Philip Svitak was killed March 4, 2002 along with seven other American servicemen in Afghanistan. He was caught in what Pentagon officials describe as a fierce twelve-hour firefight after one of the two helicopters carrying them to a landing zone was shot down. The aftermath resulted in the war's worst loss of American lives due to enemy fire. He leaves behind his wife Laura, and sons Ethan, and Nolan.
Phil's hometown was Joplin Missouri . Phil was an avid cyclist. He loved cycling. His favorite was mountain biking. He spent a lot of time on the road bike as well. “The Philip J. Svitak Freedom Ride” was initiated in an effort to honor Phil, his family, all fallen soldiers, and to share his love for cycling. Phil gave his life fighting for what he believed in, our Freedom and our Country. Let's honor Phil, and show our appreciation to all our fallen soldiers by doing what Phil loved best, cycling. Phil was a nightstalker, a very elite group of fighters.
Gatorade comes in the most remarkable flavors. Gatorade used to be a forgettable salty lemon/lime flavor the neon color of Prestone antifreeze. You can still get it, but why? Today’s flavors come in Riptide Rush, Glacier Freeze, Fierce Grape, Cool Blue and Extremo Mango. I have no idea what Riptide Rush tastes like, and I hope it has nothing to do with ocean water. And Cool Blue describes a color. Still, this is not your father’s thirst quencher. It’s extreme Gatorade. It’s stylized, in-your-face electrolyte refreshment presented through sinister ads and staccato pacing. Gatorade may or may not make you perform better, but you will look better doing it because on TV the athletes sweat the color of the Gatorade they drink. Color coordinated, blue sweat—now that is Cool Blue!
The ads demand, “Is it in you?”
Oh yeah, I’m full of it. But it’s not so much in me as on me. I resumed cycling this summer after returning from the Middle East. It’s almost close to a passion. Several years ago Dave Litherland, now from Springfield, Mo., introduced it to me as a sport rather than recreational, crunchy granola transportation to and from campus. Dave’s a longtime friend and cardiovascular Goliath who used to run for endurance. In college I once—once—went running with him for what I assumed would be three of four-mile fitness run for the common man. Thirteen miles and two very chafed thighs later, I learned that my running shorts had thick seams and my thighs a narrow valley. Then my rebel legs revolted and succeeded from the union right around the hip joints. The inside of my thighs glowed like a hot lava lamp. Afterward, Dave wanted to go for frozen custard, which I was all too happy to melt between my legs. I brought them along in the back seat.
I’ve sought redemption ever since. I’m still not the most talented endurance athlete. I’m not the most skilled climber when it comes to cycling. My attacks don’t last long, though my recovery time does. I’m not a terribly skilled sprinter or downhill specialist. So it comes as no surprise that I can’t drink Gatorade and ride at the same time.
A century ride traditionally is 100 miles. On August 16, 2003 Dave and I were 30 miles into a metric century ride, which sounds more challenging than saying 65 miles. Approaching the slope of a fairly steep hill for southwestern Missouri, I attacked my best Marco Pantani fashion by standing in the pedals and dancing like a sweaty, bald, white man.
That Hill d’Joplin may as well have been the L’Alp d’Huez. I was sucking air like I was under water breathing through a straw. Then I tried drinking from my water bottle, which is where the problem surfaced like an out-of-breath humpback. No one should “try” to drink. I squeezed the bottle and at the same time sucked air through my nose. This was a perfect laboratory demonstration of physics: equal and opposite action and reaction, even Bernoulli’s Principle. The quality of critical mass and the idea that two particles can’t occupy the same space at the same time are very real. Think of a car crash, because in my efforts to become a human carburetor, I projected Fierce Grape back out my nose with strength and endurance that would rival any professional cyclist, runner or teenager on his first day at lunch at a new school.
(That’s entirely another story.)
Unlikely as it may seem, I did find some small redemption. Dave missed my blowhole demo because he wasn’t on top yet. But I doubt his legs were chafed. He passed me on the downhill.
Dave and I have done a couple centuries this summer, but we had a special attachment to this one. It was the second running of the Phil Svitak Memorial Bike Ride, since fittingly renamed the Philip J. Svitak Freedom Ride. Phil was an expert cyclist and rode for YMCA/Sun & Ski Sports Cycling Team in Tennessee where he worked. He was an especially skilled mountain cyclist and could hammer like he had a two-stroke motor attached to his frame. It was his passion. When he wasn’t cycling, Army Sgt. Philip J. Svitak, a Joplin, Mo. native, was the real-life model of movie-made war heroes. For all the symbolic patriotism people fly from their car windows, Phil embodied it with no other notoriety than his Army paycheck. Phil was killed March 3, 2002 in the mountains of Afghanistan during a firefight with al-Qaida and the Taliban. He was attempting to rescue a soldier who fell from another helicopter. Phil was 31.
