After cancer left him blind, former UCLA athlete finds new direction in tandem cycling club
Michael Griswold, 27, lost his vision and some cognitive and speech abilities to melanoma, but he’s now riding high
In his 22 years of coaching soccer at Mt. Carmel High School, Mark Green says he has never seen a better high school player than Michael “Grizzy” Griswold, who graduated in 2013 with All-CIF first-team honors and was recruited to UCLA on a Division I soccer scholarship.
But on July 28, 2014, the 19-year-old sophomore was diagnosed with stage 3 malignant brain melanoma. Doctors warned the family that his chances of survival were low.
But with the support of his oncology team, his family, his general health and his religious faith, Griswold survived, but at a cost. The 14 tumors in his brain and the effects of his disease and its aggressive treatment left him blind and with cognitive, memory and speech issues. Grizzy lived, but he’d never play soccer again.
Then a couple of years ago, Green — who has remained close with Griswold and his family — read an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune about the Blind Stokers Club. The San Diego-based recreational tandem cycling club pairs sighted captains to steer from the front seat with blind and visually impaired riders on the back seat who provide the bike’s pedal power (or “stoking”). The 100-member Blind Stokers Club was named 2021 Bike Club of the Year by the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition.
With the help and training of Blind Stokers founder and director Dave White, and Green’s support and friendship, Griswold gradually got back into a routine of regular exercise in 2020. And when White felt Griswold was ready for long-distance rides last year, he paired Griswold with his current tandem cycling partner, Ron Kelly, a Rancho Santa Fe triathlete who now cycles with Griswold at least 35 to 40 miles a week.
Now 27, Griswold said he loves everything about tandem cycling, including the socialization he enjoys with Kelly and Kelly’s triathlete buddies, known as “the Amigos.” He’s also grateful to be alive.
“I love the wind in my hair. I like clipping and unclipping my shoes into the pedals. And I love the people, because I’m a social butterfly,” he said. “I miss playing soccer, but things are going really good. My parents told me that at one point my heart stopped, and they pronounced me dead. So I’d rather be here than dead in a ditch.”
His cycling partner Kelly, who joined the Blind Stokers about a year ago after purchasing a new tandem E-bike, said he and Griswold make a good team.
“He and I have a lot of fun, and he keeps me on my toes,” Kelly said. “He’s a positive person who’s always in a good mood. For him, every day is a great day.”
Kelly said seeing the club’s effect on the sight-impaired community has also been rewarding.
“There are lots of caring people in this club,” said Kelly, 70. “To see the difference it makes in people lives makes me feel grateful to be involved. I’ve never been around blind or vision-impaired people before. From my perspective, it takes a lot of courage and trust for someone to just hop on the back of a bike and ride off and make turns when you can’t see where you’re going.”
Kelly and Griswold will be among the participants at Cycling for Sight, a 30-hour fundraiser June 25 and 26 at the University of San Diego. It features two days of cycling as well as meals, lodging and activities. It will raise money for both the San Diego Center for the Blind and the Blind Stokers. The all-volunteer Blind Stokers Club uses donations to pay for tandem bike refurbishing, club jerseys and equipment and transportation costs to get stokers to and from the group’s twice-monthly cycling events.
“We’re proud we can make a real contribution,” White said of the club he founded in 2007. “Exercise is therapy for the brain. It’s a lot more than a social connection. Michael and Ron have a 40-year difference in ages and now they’re best friends.”
Michael’s father, Robert Griswold, said his son has always been self-reliant and goal-oriented. That helped him persevere in the fight for his life. Initially doctors told the Griswold family that if Michael survived his initial treatments, his second-year survival rate was 2 percent. They didn’t have any survival rate information for years three or four.
“When he was told in December 2014 ‘you have terminal inoperable brain cancer,’ he said, ‘I’m going to beat this.’ That’s been his attitude ever since,” Robert Griswold said.
During Michael’s long hospitalization, including 17 weeks in intensive care, he suffered pneumonia, a pulmonary embolism, an infection and a heart attack. Finally in March 2015, he was released from the hospital to begin re-learning basic skills. He now requires full-time care.
Green would visit the family often over the years, and he and Griswold would go on walks. But when Green and White of the Blind Stokers took Griswold out for an initial bicycle test ride in 2020, he was barely strong enough to pedal around the block.
But the experience gave Griswold motivation, and soon he was cycling every day on a stationary bike at the family’s home in the Santaluz community near Rancho Peñasquitos. Within months, the trio — White and Griswold on the tandem and Green on his solo bike — lengthened their rides around Miramar Reservoir to 5 miles. By the end of 2020, the trio completed the five-city, 24-mile Bayshore Bikeway ride.
Robert Griswold said being part of the club has gotten his son back in shape, provided him with a new social circle and proven to him that with hard work, goals can be achieved. He said his son’s long-term dream is to marry and become a father someday.
Green said he loves seeing how his former Mt. Carmel varsity soccer team captain is thriving, in great part due to the Blind Stokers Club.
“His parents have kept him socially engaged but physically he didn’t seem to have a rich existence before,” Green said. “But now he’s riding the stationary bike at home, walking better and excited to go for rides. The difference in him physically is amazing. He moves better, seems more fit, he’s happy and he has stuff to look forward to.”
To learn more about the Blind Stokers Club, visit blindstokersclub.org.
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