Duluth man, cancer survivor powers through Lake Superior rideDespite the aftereffects of cancer and a stroke, father of Olympian circles the big lake by bike.
By: Joe Cadotte, for the News Tribune
Since Patrick Plys was young, he wanted to ride a bicycle around Lake Superior.
In the intervening years, the 47-year-old started a consulting business, raised five children with his high school sweetheart, was diagnosed with brain cancer and had a stroke during surgery.
Last year, he was also inducted into the Duluth Hall of Fame and his son Chris took part in the Winter Olympics as a curler for the U.S. team.
Eight days ago, Plys fulfilled his childhood dream of circling Lake Superior, with the support of his family.
“It was one of those things that were always on his bucket list. He was just too busy with running a business and raising five kids,” Laura Plys said in an interview at their home in the Morley Heights neighborhood of Duluth. She and her husband spoke of the obstacles Plys overcame to take the Circle Tour.
Sixteen years ago, after experiencing numbness in various parts of his body, Plys was screened for cancer. Doctors found and removed a tumor from his brain.
“Doctors thought it was just one of those things from his childhood they finally detected. It didn’t have any fingers,” said Laura Plys, referring to the tumor’s apparent isolation.
Thirteen years went by without any further sign of cancer.
“The MRIs didn’t show anything,” Laura Plys said. Doctors scheduled his next MRI five years out.
“That’s how confident they were he was clear,” she said.
In December 2008, doctors found cancer forming in the scar from his first brain surgery. He went through intensive chemotherapy until the cancer was declared clear in June 2009.
After watching their son, Chris, curl in the 2010 Olympics, the cancer came back.
“(We) came back from the Olympics to an MRI showing more growth tissue,” Laura Plys said. “It was like a punch in the gut.”
During his third brain surgery, in May 2010, a doctor cut a vein in Plys’ brain, causing a stroke.
“I remember his eyes being wild looking at me,” Laura Plys said. “He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t move the whole right side of his body.”
Not long after waking up from the stroke he wrote on a white board: “I choose Joy.”
He also addressed the surgery:
“I forgave the doctor,” Patrick Plys said last week — one of the few times he spoke, as speech is made difficult by the chemotherapy he’s undergoing.
Laura Plys confirmed that was one of the first things her husband communicated to her after surgery.
After spending months in a wheelchair, Patrick set his sights on making the Circle Tour. His sister, Jackie Hall, and her husband, Gordy, decided to help Plys conquer Lake Superior.
Plys began training on an exercise bike in the fall, logging a few miles a day. Now he averages 26.2 miles a day. Since October he has pedaled more than 2,900 miles on his “spin” bike.
“He’s as stubborn as the day is long,” Laura Plys said. “There’s just no stopping him. Some family members would say, ‘I don’t think this is such a good idea.’ In the back of my mind, I thought even if they go 10 miles up the road and turn back, at least they tried.”
On May 28, Patrick started the 1,300-mile trek around Lake Superior on a tandem bike with Gordy Hall. Jackie Hall, Laura Plys and some of the Plys kids followed them in a van. After a couple days, Laura Plys and the kids left the rest of them on their own.
“The hardest part was being away from each other,” Laura Plys said. “We literally have not been apart for one year. I think it was good for him to have that independence away from me.”
For almost the entire trip, every five miles Hall would park the van ahead of Plys to make sure everything was going OK.
“She was good enough to take me,” Patrick Plys said of his sister. “I mean this with my whole heart. She sacrificed for my good.”
Plys biked through 70 mph winds and had to ride in the van when a chain broke on his bike in the middle of nowhere. Despite the difficulty of his journey, Patrick completed the tour, arriving in Duluth on June 4.
“His doctors call him Mr. Incredible because he beats the odds with the recovery he’s had, fighting the battle, not giving up,” Laura Plys said. “I couldn’t do it on my two healthy legs.”
Biking around Lake Superior is only one of Plys’ remarkable accomplishments. He arranged to have a school built in Nairobi, Kenya, where hundreds of people have learned to read and write. He has secured grants to build housing for teachers who work at the school. For many years he helped organize the Thanksgiving dinner at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and would donate food for funerals when people couldn’t afford catering. To honor those efforts, Plys was inducted last year into the Duluth Hall of Fame.
Plys said he hopes his story of overcoming obstacles will inspire others to overcome their struggles.
“I can do all things through Christ’s strength in me,” he said. “God has things work together for those who love.”
Patrick’s next goal is to travel to Nairobi with his family to see how his school has benefited the community.