Coaches cruise into Knoxville

Some 3,100 miles, 1,900 gallons of gasoline and 300 liters of Gatorade later, Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell roared into Knoxville on Wednesday to complete their cross-country motorcycle journey to raise money to fight breast cancer.

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt joked that she had missed her assistants so much that she had replaced them and hired two other coaches. Warlick and Caldwell will actually be back on the court Thursday – the Lady Vols players have started preseason workouts – and Warlick noted that the next time she is on a stage, she wants to be celebrating another national title.

The idea to raise money for breast cancer awareness belonged to Warlick, an avid motorcycle enthusiast who had not spent much time on a bike lately.

She talked Caldwell into joining her – they tried to get Summitt to go, but the head coach said, "I don't ride those things" – and with the corporate help of Kinko's and FedEx and a dedicated support team that commandeered the RV, the assistants flew to California for the Cal-Tennessee football season opener in Berkeley and then cruised back to Knoxville astride motorcycles.

The bikes had been shipped ahead of time and one belonged to the late Tom Cronan, who succumbed a year ago to pancreatic cancer. He also had embarked on a cross-country motorcycle trip to raise money and awareness for cancer patients.

"Holly drove it back," said Lady Vol Athletics Director Joan Cronan, the widow of Tom. "I think that's really special."

The event, officially called "Volunteers Cruisin' For a Cause," culminated in downtown Knoxville when the coaches and an entourage of riders who joined the convoy for the last leg followed a police escort into Market Square. The square was full of vendors and event sponsors, along with booths to buy T-shirts and caps and donate to the cause. The official web site is www.volunteerscruisin.com.

A stage had been erected for a band to play live music and to hold a ceremony to acknowledge the effort of the coaches and their support team.

A crowd of about 300 had gathered prior to their arrival and when the roar of the motorcycles could be heard, the cheering began. That was actually piped in on some speakers so when the riders didn't appear, emcee Mickey Dearstone joked that perhaps they had stopped to eat. Just then the real sounds of motorcycles and police sirens filled the air, and the crowd cheered again.

The coaches, wearing blue jeans, pink shirts, sunglasses and do-rags, climbed off their bikes and headed to the stage to join Summitt and Cronan. At least two dozen bikes from the convoy ringed the stage as other riders cruised in behind them to the tune of "A Little Help From My Friends."

The city of Knoxville and Knox County declared September 12 to be "Volunteers Cruisin' for a Cause Day," and the coaches were provided with the official proclamations.

The caravan left California on Sept. 2 and rolled across the Tennessee state line on Monday.

"If you could have gotten a picture of our faces smiling, it was priceless," Warlick said of seeing the "Tennessee Welcomes You" sign as they spanned the bridge over the Mississippi River.

Caldwell said the riders threw their fists in their air as they crossed the border to their home state.

Warlick used her time on the stage to encourage people to conduct self-exams and get mammograms. She also acknowledged the breast cancer survivors who were in attendance.

Warlick's closing remarks brought some rousing applause: "The next time I stand up here I hope I'm celebrating a national championship."

Caldwell asked for the Lady Vols basketball players who were in attendance, senior Alexis Hornbuckle, junior Alex Fuller and freshman Angie Bjorklund, to come up to the front of the stage. She also asked the upperclassmen if they were ready to win another title to go with the 2007 one and if Bjorklund was ready to help the team defend it. The players nodded and reached up to hug their coaches. They had to leave immediately afterwards because of class commitments. Teammate Cait McMahan, who had knee surgery in June and is now off crutches, also had been present earlier.

"We missed them, and they told us they missed us," Caldwell said.

Caldwell also thanked the support crew and had those members come to the front of the stage to be acknowledged by the crowd.

Cronan thanked the coaches for what they had done to raise awareness of cancer treatments, and Summitt called them "difference makers."

Summitt singled out Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, who also was in attendance, and noted that the two of them had been busy in the coaches' absence.

"We missed them so much we hired a couple of other people," Summitt said. "Seriously, I'm glad they're here safe and sound. I think we'll all remember what they did for a great cause."

The coaches then mingled with fans, who got autographs and photos, and later returned to the stage to present a check for $40,000, the amount of money raised on the tour.

Ralph and Karen Weekly, the co-head softball coaches, were in attendance. UT men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl also arrived and joined Summitt on stage to thank Caldwell and Warlick for their efforts.

Pearl, who rearranged his schedule to make the event, had been out recruiting. He noted that every day he goes to work, "I'm the second-best coach in the office," and he also lauded the Lady Vol assistants for their basketball acumen.

Pearl then grabbed a microphone and encouraged Summitt to sing along with him to the live band's rendition of "Mustang Sally ... Ride, Sally, Ride." Pearl and Summitt sang and swayed, and Pearl boomed out the chorus while Warlick and Caldwell shook some tambourines on beat.

Pearl improvised the lyrics once to sing, "Ride Nikki and Holly, Ride," and showed a few nifty dance moves. The coaches also joked that they didn't know all the lyrics so they also shouted and clapped their hands in their air.

Salon Visage donated a day at the spa for both assistant coaches, but Caldwell, 35, and Warlick, 49, hardly looked worse for the wear.

"She's young," Warlick said with a laugh. But "I'm the one who decided to do it."

"You just got up every morning and the adrenaline was running because you knew you were doing this for a great cause," Caldwell said. "I was just very enthused and excited about it. Very happy to be home, but it was great on the road with the group that we had and team that we had. I'm going to miss getting up at 6 a.m. and getting on the road. I am not going to miss the hot weather or the rain. I was looking forward to getting back home."

The coaches posted daily blogs on the group's web site and also provided photos of their stops and rallies in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee.

"We were committed to blogging every rally, every day," Caldwell said. "We had great people taking photos. We really wanted to share the ride with as many people as we possibly could.

"Each rally site we went to it picked up more and more people. We had Lady Vol fans come out and support us and alumni. It's been a fabulous time for us."

The journey was the fulfillment of a lifelong goal for Warlick.

"I always wanted to ride a motorcycle across country and I thought, ‘If I am going to do it, I'm going to do it for a reason,' " said Warlick, who lost her grandmother to breast cancer.

Warlick also cited several friends and people associated with the Lady Vol program over the years who have battled breast cancer.

ABC's Robin Roberts, an anchor on "Good Morning America," and a former women's basketball commentator, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. One of the late Tom Cronan's stops on his motorcycle tour in 2005 to raise awareness for support and wellness plans for cancer survivors was an appearance with Roberts on GMA.

"It was an easy choice for me" to decide what cause to connect with the cross-country cruise, said Warlick, who rode Cronan's bike on this tour. "I know Robin really well. I've written her, and our thoughts and prayers are with her. We thought about her on this ride several times. We're going to watch her and watch her get better."

Warlick said the trip turned out to "be more fun than I thought it would be," but she was thrilled to be home. Her family came to the rally in Nashville on Tuesday and brought Warlick's beloved dogs so she could see them before she got home after 11 days on the road.

The trip was almost surreal because the riders lived in the cocoon of the road and the RV. They didn't read newspapers or watch television.

"I didn't feel like I was in touch with the real world," Warlick said.

Warlick noted that what the group encountered on the route – rain, scorching temperatures and high winds – pales compared to what a breast cancer patient must endure on a daily basis.

Warlick and Caldwell were joined on the last leg of the journey by a pack of riders, who lined up with the convoy and parked their bikes on Market Square.

"When we saw all these people with us, it was amazing," Warlick said. "The police escort was unbelievable. That's when it hit us that we're doing something that's made a difference."


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