Champion riders return home

It rained on all but one day of the weeklong motorcycle trip – and rained on the welcome-back party – but the riders just reminded themselves of who they were cruising for – those battling breast cancer who face the fight every day. Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell returned this weekend from New Orleans in their third annual motorcycle ride to raise funds and awareness.

The riders were home in time for Mother's Day – an apropos arrival considering the cause – and an especially sweet one for Nikki Caldwell, the Oak Ridge, Tenn., native who just completed her first season as the head coach at UCLA. The timing of the ride meant she was home to see her mother, as she otherwise would have been in Los Angeles since the Bruins are still finishing the last quarter of school.

Holly Warlick and Caldwell created the yearly treks and have now ridden from Berkeley to Knoxville (September 2007); to Key West, Fla., and back (May 2008) and to New Orleans and back (May 2009). New York is the preliminary destination next year, but that is not definite yet.

The motorcyclists plus the RV-support vehicle and trailer of gear rolled onto Market Square on Saturday evening with a police escort and welcome-back party with recording artists Sellers Wray, which was sponsored by Regal Entertainment.

Police escort the riders and RV to the downtown square, where a crowd waited to welcome them back. (Photo by MMC)

The rain was intermittent before and during the party, but dozens of hearty supporters waited for the riders and stayed afterwards to greet the entire crew, buy T-shirts and hats, place bids for an orange guitar, pink basketball signed by Pat Summitt, a Tennessee basketball signed by Bruce Pearl and two Summitt bobbleheads, get autographs and photos and take shots on an arcade hoop.

Summitt had wanted to make an appearance but was hosting an event at her house to raise money for The Florence Crittenton Agency, and was not able to get to the square.

She did ask Warlick and Caldwell to report every night on the trip when they arrived at their destination because she fretted about her two former players – Warlick is also the associate head coach for Tennessee – being on motorcycles.

"We had to call and check in," Warlick said. "She's excited about what we're doing, but I think she wants us to ride bicycles and not motorcycles. She knows it's a great cause, but she does worry, along with everybody else. To be honest we worry at times, too, when the weather's bad, it gets a little tense out there, but it's all worthwhile."

Warlick and Caldwell interviewed themselves for one media spot shortly after getting back home.

"You look great being on the road for seven days," Warlick told Caldwell. "How's your backside?"

"A little wet because we got a little rain on the way, but other than that it was great," Caldwell said. "Just hopped on that bike and got in that bad weather and we didn't mind because we were doing something great. And can you talk a little more about that cause?"

"We were raising money for research to help find a cure for breast cancer and make sure that breast cancer does not continue to affect women," Warlick said.

"Do you have a question for me?" Caldwell asked.

"No, not really," said Warlick, as both riders laughed.

The duo then turned questions over to the media and fielded a lighthearted one first. Despite spending a week on a motorcycle, Caldwell stepped off the bike Saturday looking like someone from central casting.

Nikki Caldwell shortly after arriving in Knoxville. (Photo by MMC)

"She's just young," Warlick said.

"I think you get a little Visine and the key is to already have your makeup pre-done," Caldwell said. "Then it just comes from inside. That's it."

The coaches spoke to the crowd to thank the sponsors, donors and those who came out in the inclement weather to welcome back the group.

Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell talk to supporters during the welcome-back party. (Photo by MMC)

With the return on Mother's Day weekend, Caldwell got the chance to see her mother in person.

"We didn't schedule that; it just worked out that way," Caldwell said. "We're going to spend some time with our mothers. It's all about understanding and appreciating what you do have. I am just grateful I was able to come back and be a part of this. I wouldn't miss it for the world. Mother's Day is a special day. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them. I'm glad I'm able to be on this side of the country. This is always going to be home for me."

Caldwell will return to California this week after a short stay that includes a speaking engagement.

"It's always good to come back and see my family and my one friend, Holly," Caldwell joked. "Right now we're still in school, but my team knows what I'm doing, and I told them just to make sure they take care of business while I'm gone."

Organizers added a trip to Children's Hospital while in New Orleans, a few photos of which can be found in a musical tribute to the ride at Cruisin' to New Orleans .

"We got to sit down and meet a lot of kids and their parents and hear their stories," Warlick said. "Our cause is for breast cancer, but we feel kids are just as important as well."

The motorcade also was part of New Orleans' inaugural biker week and rode in the official parade.

"It was really neat," Warlick said. "We rode behind the Clydesdales. It went slow and it got hot, but it was cool. It was fun. We had a great time. The weather wasn't all great (for the week), but I know we're doing some great things."

The entourage did make a stop in Tupelo, Miss., and toured Elvis Presley's birthplace, a two-room home. Warlick got a souvenir little Elvis statue, which was broken and repaired as blogged here: Champions Blog.

Alas, little Elvis sustained additional damage the day before the return to Knoxville.

"I busted him for the last time," Warlick said. "He went in about six pieces. He slipped out of my hand."

The crew welcomed the sight of Tennessee – the state welcome sign is in the musical tribute – and will continue to raise money via the website at: : Champions Funds.

"It's great to be back home," Warlick said. "We're driven by donations to help support us."

"I think every year we see and meet new people," Caldwell said. "Anything that we can do to build awareness and raise revenue in the fight against breast cancer we'll do it. It's always great when you love to ride motorcycles and you're able to get out there on the highway. We went through the Natchez Trace, which was a great ride.

"It's such an unbelievable experience to be able to meet with survivors, speak to them, hear their stories. We have been affected by breast cancer – so many women have and men. There is nothing like getting on that Harley and riding for them."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories