In just one month, Sudha Yellapantula went from being a reluctant cyclist to a champion cycling fundraiser for pediatric cancer research.

Sudha Yellapantula didn’t even like riding bikes before she signed up to raise money for pediatric cancer research in the 2019 Great Cycle Challenge USA. “I never enjoyed biking, but I thought, childhood cancer research, I gotta do this.”

A few days after signing up for the challenge last May, she did the first 20-mile ride of her life. Her modest initial goal was to raise $500 by biking 200 miles. But before the end of June, she’d biked more than 600 miles and raised more than $35,000. At one point, a giant Great Cycle Challenge billboard flashed her beaming face over Times Square.

Photo by Tommy LaVergne

Yellapantula did this as a full-time Ph.D. student in electrical engineering and a “cancer mom” herself. It’s been more than three years since her young son, Vinay, was diagnosed with leukemia. In September, Vinay finally finished his chemotherapy treatments at Texas Children’s Hospital. “Just as I could never skip Vinay’s chemotherapy even for a single day, I did not skip riding in the great cycling challenge even for a single day in June,” Yellapantula wrote on her personal Great Cycle Challenge webpage, where she updated friends, family and colleagues.

She spent three hours a day riding her bike — which she often did late at night, with her two children in bed and her husband, Sudhakar, holding down the fort at home. “I decided I’d write a story for every day,” Yellapantula said. Most of the stories were about her own son, but some were about other pediatric cancer patients she’d encountered over the years of taking Vinay to treatments — children just like her son whose lives would be directly impacted by the funds raised. She read dozens and dozens of clinical studies while writing the stories to make sure they were scientifically accurate.

“I heard from fellow grad students, ‘We’re waiting for your stories every day,’” Yellapantula recalled. “And I said, ‘But aren’t they sad?’ And they said, ‘We need to hear it.’” These blog posts and the support of the Rice community are just two of the things Yellapantula credits with helping her succeed beyond her wildest expectations.

As news of her cycling journey spread, Yellapantula soon became the No. 1 fundraiser in Texas. By the final day of the fundraiser in June, she and another cyclist were neck and neck for the top spot in the nation. Childhood friends in India, colleagues on Linked-In and her husband’s co-workers all chipped in. So did one more donor: the man who was nipping at her heels in the fundraiser throughout June. Sacrificing his own shot at being the No. 1 campaigner in the country, Jeff Mulder donated $2,000 in the final hours of donor match day, bringing the total Yellapantula raised in a single
day to almost $6,000.

With goals exceeded and the fundraiser finished, Yellapantula was able to take some time off from biking. Over the summer, she and her family took a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip to the most classic of celebratory destinations — Disney World.

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