Vanderbilt Kennedy Center

Left to Right: Josh Putman, Alice Byrne, Jeanne Gavigan, and Jessi Solomon

Left to Right: Josh Putman, Alice Byrne, Jeanne Gavigan, and Jessi Solomon

Racing “Challenges” and Deepening Friendships

Updated on 6/29/2011 4:25:42 PM.

Riding tandem bikes, two pairs of bikers with Vanderbilt and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center ties—Alice Byrne and Josh Putman, and Jessica (Jessi) Solomon and Jeanne Gavigan—completed a 20-mile bike ride in the Twelfth Annual Audi Best Buddies Challenge-Hyannis Port.

Both teams completed a 20-mile bike ride in the Challenge, beginning in Sandwich, passing the Kennedy Compound, and finishing beachside on Cape Cod. Putman spoke as a Buddy Ambassador for the race.

At the Tom Brady Football Challenge, held at Harvard Stadium, Putman won the Best Catch of the Night Award.

The Challenge was capped off by a New England-style clambake and private concert by Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Natasha Bedingfield for all participants and special guests.

"My favorite parts of the trip were getting to play flag football with Tom Brady, getting to eat clams on the beach, and finishing 20 miles on the bike with Miss Alice!" Putman said. "We practiced hard!"

Best Buddies International, led by Founder and Chairman Anthony Kennedy Shriver, is a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, and leadership development for people with intellectual or other developmental disabilities.

[Click here to view video of Vanderbilt Best Buddies teams at Best Buddies Challenge-Hyannis Port that Solomon produced.]

Byrne-Putman Team Story

The Challenge bike race may have ended beachside on Cape Cod on June 4 but it began in Miami 2 years earlier when Byrne and Putman, her Best Buddy, were traveling with students in the Vanderbilt Best Buddies Chapter on an Alternative Spring Break trip providing community service.

"We visited Anthony Shriver in his office, the walls covered with photos," Byrne recalled. "Seeing photos of his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Josh expressed sympathy for his loss and told him how much she had meant in his life, that through Special Olympics he had become an athlete. Josh was wonderfully understanding and sincere. Anthony asked Josh if he played Flag Football and if he knew who Tom Brady was—he did—and by the end of our time together Josh and I were invited to the June 2010 Audi Best Buddies Challenge-Hyannis Port as guests of Best Buddies International. We were the featured speakers at the 20-mile starting line, sharing what Best Buddies means to us, and we shot the start gun. Josh was named the Most Valuable Player in the Tom Brady Flag Football game."

Putman, a 29-year-old with Down syndrome, attended Glencliff High School in Nashville. He works part-time at Neptune Dive and Ski shop and volunteers for Sports4all, a nonprofit organization that encourages persons with disabilities to be active in sports and exercise programs. Putman is a Special Olympics athlete, training and competing in basketball, flag football, volleyball, bowling, golf, swimming, and power lifting. He has developed lasting friendships through Vanderbilt Best Buddies.

After graduating from Vanderbilt in 2007, Byrne was program coordinator at the launching of Next Steps at Vanderbilt, a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center postsecondary education certificate program for students with developmental disabilities.

"I made four Alternative Spring Break trips as an undergrad," Byrne said, "and two Best Buddies Spring Break Trips after I graduated. But it was the first Best Buddies Spring Break trip to Knoxville that inspired my career change." Byrne is now preparing to enter medical school with the goal of becoming a developmental pediatrician.

Fired up by their first Challenge bike race, Byrne and Putman took part in the Audi Best Buddies Challenge-Washington, DC, in October 2010. Byrne recalls their 10-hour drive to DC as "the road trip of my life." Putman took seriously his job of keeping her alert as she drove and he entertained her with his own harmonica playing and hours of CDs, introducing her to gospel bluegrass.

Byrne had been renting a tandem bike so that she and Putman could train for their rides. As a wedding gift, Byrne received a tandem bike, which made it possible to train more readily and to share the bike for training an additional team.

