added another layer to their eventual legacies with their devotion to breast cancer awareness. This year saw the arrival of two new major sponsors in Wal-mart and Coca-Cola.

"We were proud of it and excited that they jumped aboard," Warlick said. "In church (this past Sunday) everybody goes, ‘How was your ride?' Everybody always comes up and asks how our team is and then how our ride is or when it is or how it went.

"It hits close to your heart. We're doing something that we think is for a great cause, and we think that we're making some kind of impact. It's getting bigger and bigger. I'm glad. That means people are aware of what we're doing and hopefully willing to help us."

Donations may be made online at Champions for a Cause.

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