During Friday's world record-breaking Sydney Harbour bridge climb, Rotary members raised enough money to protect 240,000 kids from polio.
Despite the physically gruelling four-hour trek up and down the bridge's storied steel arches, the 340 participants kept their good spirits and stood side-by-side waving 278 flags. "When the helicopters were going around, you just felt like one great big nation," says Graeme Davies, district governor of the Rotary Club of Kincumber in Australia.
The massive turnout eclipsed Oprah Winfrey's world-record climb in 2011 when she summited the bridge alongside 315 of her most ardent fans. But for Rotary members, the record paled in comparison to the experience and the opportunity to take a step closer to ending polio forever. The event raised 110,000 Australian dollars (US$102,300). "It made me even prouder to be a Rotarian," said John Avakian from Healdsburg, California, USA. "It was an incredible experience of tremendous camaraderie."
Rotary members cheered for each of the 26 groups as they made way through the lobby to the entrance of the bridge climb. Cloud cover hid the sun for most of the morning, but light broke through briefly as the climbers unfurled their flags, which had been tucked into their sleeves during the ascent. Helicopters circled overhead from a variety of local Sydney news stations.
Climbers cheered, danced, and even broke into the "Wave" from 400 feet above ground. "I think that's exactly what Rotary needs," said Nate Harimoto of Thousand Oaks, California, "a show of force from all around the world." Climbers from Taiwan, Australia, China, Japan, United States, and dozens of other countries and regions supported each other during the event. They watched each other's backs, literally and figuratively, helping to steer climbers' heads away from hanging steel beams.
For a day, their commitment to help others also became a commitment to help each other. And in the process, they raised enough money to show the world how committed they are to polio eradication. For Leilani Ross of Queensland, however, the climb was also about closing an important family chapter. She had long wanted to climb the bridge with her father, but didn't get the chance before he died a few years ago. "The friendliness is just wonderful," Ross said. "Everyone is very welcoming."
Cheryl Drozdowicz, a former Youth Exchange student from Wisconsin, USA, who stayed with Ross 35 years ago, watched her go up. After the convention, Drozdowicz will travel back to Queensland for the first time since her program all those years ago. "I always feel like a piece of my heart is still there," Drozdowicz said.
Fondly known as the "Coat Hanger," the bridge officially opened in 1932. The bridge is also referred to as the "Iron Lung" because it employed so many Australians during the Great Depression. Tourists began climbing the bridge in 1998, which is now considered a tourist must with over 3 million visitors from more than 130 countries in that time.
Photo Credit: Rotary International/Alyce Henson