Solomon-Gavigan Team Story

During her undergraduate years at Vanderbilt, Solomon was active in the awarding-winning Vanderbilt Chapter of Best Buddies, served as Chapter Director, and initiated the Best Buddies alternative spring break trips. She also was a volunteer Ambassadore in Next Steps at Vanderbilt. An Ingram Scholar, she graduated from Vanderbilt in May 2010 with a B.S. in comprehensive special education. She entered Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine in Fall 2010.

Solomon undertook training with Gavigan for the Challenge-Hyannis Port in the midst of continuing her medical education. This summer Solomon is engaged in the School of Medicine’s Emphasis Program, a fulltime, 8-week supervised medical research project. She also is one of four Hoffman Fellowship Summer Scholars, involving research and training for students interested in pediatrics. Solomon is investigating the sensory processing abilities of infants born extremely prematurely compared with infants born at term.

"After testing babies and studying the effects of NICU events all day, I would actually run out of Children’s Hospital to go over to Jeanne’s house to bike-ride as soon as I was done with my last patient of the day. I usually had a missed call from Jeanne asking where I was, which made me so excited every single day! I would get home at night and plop on my bed in exhaustion and satisfaction of incredible accomplishment each time we rode further and further on the tandem bike." [Click here to view video of first training ride.]

Gavigan, a 22-year-old with Down syndrome, attended John Paul II High School and is currently enrolled in Next Steps at Vanderbilt. She has vocational interests in theatre and has done an internship at the Vanderbilt Theatre. This summer she is the props manager for the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s SENSE Theatre production of Bridges: A Lyrical Play About Belonging being performed by students with autism and University School of Nashville peer student actors.

Solomon had not anticipated the commitment needed for her and Jeanne to train.

"I spent hours each day coaching, training, and working with Jeanne to overcome the many obstacles we faced before the race. I learned so much about her, and what it takes to truly succeed in such a gigantic feat for someone with a developmental disability.

"Being a teacher, a medical student, a camp counselor—those all have been challenging jobs working with and teaching people with disabilities. This experience was the real deal. I learned how difficult it was for Jeanne to experience changes in her schedule, and yet how rewarding it was to overcome those challenges in order to focus on a new task—training and riding a real bike for the first time."

Gavigan had never been on a tandem bike until 2 weeks before the Challenge. She incrementally increased her distance from 400 feet to a half-mile to 2.5 miles to 7 miles to 10 miles in that brief amount of time. Team J—Jeanne and Jessi—met the Challenge.

"I won! Team J! I rode 20 miles! I am so proud!" Gavigan said, well deserving of the medal she received. And like so many other young adults, she loved shopping with her friends in Boston.

Best Buddies and Next Steps at Vanderbilt have been important to Gavigan’s transition into adulthood, said Margaret Burd, Gavigan’s aunt. "The gift of Best Buddies is that the Buddy pairs don't see disabilities, they see abilities. The Next Steps program embodies those same qualities."

Future Plans

"We were pumped and so thrilled to be at the Challenge-Hyannis Port," Byrne said. "We all returned home different persons from when we left Nashville. Absolutely anything is possible. Josh and Jeanne love life—enjoy life—and have the same opportunities as others have. They’re doing what other young adults are doing—learning, traveling, racing. Josh and I will be the face for the Audi Best Buddies Challenge-Washington DC this coming October, and our poster is even in the DC Metro. We will ride the DC Challenge and our hope is to complete the 100K on the tandem."

Putman shares Byrne’s enthusiasm for the next race. "I know that we can finish 62 miles on the bike together for our DC trip," he said. "We will practice even harder!"

Solomon describes the Challenge-Hyannis Port as "the time of my life! I also learned a lot about the 'real deal' and the real aspects of enjoying time with my Buddies with disabilities. Even after 5 years in Best Buddies, I have never learned so much about the true patience and perseverance necessary for success in an inclusive endeavor such as this bike race."

More races are in the future for all four athletes—as well as lasting friendships.

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