“The camaraderie was amazing. The trust between riders and community members filled the air like some type of euphoric helium lifting everyone’s spirits,”
This is a quote from one of Audrey Sparks’ award-winning articles on the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). Sparks, a thirty-eight year old non-traditional senior at Waldorf University, has been making waves this year.
In December 2014, Sparks was awarded one of the two Alpha Chi Grants for Undergraduate Research which funded her attendance at the Associated Collegiate Press Convention in Minneapolis in February. Sparks also ran Women’s Cross Country this 2014-2015 year at Waldorf, turning the top time for the women’s team at 13th place for her 37 minute, 25.06 second 6K in the Buena Vista Invitational in September, and leading the Warriors with a 27 minute, 58 second 5K at the Fighting Bee Invitational in October. Currently, Sparks holds a Secretarial Assistant position at the University’s Admissions Office, and is working on obtaining her Bachelor’s in Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. But even with this impressive list of accomplishments, that is not all for Sparks.
In February 2015, The Des Moines Register was named as the Iowa Newspaper Association’s 2015 “Newspaper of the Year,” and Sparks’ three articles on RAGBRAI, published originally in the Lake Mills Graphic, a local newspaper of Lake Mills, Iowa, were awarded first place for the Best Series, Weekly 2 category.
When asked how she felt about this accomplishment, Sparks admitted that she originally didn’t think anything would come of submitting her articles. However, when she got the news at the Associated Collegiate Press Conference in Minnesota, she was thrilled to hear the good news.
As for Sparks’ professor, Dave Damm, Professor of Communications at Waldorf University, he is also extremely proud of Sparks’ award. “Audrey is an excellent writer and also very good at finding stories. What I like about Audrey’s approach to reporting is that it’s very personal. She asks the right questions and sees angles to stories that others might miss.”
Sparks’ articles were a three-piece set on RAGBRAI, in which, for the first time in July 2014, Sparks herself was a participant. “Sixteen miles, eight mile, sixteen miles,” she quoted as the opening to her personal article, a reflection on her experience as a rider.
Sparks captured the event and scenery quite beautifully. When talking about her trip through Clear Lake, she wrote, “Heading north out of Clear Lake we were once again greeted by gorgeous weather and beautiful scenery. If you don’t know, north Iowa is lovely when the corn fields are tall, the sun is shining and the clouds are floating through the sky like something you would see in a painting.”
Sparks also included personal reflection. Being a first time rider, she had a few tips and tricks to give, “Here’s the next surprise,” she wrote, “the final miles weren’t as easy as the first few. Note to self: next time get more time in the saddle to get your seat prepared because, even a few miles will make you realize how tender your backside can get!”
At the close of her personal article, Sparks wrote, “All in all the experience was full of surprises. I’ve never been a part of something so large that seemed to flow so smoothly. In the end we began talking about how to be involved again next year. Ideas of riding the entire thing were instantly in my mind.” She continued, “It’s addicting. Even if you’re not an avid rider this event sucks you in. I think the reason it does this is because far too often in the times we live in you can’t find the amount of acceptance and camaraderie like you encounter in RAGBRAI. If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend you do.”
In addition to writing about her personal experience, Sparks also wrote two highlight pieces. One on Roger Solomonson, a Lake Mills local who’s been riding RAGBRAI since 1996. This year was a special ride for him, as it was the first year he and his brother would ride with their wives. They even bought tandem bikes to share the experience. “A tandem is the best way to go as a couple,” quoted Solomonson in Sparks’ article, “It keeps you together.” Solomonson’s wife would pass away two months later, making this 2014 riding experience even more memorable.
Sparks’ other highlight piece was on Ruth Anderson, a woman whose decision to join the 2014 RAGBRAI was motivated by her desire to pursue a healthier lifestyle.
After notice of the award, Sparks reflected on her experiences both riding in RAGBRAI, and writing about the event. “I don’t have a favorite part,” she said, “The entire experience was my favorite part. Nothing can describe seeing the tears of a loss as a man recalls his final moments riding with his wife on RAGBRAI, hearing the struggles of a woman who changed her life in order to be healthier and now would be taking on one of her biggest challenges by riding the entire event for the first time, and experiencing the camaraderie of riding alongside so many others who just enjoyed the experience of being out in the sunshine on a beautiful Iowa day.”
As Sparks’ senior year comes to a close, she is excited about her future plans which potentially include graduate school. “I hope to pursue a life which will always involve writing,” she said. As for those who know Audrey or have read her work, we wouldn’t wish for anything else.