As a boy, Carl Nelson could not wait to lose the training wheels off his first bicycle. Once he did, he practiced and practiced until he could balance the bike by himself.
Some 15 years later, Nelson plans to bike 3,555 miles across the nation to raise money for children with handicaps. He and 19 other college students will begin a trek Monday from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.
"We want to raise awareness while we're out there," the 1990 Tarpon Springs High School graduate said recently. "We want to build new playgrounds for disabled kids."
The students are members of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, which founded People Understanding the Severely Handicapped. The fraternity sponsors the cross-country ride called the Journey of Hope to raise money for the charity.
A second team of 20 students will bike another 3,500 miles across the southern half of the United States. The two will meet Aug. 14 in Summerville, S.C., then ride together to Charleston for a banquet.
Nelson, 21, is a junior studying marketing at Troy State University in Alabama. His parents, David and Georgia Nelson, winter in a home near Lake Tarpon in Palm Harbor. Nelson and his four older siblings were raised in the Countryside area of Clearwater.
Nelson has been practicing for the bike trip since January, riding at least 35 miles a day, six days a week. Although he trained mostly by cycling the hills of Alabama, Nelson kept up his routine when visiting his parents on weekends in Florida and using the new Pinellas Trail.
"He's lost a lot of weight," his mother said Friday. "He's built up his calves and legs, which he is very proud of."
Nelson is riding a Kestrel racing bike that is specially geared for highway cruising. On the trip, his team will travel between 25 and 125 miles a day. Among the stops are towns in Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Along the way, the team will present dozens of programs to help describe issues facing people with handicaps. It also will perform a puppet show to help children better understand their disabled peers.
In the summer of 1990, PUSH provided the money and built a playground for preschool children at the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens headquarters in Clearwater. About 100 fraternity members completed the project in two days.
Since January, Nelson has raised more than $4,000 for PUSH. The money goes directly to the charity and does not pay for the trip because food and lodging are to be donated along the way. Nelson plans to send postcards from various stops to the 30 or so people who donated money to the charity on his behalf.
David Nelson said Friday that he never envisioned that his son would one day ride across country when he was teaching the 5-year-old to ride his Christmas bike.
"I remember running myself half to death trying to hold onto the back seat so he wouldn't fall over. He couldn't wait to get those training wheels off. We're very proud of him."