Entering a different gear: varsity softball players Emily Talkow and Alex Rubin cycle across America

| Contributing Writer

Photo by Alex Rubin

“I visited Alex [Rubin] over winter break, and I was just sitting in her house with her mom when I said ‘Hey, do you want to ride your bike across the country this summer?’” said junior Emily Talkow. “And [Rubin’s] mom just started laughing.”

This summer, two WashU softball players, Talkow and senior Alex Rubin, interned at Stroke Onward, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rebuilding the identities of stroke survivors, an aspect of the recovery process that is often overlooked. As part of their internship, the two players joined the founders of Stroke Onward on a cross-country biking trip spanning roughly three months.

“The message of Stroke Onward and the meaning of this trip is so important,” said Talkow. “We didn’t even know what aphasia was before this summer. In the aftermath of a stroke, aphasia is something that affects communication, but it does not impact intellect at all. It was eye-opening seeing so many survivors. The topic needs education.” 

According to Stroke Onward, survivors face massive challenges, particularly regarding physical capabilities and communication that can shake and even shatter their self-perception. 

The nonprofit was founded by a former Stanford professor Debra Meyerson and her husband Steve Zuckerman after Meyerson suffered a stroke in 2010.

Meyerson was a Stanford professor, and now, she struggles to communicate. “Immediately after her stroke, she couldn’t say her name or her kids’ names. That absolutely impacts your identity,” Talkow said.

Now, Meyerson’s goal is to help create a stroke care system that treats the whole person, physically and emotionally. 

Talkow and Rubin joined Stroke Onward for their annual bicycle trip across the country: Stroke Across America. They began their trip on May 18 and completed it on Aug. 24 in Boston. Starting on the West Coast of Oregon, the two Bears completed 4,500 miles and 147,000 feet of climbing in 100 days, in a six-member biking crew.

The crew consisted of the two WashU students, Meyerson, Zuckerman, another stroke survivor, a traumatic brain injury survivor, and Meyerson’s dog Rusti. The crew was also followed by an RV that acted as the mobile headquarters for the trip. 

Talkow’s grandfather rode a bike across America three times. Boopah, as Talkow affectionately calls him, suffered a stroke about a decade ago and is still in the recovery process. As a result, she reached out to join Stroke Across America to honor her grandfather. Zuckerman returned her email asking for Talkow to intern for the nonprofit while completing the bike trip. Talkow agreed and got Rubin involved as a second intern and cycling member. 

As an intern for Stroke Onward, the junior helped organize and plan events for the organization. These events gathered stroke survivors and local community members in order to raise awareness for Stroke Onward’s mission.

“We had 15 different events, as we crossed the country, that I had to help organize,” Talkow said.

Rubin, the Philadelphia native, joined Stroke Onward as intern in charge of media output on the trip. 

“For me, it was definitely a big decision to join,” Rubin said. “I don’t particularly enjoy my major (architecture), so it’s not something I’m looking to pursue after college. So, I was in this weird limbo of what I wanted to do. I worked for WashU Athletics doing photo and video content and graphics, so I was looking to do something along that route this summer.” 

“I was doing all kinds of social media content, from photo to video,” Rubin said. “[Meyerson] and [Zuckerman] also wanted to make a documentary about their experience with stroke and recovery, using this trip as a foundation to tell that story.”

“I probably split my time [between] social media and this documentary. I was working with a producer from LA and a videographer who worked remotely and met us a couple of times throughout the trip. A lot of my work ended up being filming and media organization. One of the coolest things was learning how to fly a drone to capture some really crazy footage,” Rubin said. 

Photos by Alex Rubin

The two softball players worked 40-hour work weeks while biking across the country. 

On an average day, Rubin and Talkow woke up around 6:00 a.m., packed up their tent, and ate breakfast. 

“You want to be up early to beat the sun and [the] heat,” Rubin said. 

The crew would bike 60 to 90 miles in a day, with various breaks sprinkled in. After they reached their endpoint for the day, the student-athletes would complete their softball workout in the evening — on top of an already strenuous day of cycling.

 “It would have been a lot harder, but [Rubin and I] didn’t bike every day,” Talkow said. “We would go one day on — the next day off — and we’d alternate. So, we only ever actually rode together on a handful of days. The days we weren’t riding, we would drive in the RV and complete our intern work.”. 

“At the end of the day, we would eat dinner with everyone, which was always a really bonding time,” Rubin said. “We would just hang out with [Meyerson], [Zuckerman], and Rusti, and they very much became like parents to us.”

The journey, however, did not come without challenges. Rubin notes the day she rode from Darby, Montana to Wisdom, Montana as the one of the hardest obstacles she had to overcome. 

“It was grey and cold — my legs were already gassed before I even started, and I had only ridden through one mountain pass at that point,” Rubin said. “I knew I would have felt underwhelmed if I stopped halfway through, so I kind of decided it was all or nothing. It was literally the hardest workout I have ever done in my life. And I’m a gym rat — I work out a lot — but it just kept going. And I was just like, ‘Damnit, I’m going to finish this thing.’ It was such a special moment after that day and feeling on top of the world,” Rubin said. 

The Darby to Wisdom pass was 4,145 feet of climbing, the highest elevation gain in one day of the trip. 

Beyond connecting with and spreading awareness for stroke survivors, Talkow and Rubin noted the unlikely connections they made all over the nation. 

“I realized just how much we judge places and people. Time after time in these small towns, we went in with inherent judgements, and we were just shown up every time,” Rubin said. “You ask yourself, ‘Who even lives here?’ And the answer was usually the nicest people you’ve ever met. It’s a little slap in the face every time you’re shocked by your own judgments.” 

“At the beginning of the trip, we would record conversations with strangers who we felt connected [to],” Talkow said. “We’d ask the same question over and over again: ‘Where or how do you find happiness in your life?’ Talking to people, you realize that almost everyone says family and the people around them. Very few said anything material.”

“One of my favorite answers was this fisherman in Ashton, Idaho in this little soda shop,” Talkow said. “He was this guy in full fly-fishing gear, and he said, ‘I don’t have to find happiness — it’s just within.’ Seeing how many good people are out there is something that definitely opened our eyes. There’s so much good out there.”

Photo courtesy of Emily Talkow

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