RIVER FOREST, ILL. – It was a grand homecoming celebration on the campus of Dominican University in River Forest today when a recent graduate arrived back after a cross country bike trek to raise money for cancer research.
Cristal Ortega was diagnosed with cancer her senior year at Dominican University. She not only beat it, but graduated with honors and then took on another uphill battle: Riding her bike across the country to raise money for others fighting for their lives.
She got a hero’s welcome back to her alma mater. Her friends and teachers have missed her since she left on a 70 day mile cross country bike trek.
"She is amazing,” said Andrea Leinweber, a faculty member at Dominican University. “She persevered through her degree, was named distinguished student in Spanish and then days after she graduated, she was on her way to Baltimore to bike across the country.”
The year before was not as carefree for Cristal who was diagnosed with a form of bone cancer at the beginning of her senior year. For months, her days consisted of hours of treatments followed by a full day of graduate classwork.
“The courage and the hope in spite of the pain that was constant,” said Sister Melissa Waters of Dominican University. “But there was this hope that transformed into inspiration.”
Cristal graduated in May with a double major in Spanish and social work as well as a fierce determination to use her story as a way to inspire others.
“If they see me biking across the country less than a year after going through treatment, maybe they’ll say hey maybe there is something beyond this cancer world,” she said.
Cristal, who barely rode a bike at all before, geared up and joined the Ulman Cancer Fund of Young Adults Bike Trek across the country. It was a 4000 mile trek from Baltimore to the San Francisco Bay. Their pedaling raised support and resources for other young adults fighting cancer.
In 70 days, Cristal became not only a pretty good biker but she found strength in herself with every climb.
“I just made it up that hill! I dominated that hill and it makes we think there’s nothing else I should be fearing.”
Her trek was cathartic in so many ways and nothing but inspirational for her alma mater who believes Cristal’s journey has only just begun.
Cristal says going through cancer made her desire to become a social worker even more resolute. She plans to rest up her weary legs and then look for a job where she can inspire others to overcome their own obstacles.