As she prepared for her junior year as a pre-med student at the University of Texas at Austin, Carolina Mendez’s life was forever altered on July 3, 2019, when her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Gilbert Mendez, an industrial engineer in El Paso, got world-class treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. But he succumbed to the aggressive disease less than14 months later at age 62.
As her father battled his cancer in the fall of 2019, Carolina Mendez joined Texas 4000 for Cancer, a program for UT Austin students that aims to raise cancer awareness and funding by a bicycle ride from Austin to Alaska each summer. She has dedicated her ride — which will bring her to El Paso Friday and Saturday — to her father.
“He fought extremely boldly and courageously. He’s always been extremely selfless. And even at his most vulnerable, he always put my mom, my brother and I first,” said Mendez, 22.
She began her ride last week, on a route that will take her through El Paso and on to the West Coast. The ride will culminate at the Canadian border in Washington this year because of pandemic restrictions. Her father is on Mendez’s mind as she rides 55 to 125 miles per day.
“He’s my motivation in life and always my biggest supporter, whether it be in school or sports,” she said.
An estimated 4,420 new cases of the disease will be diagnosed in Texas this year, according to the American Cancer Society. More than 3,200 Texans are expected to die from the disease in 2021.
Mendez graduated in 2017 from Coronado High School, where she played volleyball. She started her college education at the University of Texas at El Paso and transferred to Austin after a year. She graduated last month with a degree in biochemistry.
She didn’t have experience in competitive cycling before signing up for the Texas 4000. She began intense training in December, as she prepared to head into the last semester of her senior year at UT.
‘Basically every Saturday, from 6 in the morning to 7 at night, you were on the bike most likely or you’re helping out with the team,” Mendez said. She’d put in additional training two or three days a week, working around her classes. She rode 150 to 250 miles a week.
Mendez and her 20 teammates are scheduled to arrive in El Paso Friday night and depart Sunday morning. On Saturday, they will visit with cancer patients at The Hospitals of Providence campuses.
You can follow the journey of Mendez and the other riders on the Texas 4000 for Cancer on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The riders are following four different routes, and Mendez is on the Sierra route.
After completing the 70-day Texas 4000, Mendez plans to take a gap year and then go to medical school.
Mendez said she wants to model the selflessness of her father and her mother, Yolanda Giner Mendez. Her father was a regular volunteer in the Salvation Army kitchen.
“I learned a lot of give more than you take from him. And I’m just trying to carry that on and do what my parents taught me. It feels good to hopefully make a difference in even one person’s life,” she said.
How to help
Carolina Mendez is raising money to support Texas 4000 for Cancer, which cultivates student leadership and engages communities in the fight against cancer. Click here to donate in her honor.
Cover photo: Carolina Mendez is riding the Texas 4000 for Cancer in honor of her father, Gilbert, who died last year of pancreatic cancer. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Mendez)