By NANCILYNN GATTA
Tribune Chronicle correspondent
When tragedy strikes, a family often draws strength from each other. In some cases, there is a strong desire not only to preserve the memory of a loved one but to make a positive impact on society. With such thoughts in their minds, Garrett Wonders' parents, Jay and Shelley, with the help of their older son, Jesse, created the Garrett Wonders Birthday Bike Ride.
Garrett Wonders was a Warren native and 1997 Warren G. Harding graduate who was killed while cycling in South Carolina. Wonders was training for the Olympic trials at the time. Today, his family keeps his memory alive by hosting bicycle safety events in his honor as well as awarding scholarships in his name.
Garrett Wonders was born on Oct. 24, 1978, in Warren. He was an avid sportsman throughout his years at Warren G. Harding High School. The 1997 graduate was captain of the swim and cross-country teams. He also played multiple instruments in the Harding band.
In 2000, he graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in engineering / physics. The following year, he completed his master's degree there in nuclear engineering.
While living and studying in Columbus, he not only competed in marathons, triathlons and adventure races, he raced on the Ohio State cycling team.
After graduating, he was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy and moved to Charleston, S.C., to work as an instructor at the National Nuclear Power Training Command.
It was in Charleston that he became a road cyclist, moving up the professional ranks. He raced for Carolina Volkswagen and other teams, including the U.S. National Elite Military Cycling Team.
He was training for the Olympic trials when on March 10, 2004, he died of injuries incurred while being struck by a pickup truck while cycling.
"On the first birthday after his passing away, Shelley and I decided that we didn't want to be alone," said Jay Wonders. "So we sent an email out to friends and family, letting them know that we were going for a bike ride on the Western Reserve Greenway. We had 45 friends and family show up."
During that initial bike ride, plans began to take shape for an annual event.
"As we rode, I was talking with Augie and Linda Thumm (of Thumm's Bike and Clock Shop in Warren) about doing a ride every year and giving out shirts. Augie immediately offered to donate a bike every year for a raffle. From there, things just took off," he said.
The Garrett Wonders Birthday Bike Ride has raised thousands of dollars over the last 10 years.
"We give out two scholarships for the Ohio State Cycling Team for $1,000 each as well as a scholarship for $2,000 to a graduating senior from the Warren G. Harding Band," Jay Wonders said. "So far, we have awarded over $32,000 in scholarships."
Though Garrett was an elite cyclist, his brother Jesse remembers his humble beginnings with the sport.
"Garrett, the world class cyclist, actually struggled greatly to learn to ride a bike," Jesse Wonders said.
"I remember the day he learned to ride very well. My parents got him riding, and we rode around the corner to our grandparents for Sunday dinner. Being siblings, the ride home of course, turned into a race. Being the older sibling, I was way ahead. That is, until I saw Garrett cut across the neighbor's yard.
''I knew I had him at this point because there was a huge ditch he hadn't accounted for. Much to my dismay, Garrett goes full tilt to the ditch and then proceeds to jump the entire three-foot gap. No crash. No waiver in speed. Nothing. He just rode straight up to the house and turned around waiting for me," Jesse Wonders said.
Cycling, and especially road cycling, is a sport that shares the road with other vehicles.
"Through the funds we raise, we promote bicycle safety for motorists and cyclists," said Jay Wonders.
Several sponsors have been a part of the Garrett Wonders Birthday Ride from the beginning and continue to be involved with the event each year. Cyclists have come from Ohio, neighboring states and as far away as New Jersey, North and South Carolina, Texas and Colorado to participate in the ride.
"We have tried to focus on the good things in any situation and one of the things we have come to appreciate is all the continued support and the great friends, both old and new, that continue to ride with us," said Jay Wonders.
The Wonders fundraiser throughout the year via the sale of cycling socks and "Share the road" magnets
"I play guitar and sing at area restaurants and coffee shops, with all the money and tips that I receive going into the Garrett Wonders Memorial Fund," Jay Wonders said. "It is always a good time for all, and something I enjoy doing."
He has upcoming shows in April and May at Quinlan's Irish Pub and Eatery and at the Mocha House.
Creating a positive out of a negative situation, the family will continue the Garrett Wonders Birthday Bike Ride and other fundraisers in his honor to promote academics, athletics and safety for bicyclists.