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Barrington cyclist, educator and stroke survivor is riding across the country, to show the world he can

Aphasia is his biggest challenge, says Michael Obel-Omia, 56. So he’s riding over mountains and through heat waves this summer to raise awareness about the communication disorder that impacts language, but not intellect.

Michael Obel-Omia, of Barrington, Rhode Island, en route through Wyoming during a bike trek to raise awareness about stroke and aphasia.Courtesy of Michael Obel-Omia

PROVIDENCE — He is a poet, a lover of well-chosen words and phrases who received a master’s degree in English literature from Middlebury College.

He is an avid biker, a Barrington resident who enjoys nothing more than clipping in and cranking for miles on Rhode Island’s roads.

And he is an accomplished educator, having worked as an assistant head of school at Cambridge Friends School, and head of school at Paul Cuffee School in Providence.

But in 2016, when he was 50 years old, a stroke upended his life, leaving him struggling to find the right words and, at first, unable to ride a bike.


“I was very depressed,” Michael Obel-Omia said. “I wanted to teach. I had been teaching almost 30 years. What could I do now?”

In the six years since the stroke, he has answered that question emphatically. He wrote a book, “Finding My Words: Aphasia Poetry,” along with his wife, Carolyn.

And now, Obel-Omia is in the middle of a cross-country bike trip to raise money and awareness about stroke and aphasia, which affects communication but not intellect. The 4,363-mile “Stroke Across America” trek began on May 19 in Astoria, Oregon, and it is scheduled to conclude on Aug. 26 in Boston.

Obel-Omia joined the journey two weeks in — in Missoula, Montana — because he wanted to attend his son’s graduation from Bates College, in Maine.

He said he was invited by Debra Meyerson, a Stanford University professor who suffered a severe stroke in 2010. Meyerson and her husband, Steven Zuckerman, are making the cross-country ride together on a tandem bike. And the core group of six includes Whitney Hardy, who was hit by a car in Boston while running after work, suffering life-threatening traumatic brain injuries.

StrokeOnward, the group that organized the ride, notes that more than 800,000 people in the United States suffer a stroke each year, making it the top cause of adult-onset disability.


“Survivors can spend years working to improve their post-stroke physical capabilities,” the group said. “Yet there remains a gap in the stroke system of care when it comes to enhancing and supporting survivors’ emotional health, and the process of rebuilding identities and rewarding lives.”

Obel-Omia said that when he first proposed taking part in the ride, his wife raised concerns. But he said he told her, “I have to do it. I have to show the world that with this stroke, I can do it — I can achieve.”

After having an ischemic stroke on May 21, 2016, he spent 37 days at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. But as soon as he arrived home, he got on his stationary bike, and the comeback began.

He worked his way up to riding outside, and the first time out he fell four times in 4 miles. But he kept at it, and within four months, he was able to complete a 25-mile event. Since then, he has been building his strength and stamina by cycling and rowing on an ergometer machine.

But riding around the Ocean State doesn’t quite prepare you for the Rocky Mountains.

During a rest day on the trip, Obel-Omia talked to the Globe by phone, saying he had biked for 4.5 hours “straight up hill” in Wyoming, finally reaching the Continental Divide.


Then, in Colorado, he climbed for 25 miles to reach the Cameron Pass, at 10,264 feet of elevation. “It was straight uphill forever,” he said. “I was sweating and cursing. I could barely breathe.”

But after reaching that high point, he was rewarded with a 15-mile downhill, reaching speeds of 40 mph. “That was awesome,” he said.

Michael Obel-Omia at the Continental Divide, during a summer bike trek across the country.Courtesy of Michael Obel-Omia

Yet, Obel-Omia said some of the toughest miles came on the windswept plains of Kansas and Nebraska. One night, he was sleeping on a cot outside when a siren sounded, warning of a tornado, forcing him to dash inside a recreational vehicle. While he never saw a tornado, he said the winds reached 65 mph.

Obel-Omia also crashed in Kansas. He said he was doing a 39-mile segment when he stopped for a water break and rode onto some grass, wiping out and slamming his head into his handlebars. He ended up with his right eye swollen completely shut.

“All of a sudden — bam!” he recalled. “I was completely shocked.”

This week, Obel-Omia and his fellow riders pedaled straight into a heat wave. On Tuesday, they traveled 58 miles through Missouri between Augusta and St. Louis, when it was “literally 100 degrees.” They posed beneath The Gateway Arch and a “hard, long, hot path.” By Thursday, they had reached Route 66 in Illinois.

Obel-Omia said the trip is changing him. For one thing, he has lost 18 pounds. “I’m much stronger every day,” he said.

Each day of his journey, Michael Obel-Omia tries to raise awareness, speaking to television news crews and reporters along the route about stroke and aphasia.Courtesy of Michael Obel-Omia

Last year, he was proud of himself when he completed a 75-mile National Multiple Sclerosis Society ride. Now, he is completing up to 75 miles per day, while averaging about 60 miles per day, with occasional rest days.


Obel-Omia has raised more than $12,500 through a GoFundMe page, aiming to cover the cost of the trip and provide money to Stroke Onward.

Each day, he is raising awareness, speaking to television news crews and reporters along the route about stroke and aphasia.

“My biggest challenge is my aphasia, a communication disorder that makes speaking and comprehending difficult for me,” Obel-Omia said. “It is frustrating that so few people know what aphasia is or understand it impacts language but not intellect.”

Each day, he is showing what is possible after a stroke.

Each day, he is sending out messages, sharing snippets of poetry. On July 16, he shared Amanda Gorman’s “Hymn for the Hurting.

“Everything hurts,” Gorman wrote. “It’s a hard time to be alive/And even harder to stay that way./We’re burdened to live out these days,/While at the same time, blessed to outlive them./This alarm is how we know/We must be altered —/That we must differ or die,/That we must triumph or try.”

Each day, he is giving thanks.

In the United States, someone has a stroke every 40 seconds, Obel-Omia said. “Anyone, on any day, can — just like that — have a stroke, cancer, multiple sclerosis,” he said.

He noted Hardy, his bike trip partner, was a Tufts University soccer star.


He noted that his friend W. Zachary “Bill” Malinowski, a fellow Barrington resident who wrote for the Providence Journal, was a marathoner who died of ALS at age 57.

“It can happen to anyone,” Obel-Omia said.

While many miles and some steep hills remain between him and the finish line at Boston University, he said he already feels fulfilled and thankful.

“I am tired,” Obel-Omia said. “But every day, I write down, ‘I am blessed, I am humbled, and I am grateful.’ "

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.