KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Ever since Pat Summitt helped her become a national champion at Tennessee, Michelle Brooke-Marciniak has found all kinds of ways to thank her coach.
Now the former Lady Volunteers point guard is ready to deliver her most remarkable assist yet.
Brooke-Marciniak has joined a group of people riding bicycles all the way from Knoxville to Marathon, Florida, to raise money and awareness for the fight against Alzheimer's disease. The 12-day excursion begins Tuesday and lasts 1,098 miles - one mile for each of Summitt's career wins as the Tennessee women's basketball coach.
The "Pedal For Pat" project was formulated by Knoxville resident Josh Crisp, who plans to make it an annual event.
When Brooke-Marciniak expressed her interest, Crisp figured she'd only want to ride for a day or two. Brooke-Marciniak instead got so involved that she's co-chairing the event with Crisp.
"He was like, 'What portion of the ride do you want to be a part of?' " Brooke-Marciniak recalled. "I said, 'All of it.' I'm all in."
Brooke-Marciniak and Crisp are among eight "Summitt cyclists" traveling the entire distance. The list also includes former U.S. Olympic rower Ginny Gilder, co-owner of the WNBA's Seattle Storm.
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"It was really just my desire to acknowledge and appreciate a woman who made a huge difference in the world of women's sports," Gilder said.
Plenty of people have offered to go part of the distance, with Crisp expecting dozens of cyclists to participate on any given day.
We had a great time last night meeting our fans! Thanks to everyone for coming and helping us celebrate this game we love! pic.twitter.com/HZw7h5Aad8— Lady Vol Basketball (@LadyVol_Hoops) October 14, 2017
Each of the eight "Summitt cyclists" pledged to raise at least $10,000 for the Pat Summitt Foundation, an organization the former coach started after she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Summitt died in June 2016 at the age of 64 .
Crisp said the project already has raised $100,000 and is still taking donations . The Pat Summitt Foundation provides a $500,000 annual grant to the Pat Summitt Clinic, a University of Tennessee Medical Center facility that provides care to Alzheimer's patients and advancement for new treatments.
"I'd say 80 percent of the people have donated because they know someone directly or indirectly, that this disease has affected their friends or family," Brooke-Marciniak said. "The number of people who bring that up and talk about that openly, it's amazing."
The WNBA's Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, Dallas Wings, Indiana Fever, Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm have agreed to promote the event via social media. The six franchises are holding a competition to determine which team can raise the most money for Summitt's foundation.
Brooke-Marciniak alone has raised over $55,000 through her GoFundMe page . She said many former Lady Vols pledged a certain dollar amount for each win during their college careers.
"Since Michelle joined, the publicity and the energy around this event have just skyrocketed," Crisp said. "What Michelle has done is people know she was a Lady Vol ... but more than that, one of Pat's closest friends and players."
Brooke-Marciniak played for Tennessee from 1993-96, but her connection with Summitt goes well beyond that.
Summitt was on a recruiting visit to Brooke-Marciniak's Pennsylvania home when the coach went into labor before boarding a plane to Tennessee to give birth to her son, Tyler Summitt.
Brooke-Marciniak initially enrolled at Notre Dame before transferring to Tennessee, where she capped her career as the Most Outstanding Player in the 1996 Final Four. A member of the Pat Summitt Foundation's advisory board, she gave a eulogy at Summitt's funeral.
Pat Summitt Foundation director Patrick Wade said that even before the foundation launched, Brooke-Marciniak often spoke on Summitt's behalf at Alzheimer's events when the coach's schedule or treatment made her unavailable.
Summitt's work to fight Alzheimer's caused Crisp to formulate this idea. Crisp, who owns and operates senior living communities, says about 70 percent of the residents at his facilities have some form of dementia.
Launching this event has required plenty of training.
Crisp says he didn't even own a bicycle until February. Brooke-Marciniak said she'd done some road cycling "on and off" for about 15 years but nothing of this magnitude. Brooke-Marciniak said she started cycling 80-100 miles a week three months ago and increased that total by about 10 percent each week.
Brooke-Marciniak anticipates cyclists going the entire distance will be on their bikes about 7 ½ hours per day. Their daily itineraries will range from 70-115 miles.
"As we go through Georgia, there are some lower-mileage days even in the upper 70s, but that's just because there's more climb and you really don't want to be doing much more than that," Brooke-Marciniak said. "A lot of the 100-mile days are on the flats in Florida."