INDIANAPOLIS (CNS) ─ This is the way Emily Mastronicola dreamed it would be.
On the last day of a grueling, weeklong journey that tested people's hearts and spirits, the 26-year-old Catholic woman from Indianapolis took the lead of a team of cyclists preparing to meet with other groups from across the country for a triumphant, last-mile ride together toward the "Celebration of Life" finish line in St. Louis.
Even the challenge of riding her bike up a 15-mile stretch of daunting hills couldn't sap the joy that Mastronicola was feeling July 17, the final day of the national ride of "Biking for Babies."
The pro-life organization's mission is: "renewing the culture of life, one pedal and one pregnancy resource center at a time."
With those 15 miles behind her -- on a day when she rode 120 miles -- Mastronicola could not stop smiling as she lined up with the other 49 riders who had biked from Ohio, Alabama, Colorado and Wisconsin for that final mile together.
"Everyone was so tired but full of joy to be there and meet the other people," she recalled. "Riding in together was beautiful, really beautiful."
All her training since February, and the setbacks along the way, faded in that moment of knowing that everyone had poured everything they had into raising money and awareness to help pregnancy resource centers provide free services to young women and families in crisis -- all with the goal of standing for human life.
The pursuit of that goal also led Mastronicola to a personal revelation.
"Your goal is to transform the culture of life, but I feel like the ride really transforms you," she told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. "I definitely came home a different person."
That's where the full story -- the highs, the setbacks, the bonds, the self-discovery -- of Mastronicola's life-changing journey begins.
She was the only cyclist from Indiana when the 600-mile journey began July 11 in Columbus, Ohio. There, she joined 15 other members of the eastern route contingent, all between the ages of 18 and 35. There was also a priest from Virginia and riders from California, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Mastronicola's passion for the pro-life movement has increased since she started working for the Indianapolis Archdiocese's Office of Youth Ministry in 2018. Yet while she enjoys endurance sports, she initially resisted the idea of joining the national ride.
"The more I resisted it, the more the Lord placed people in my life and affirmed that this was something I needed to do, to help me grow as a person," she said. "I felt called to be a witness for my community.
"Post-ride, as I look back on that, I know preparing for the ride was not easy, and I know the ride itself was not easy, but neither is defending life."
Mastronicola experienced how difficult her commitment can be.
A few weeks before the ride, she sustained an ankle injury that was bad enough to sideline her training. She was concerned that she would not be able to take part.
She recovered in time, but a combination of dehydration, physical sickness and a touch of vertigo limited the miles she was able to ride the first two days. Still, she got back on the bike for the Dayton to Indianapolis leg, gutting out 60 miles on that part of the trip.
"This was something I wanted to share with my friends and family," she said.
That stretch took a physical and mental toll, making Mastronicola do the last thing she wanted to do: stay behind.
As the other riders continued to Terre Haute, Indiana, the next morning, Mastronicola focused on regaining her strength and energy for two days.
"I was expecting to be tired that week. I wasn't expecting to have as many issues as I had," she said. "So there were definitely times of just feeling really desolate."
In the midst of those feelings, she received a message from one of her teammates: "Emily, I know this was really hard for you to do, but I think this was so mature of you to step away."
Mastronicola viewed it a sign of the bond the riders and the support group had formed and that everyone was there for her when she became ill.
The young rider did her best to return the favor. She prayed for everyone on the ride and affirmed them with positive messages. Regaining her strength, she wanted to return to the ride.
"There's a lot of humility and redemptive suffering with that," she said. "Even Jesus fell three times and he was able to get back up. The important thing when you do fall is to get back up, not to stay down.
"What gets you back up on the bike after you fall is remembering who you are riding for. ... The ride is beautiful, but you're doing it for these pregnancy resource centers, to advocate for them and the services they offer."
Mastronicola rejoined her group near Springfield, Illinois, and was greeted by warm hugs. The smiles continued the following morning when Mastronicola gave each team member a pair of socks depicting the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of unborn children. The bikers wore them for the final stretch.
She rode 120 miles to St. Louis that day, leading to another defining moment when her eastern group met the teams from the south, west and north.
Now, Mastronicola hopes her efforts and the efforts of all the riders will benefit people she likely will never meet: the young women and families in crisis who benefit from pregnancy resource centers, the children whose parents choose life.
"Going forth, the ride is only the beginning," she said. "The mission continues as we restore a culture of life -- within ourselves, our communities and the world."
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Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.