Over four years ago, cyclist Derek Blalock lost his friend to an undiagnosed enlarged heart, and earlier this month, he reached the Grand Canyon – a near halfway point between his starting line in South Carolina and his finish line in Los Angeles. Why is Blalock zigging and zagging across 6,500 miles of American road? To memorialize his lost friend and raise awareness for the thousands of deaths every year that could be prevented by heart screenings.
Tommy Smith was a huge part of Derek Blalock’s community, and the two were so close that their two families practically became one. The boys went to the same high school, roomed together during football camp, and even shared a class or two until, at age 17, Smith’s high school career was cut short by a sudden fatal cardiac arrest.
“His death was completely unexpected, he came home one day and wasn’t feeling too well, his heart was kind of racing – he just wasn’t feeling right. So his mom told him to go take a shower to relax and stuff, so he did. When he got in the shower, he dropped and (his family) heard a thump. They went in and tried to revive him, but it was too late.
“If he would have had a heart screening, it would have been caught,” Blalock said. There lies the true purpose of this 6,500-mile bike ride. “Not all defects in hearts are caught with a heart screening but a lot can be. That’s what we are pushing to do. (Parents) need to get their teenager’s heart screened if they play competitive sports.”
Heart screenings and early detection of heart-related illnesses can absolutely save lives. Heart disease is one of the most common causes of death over all demographics, and approximately 2,000 people under the age of 25 die of undiagnosed heart defects each year.
Blalock was 3,000 miles through his 6,500 mile journey when he reached the Grand Canyon, and he had raised about $8,000 of his $25,000 fundraising goal. All proceeds will go to more readily available heart screenings and programs to raise awareness for this tragic and preventable cause of death. But why stop at the Grand Canyon? We’re sure you already know the answer. “I’ve heard it’s one of the few things in life that truly doesn’t disappoint,” Blalock said. “I’m looking forward to that.”
When asked about the challenges he has faced in his journey so far, he commented that, “It’s not so much the heat, it’s keeping my mind occupied and just not letting up, it’s hard sitting on a bike for nine to 10 hours each day. I knew Colorado was tough, with the mountains but when I got into Missouri it was surprisingly difficult right around the St. Louis area because my mind wasn’t expecting the hills that were there and it was about 95 (degrees), that was a long day.”
You can follow Derek Blalock on his social media accounts for updates on his progress, and if you’d like to donate to his cause, you can visit his GoFundMe page. Links to those pages and more can be found at the central website for the Thomas Smith Memorial Foundation at www.tommysheart.org.
Looking for a vacation that won’t disappoint? Visit the Grand Canyon National Park and see the canyon yourself – for Derek, it was worth a 3,000 bike ride, but you can see the canyon much more easily than that.