Retired NASA astronaut and Navy veteran Mark Kelly is not just racing for a seat in the U.S. Senate next year — he is also racing in this year’s El Tour de Tucson.
Kelly will be racing again in this year’s 25-mile ride alongside his wife and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
The pair will be riding for the non-profit Friends of Aphasia, an organization that Giffords co-founded with Suzy Gershman and Gifford’s speech therapist, Fabi Hirsch Kruse, for individuals who have suffered a traumatic brain injury or stroke.
“Many times, individuals who have suffered a traumatic brain injury or stroke have this condition,” Kelly said.
Aphasia is a disorder that affects communication skills such as speaking, reading and writing, typically caused by brain damage.
Friends of Aphasia works in the community to spread awareness and offer services and support to those and the loved ones of those personally affected by the disorder.
“In many cases, insurance doesn't pay for therapy beyond a short period of time, and that’s where Friends of Aphasia steps in,” Kelly said. “They fill gaps and help people regain communication skills.”
Giffords herself was a victim of the Jan. 8 2011 shooting at the community event she was hosting in Tucson. As a consequence of being shot in the head at point-blank range, Giffords suffered brain injuries and underwent intensive surgery. Giffords continues to receive therapy to regain speech and motor skills.
“Watching Gabby go through her rehabilitation and recovery inspired me a lot,” Kelly said. “She’s the strongest person I know.”
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The 37th annual El Tour de Tucson event takes place on Nov. 23 and includes rides of multiple distances for bicyclists of all levels. Many non-profit organizations and local companies like El Grupo Youth Cycling and Rotary District 5500 are set to ride.
Earlier this year, the future of the event was looking dim — in fact, it almost didn’t happen.
City locals and event organizers were not sure if the event was feasible financially but were eventually able to salvage El Tour de Tucson.
The local community had a hand in saving the bicycling tradition and, with a new CEO stepping in, the event earned the green light to continue.
“We want to make the 37th El Tour fun with a new look and feel,” said Charlene Grabowski, the new CEO of El Tour. “This is more than a ride but also a party for the community to help celebrate Southern Arizona’s love for cycling.”
The annual event brings out many local and national organizations and regular cyclists like Kelly from around the country.
“El Tour is such a vital part of our community, it’s a point of pride for Tucson,” Kelly said. “I can’t think of a better representation of Tucson than thousands of people coming together in the outdoors to help raise money for the causes they care about.”
In 2015, Kelly and Giffords were named the dedication recipients of El Tour de Tucson.
According to the Perimeter Bicycling website, the non-profit organization that promotes El Tour de Tucson, the event was dedicated to them not only for their accomplishments in the local community but also promoting and implementing bicycling as a form of physical recovery from the challenges they had faced over the years.
According to the Perimeter Bicycling website, “In selecting a dedication recipient, Perimeter Bicycling looks for individuals who serve as examples of achievement and who overcome life’s obstacles.”
El Tour de Tucson has impacted Kelly’s life, he said, and he plans to ride in next year’s event as well.
“I’ve ridden in El Tour de Tucson three or four times. Gabby has me beat and done maybe twice as many as me,” Kelly said. “But no matter how many times you ride it, it’s great every time.”
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