Phil was the hero next door. His life wasn’t pointless party talk or an ad slogan. His service wasn’t an opportunistic political theme championed by those who will never serve but have courageous ideas of how others can. Phil was the neighbor who went to work and never came home. He fought for his country and its ideals. He fought for his wife and two boys. But that’s slightly disingenuous. I guarantee that Phil didn’t have high-minded, altruistic ideas of God and country during Operation Anaconda. He was focused on his job and fought as part of a team for the soldiers in his helicopter and those on the ground. It’s that simple. He was a Night Stalker, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, a professional and tough as nails.
I’ve helped organize a bicycle charity for years. It began as a Rotary activity, but it was really Dave’s show. He never named it. We just referred to it as “the bike charity,” though neither of us was ever comfortable calling it a charity. The idea was to provide new bicycles for underprivileged children in the Columbia, Mo. area at Christmastime. In return, they would help maintain and build trails in the spring and summer. It was about give and take, civic responsibility, community participation, community service. We ordered the bicycles through a couple bike shops that also donated mechanical supervision, space, tools and equipment. Volunteers assembled and delivered the bicycles. Every year, we dreamed back to our childhood and the excitement of finding a bike under the tree. Every year it’s still exciting.
There are some military families that often could use assistance the most but are the least likely to ask for it. I use the term “soldier” to represent all military members, and by nature, soldiers are self-sufficient, goal-oriented and not prone to take their problems to others. Some qualify for food stamps. Many soldiers work second jobs, which go away during deployments. All potentially volunteer their lives. Dave and I wanted to recognize and thank them and their families. We wanted to recognize that many are citizen soldiers from the Guard and Reserve, who also sacrifice civilian careers to serve. We wanted to remind Missourians that their neighbors often are the same uniformed soldiers they watch on live cable feeds. So for the past three years, we’ve focused exclusively on delivering custom-ordered bicycles to military families in Missouri.
The events of September 11, 2001 and the war in Afghanistan galvanized our enthusiasm. Naming our operation the Philip Svitak Memorial Bicycle Benefit, while difficult to fit on a business card, was an easy decision to make. He’s an inspiration, and ours is a benefit and a thanks.
In 2003, we shipped two children’s bicycles to Phil’s widow, Laura, who moved to Denver with their two boys following Phil’s death. Neither of us had met her, though Dave spoke with her on the phone. At the memorial bike ride, we met her and the boys for the first time. She brought the bikes with her. This was also our first opportunity to meet Phil’s parents. Phil is sorely missed. His two boys, Ethan and Nolan, are growing quickly. Ethan, the older brother, was anxious to show me he could ride with one hand. He was an impressive young man, blond and happy. Nolan was still on training wheels and a bit more shy, preferring the shadows around his mother’s legs.
Phil’s mother, Roseann, spoke openly about him. She’s proud of her son and remembers him richly. She wants to brag. After the memorial ride, she told me that Phil once rode alone to the top of Pikes Peak but underestimated how long it would take. He rode back down the mountain by himself at night without lights. Laura was not as eager to talk and seemed uncomfortable though not unappreciative with the attention. She was clearly proud of her husband, perhaps still mourning and not yet willing to let others share entirely what she had. I can understand it. Richard, Phil’s father, was as proud and as crushed as a father could be. Speaking with him, his pride was almost tangible, and I doubt he’ll ever entirely get over his Phil’s death. I think he still dreams of his son.
Meeting Phil’s family and contributing to the memorial ride steeled our decision to name the organization after him. We believe it not only honors a righteous man, but also that his memory symbolizes the idea behind our own efforts. He was a patriot and servant, a good father and husband. Phil was dedicated to his community and was passionate about cycling. Philip Svitak’s legacy has set standards he probably wasn’t aware he had in him. Phil was the hero next door, and perhaps his most important contribution is inspiration over aspirations. Aspirations are good, but becoming inspired moves you to achievement regardless of what color you sweat. “Is it in you?”
"This was the first time I rode your event ride...Over the years I have participated in many rides...both charity and non-charity....I was blown away when I got to the finish and checked in and was given a finisher medal...I only have them from half-marathons...what a pleasant surprise!!!!" -Svitak Freedom Ride Participant
"It's the best course, most well-run and organized, and most fun triathlon in the area" Summer Roundup Triathlon Racer
"You are the best!!! extra-ordinary is all I can say....I will spread the word in NorthWest Arkansas that this is a MUST ride. I am so glad I signed up1! THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!!-Svitak Freedom Ride Participant
"Everything is FANTASTIC! The course is great. Slip n' slide at the end is rad. Yummy food afterwards is awesome. Can't get better than this!" Summer Roundup Triathlon Racer
"Shout out to Ruth Sawkins and her Awesome Rufus Racing Team! Ruth taught me how to run AND ride a bike AND Seriously believe in myself!"-Cindy P. Kansas
"Nice finisher's medal, great people at the Undercliff water stop!! Just a fun time with a lot of friends and very well put together!! Very organized!"- Svitak Freedom Ride Participant
"Last year was fun......but, this new shake up is way better! It much more challenging! Great job!"- Charles B. Let's Get Awesome! participant