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Publish date: Jun 7, 2013

UMass swim coach rides waves of support for cancer research

By Jassim Kunji

Making waves is part of Bob Newcomb’s job. But the head women’s swimming coach at the University of Massachusetts is making one of his biggest splashes outside of the pool. Beginning June 8, Newcomb will bike almost 4,000 miles across the United States from coast to coast along with his friend Eric Heller to raise funds for cancer research.

UMass swim coach Bob Newcomb is logging 4,000 miles on two wheels this summer for a good cause.

“Cancer affects almost everyone in some way, whether it’s themselves, family, or someone else they know,” Newcomb said.

The pair’s intended route begins in Seaside, Ore. and ends August 4 in Provincetown, Mass. The last leg will see them join the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC), an annual 200-mile bike ride that raises money for research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. With the first ride occurring in 1984, the event has raised more than $375 million, with $37 million raised in 2012 alone.

This will be Newcomb’s sixth year participating in the challenge.

“We decided to take it a little further this year,” said the 55-year-old.

To most people, thousands of miles might seem like more than “a little further,” but it is typically modest for Newcomb.

“Bob’s a pretty easy-going guy, but a no-nonsense swim coach who has been here for more than 29 years,” said Brian Henry, associate director of media relations at Massachusetts.

Newcomb’s devotion to the battle against cancer is no less serious. He grew up riding a bike for recreation and fun, but he did not become a serious cyclist until his involvement with the Pan-Mass Challenge. 

“Everything about this race is about raising for cancer research,” he said.

Like many of those involved with the bike rides, Newcomb has a personal connection to the struggle. Both of his parents passed away from cancer. Newcomb wears a picture of them on his jersey every year to honor their memory.

Newcomb and Heller’s effort has received enthusiastic and wide-ranging support. They’ve been featured on TV and in all the local newspapers. Support extends beyond the media, with local business and citizens contributing by helping provide shirts and sponsorship money. People also have volunteered to ensure their bikes are in top condition.

Students and alumni coached by Newcomb have been another source of support.

“I’ve had 30 years that I’ve really enjoyed working with students, and now the alumni think it’s great what I’m doing – and a little crazy,” Newcomb said.

Working with student-athletes every day is part of the reason that Newcomb has the energy and motivation for his cycling, he said.

There is also great enthusiasm for the journey closer to home­ – or rather, at home. His oldest daughter has just graduated from Massachusetts, but that has not stopped her from helping out.

“My older daughter did everything for the website and our logo, and she taught us some things about social media as well,” Newcomb said. “My wife and younger daughter volunteered for the Pan-Mass Challenge the last few years, and they will be helping with our trip this year.”

Many other supporters will join them, at least for the Pan-Mass Challenge if not for the whole voyage.

“People line the road as you go by, cheering, waving banners and flags to support you and thank you for what you are doing,” Newcomb said.

In one city, he said, a live band greets the cyclists.

“Before I started, people told me that it was a really great and enjoyable thing to do, but until you do it, you don’t really understand what they mean. It’s a spectacular experience,” he said.

Newcomb is relying on the same passion he has for coaching to raise awareness and funds for cancer research.

Part of what make it such an amazing experience are the profound moments – Newcomb calls them PMC moments – that invariably occur. The first year Newcomb participated, he recalled seeing a 5-year-old boy running around with a sign saying “I’m here now, thanks to you.”

Another PMC moment that Newcomb remembered occurred last year.

“A family had lost their son to cancer, and the father rode his son’s bike on the Pan-Mass. I came upon his father riding on that bike – a bike too small for him, it must have been very difficult for him to ride it that distance – and I got emotional because that father was riding for something he really cared about and you could tell it, ” said Newcomb. “A PMC moment like that happens every year.”

For Newcomb, those moments lead to a new outlook. “We’re a lot more appreciative of the doctors and medical advancements after taking part,” he said.

In his opinion the experiences have made him a more caring person, and all the more determined to keep on supporting cancer research.

“Somewhere along the route, some moment will give you another reason why you’re doing this, why you’re helping to fight this battle,” he said.

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