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The ride of, and about, his life

Man who lost leg to cancer as a boy takes meaningful bike trek

Sept. 28, 2012

Oak Creek - As they stepped in the door from the pouring rain, fresh off their 471-mile bicycle trek across Wisconsin and back, Jon and Jimmy Finiak found themselves surrounded by family and friends.

"We were all in tears," said their father, Tom Finiak, about the 20 or so people on hand.

It's hard to say what elicited the emotion: the fact that his boys had arrived home safely, that they had raised thousands of dollars to fight childhood cancer, or that Jon had accomplished it all riding with a prosthetic leg.

A child with cancer

The ride was Jon's way of paying back some of the love and help he received as a 12-year-old boy with cancer. Jon lost his leg, but not his life and now, at age 33, Jon is athletic trainer at Whitnall High School where he works with young athletes.

So far, the ride has raised $6,500 for the MACC Fund for research into ways to fight childhood cancer.

"Without their research, possibly I wouldn't even be alive," Jon said.

His dad, Tom Finiak, strongly supported the effort because he knows the nightmare of cancer can be waiting around the corner for any child.

Twenty years ago, Jon was a Little Leaguer in Oak Creek. He had been limping and both he and his parents thought it was a sprain. But an X-ray revealed otherwise.

It was cancer that was on the verge of spreading, Tom Finiak said, and with breath-taking swiftness, the doctors were talking about cutting off their son's leg.

From diagnosis to second opinion to surgery - everything happened in the span of just two weeks, Tom Finiak said. While that nightmare came and went swiftly, it was followed by a seemingly endless 10 months of chemotherapy.

Shedding blissful ignorance

The blessing of having some kind of treatment - even a traumatic one, as in his case - is what research the MACC Fund provides, Jon Finiak said. That blessing is experienced most poignantly by parents, "who know the scope of how bad it can be," he noted.

He admits that he was too young to know the peril he was in.

In the 20-some years that he has been in remission, Jon has graduated from Oak Creek High School and earned a bachelor's degree in kinesiology, the study of human movement and the physiological, mechanical, factors surrounding it.

He is in his fourth year as trainer at Whitnall. Soon he will teach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee once a week.

The sun is shining on his life now, but Jon said he wants to help children and their families who are going through those dark days that he and his family know so well.

'Cycling it forward'

Remembering the love and help he experienced as a child, Jon calls it "cycling it forward." The rest of the world calls it "paying it forward." As he understands it Jon said, "It's when someone does something nice for you and wants nothing in return except for you to do something nice for somebody else."

And cycling was part of his way of delivering on that idea.

To raise money for the MACC Fund, the brothers decided they would wheel all the way across and back on trails or country roads.

Others also "cycled it forward" to make the trip possible. Ben's Cycle Milwaukee Bicycle Co., 1018 W. Lincoln Ave., sponsored the brothers by letting them use a bicycle and giving them bike parts and supplies along with food. A friend, Dave Sparks of South Milwaukee, shadowed them in a car along their route, bringing them supplies.

Readying for the ride

Though Jon had never done anything like this, he had trained since February for the ride. His brother, Jimmy, 29, a controls engineer for Rockwell Automation, had done two triathlons and a marathon and was a little more prepared.

Their 471-mile trip started at the Summerfest grounds, marking the eastern edge of the state. Jon and Jimmy took off Sept. 15 and pedaled to Middleton just west of Madison on their first day. The next day took them to Wilton just south of Tomah. By the third day they were in La Crosse.

They didn't stay long. After taking photos, they started back, making Sparta by the end of the day. The fourth day took them back to Sauk City and from there back home on the fifth day, Sept. 19, arriving at 9 p.m. in the rain.

An average day was more than 90 miles, but on the last day they pushed it to 110 in the home stretch. They usually started at 8 a.m. and called it a day at 8 p.m., although actual riding time was probably 10 or 11 hours, Jon said.

It was tough riding a bike all day with a prosthetic leg and by the third day, Jon was getting sores on the leg that had been amputated below the knee. So, they had to stop several times to adjust it.

All for the cause

The effort has paid off, though not yet in full.

They are hoping to still hit their goal of $10,000. The total stood at $6,500 as of last week. Contributions can still be made in the brothers' ride at the MACC Fund website.

Regardless, Jon said he's "extremely pleased" with the result to date, as he is with the enthusiasm the ride generated.

It has been wonderful to see how their family and friends banded together and cheered them on, he said.

Jimmy said he is proud of his big brother.

"It was pretty cool to see the progress he made," he said.

In fact, it was seeing his older brother's feeling of accomplishment at the end of it all that was the most rewarding for him.

HOW TO DONATE

It is still possible to donate to the MACC Fund to help the brothers Finiak toward their $10,000 goal:

Call up the MACC Fund site at maccfun.org

Click on Donate Today

Fill out the donation information

In the honoree box, fill in Cycle it Forward. The MACC Fund will notify the brothers of your donation.

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