Bob Mutchler is riding full throttle against polio. Though his legs are weakened because of a childhood bout with the virus, the 62-year-old Folsom resident is an avid motorcyclist who has traveled all over the world.
Thursday, he was in Modesto to raise money for the Rotary Club's Polio Plus program, which is working to eradicate the disease.
"I will continue to talk, to ride, to raise awareness until we have immunized the last child on Earth," Mutchler said to sustained applause from nearly 200 Modesto-area Rotary Club members.
Mutchler contracted the polio virus when he was 9 months old, years before the polio vaccine was available. His parents were told he never would walk. He spent three years in an iron lung in a children's hospital.
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When he got out, his parents treated him like any other child, including him in all the usual activities.
Mutchler married, had two children and became a piano tuner and technician.
He got interested in motorcycles at age 38, shortly after a divorce and before he married again, when doctors diagnosed him with post-polio syndrome. Nerves and muscles previously attacked by polio began to break down. Three neurologists told him he had only two more "productive years" before he would end up in a wheelchair.
Mutchler decided to make the most of his time left, bought a motorcycle and started taking long rides. Asked why motorcycling became his passion, Mutchler cited "the absolute freedom. The understanding that most people assume I could never do it. Knowing I could not only do it, but excel at it."
Riding across America
Though he's been a Rotary member since 1970, it wasn't until about a decade ago that he began going on motorcycle rides for Polio Plus. Since childhood, he hadn't told people he had polio because he believed there was a stigma attached to the disease. Mutchler, who can walk only with leg braces and crutches, would lie and say he'd been in an accident or tell people it was none of their business.
At the invitation of a friend, he decided to ride across North America in 1998 to give speeches about the Rotary's drive to end polio. The trip succeeded beyond his wildest dreams — he was interviewed by television and radio stations across the country and was the subject of a 90-minute TV documentary.
Since then, he has ridden in three "Iron Butt" motorcycle rallies, where invited participants ride 11,000 miles in 11 days throughout North America — in 2001, 2005 and this summer. The Iron Butt Association has supported Polio Plus with donations.
In the recent ride, he crashed in Oregon and was under his bike on the side of a road for half an hour before two women rescued him. He said it didn't discourage him at all. "I was thinking what a great ride I had," he said.
Mutchler said he is driven to continue supporting Polio Plus because the eradication of the disease is an attainable goal. When Rotary started the program, 122 countries had cases of polio. Now, there are only four countries left — India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Last year, fewer than 2,000 cases were identified.
Since 1985, Rotary International has contributed $800 million to end the disease and immunized 2 billion children around the world. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed a $335 million challenge grant toward the effort.
"Children do not deserve to suffer," Mutchler said. "That is not an option."
For more information about Mutchler, visit www.polioplusride.org. Text the word "polio" to 90999 and $5 will be added to your phone bill with proceeds going to Polio Plus.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2313.