No experience, no problem for Rice grad student turned top fundraising cyclist

No experience, no problem for Rice grad student turned top fundraising cyclist

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. But that didn’t stop the Ph.D. student in Rice’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering from becoming the challenge’s No. 1 individual fundraiser in the nation, and in only one month.

“I actually hate biking,” said Yellapantula, who heard about the fundraising effort through friends. “I never enjoyed biking, but I thought: childhood cancer research, I gotta do this.”

A few days after signing up for the challenge on May 14, she did the first 20-mile ride of her life. Her limited cycling experience was reflected in her modest initial goals: raising $500 and biking 200 miles.

But before the end of June, she’d biked more than 600 miles and raised over $35,000. At one point, a giant Great Cycle Challenge billboard flashed her beaming facing over Times Square.

“Later, I realized people had been fundraising for months before I even signed up,” she said. Yet she surpassed them all.

Even more impressive: Yellapantula did all of this as a full-time grad student and a “cancer mom” herself. It’s been three years since her young son, Vinay, was diagnosed with leukemia. In September, Vinay will finally finish 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 on July 1, updating friends, family and colleagues who’d been supporting her since May.

Along her day job as a full-time grad student, 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. To top it off, she also spent two hours following each ride updating her fundraising page with stories.

“I decided I’d write a story for every day,” Yellapantula said. “They took a lot of work,” she added, almost as much effort as the bike rides themselves.

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. A researcher herself, 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.’ It really encouraged me that my friends were reading my stories and cheering me on.”

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.

When she first started the challenge, Yellapantula came home sore after long rides. One of her colleagues and fellow cyclists, Don Johnson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, helped Yellapantula figure out initial bicycling routes and gave her tips for starting out. After getting professionally fitted on the bike, her soreness and pains went away.

Friends in the Rice University Cycling & Triathlon club shared safety and cycling tips with the newcomer and helped spread the word about her fundraising challenge. Other professors and grad students shared their tried-and-tested bike routes, enabling her to spend less time planning and more time riding.

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.

“All the Rice professors who know me donated,” she said. “Almost all the grad students who were friends with me on Facebook donated.”

The generosity Yellapantula inspired was infectious. Childhood friends back home in India, old colleagues on LinkedIn and her husband’s co-workers all chipped in. So did one more interesting donor: the man who was nipping at her heels in the fundraiser throughout June, who was $150 ahead of her.

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.

“It was like a movie,” she said. “He could have donated that $2,000 to himself and won, but he went with the spirit of it: We all won.”

Weeks later, Yellapantula can’t believe it’s all come this far.

“Let me tell you about my biking life prior to this,” she said with a chuckle. “I had a 10-year-old bike and I’d probably biked a handful of times.”

Last year, Yellapantula said, she found herself in a self-described slump. “I used to be super active,” she said. “I used to love running. I stopped everything because work and (Vinay’s cancer) treatment were the only things I could do.”

She began training for a triathlon to try to get active again, but a particularly painful bike ride ended those plans last October. Still, Yellapantula thought she should give cycling one more shot in May with the Great Cycle Challenge — and her instincts turned out to be right. Today, she says she’s fallen in love with biking.

“I’d never fundraised before, I’d never written stories before, I’ve always been reserved in that way, but with this I just put it all out there,” she said. “I always felt like I was doing something for a good reason, so that drove me.”

With goals exceeded and the fundraiser finished, Yellapantula is taking some time off from biking for now. This month, she and her family are taking a Make-a-Wish Foundation trip to the most classic of celebratory destinations.

They’re going to Disney World.