Michael Cygan is running for life. Not his own, but for the lives of the unborn children and their mothers facing difficult pregnancies. The 24-year-old seminarian is competing in the Peasantman triathlon while raising money for the diocesan Office of Pro-Life Activities.
Tall and lean, while polite and a bit shy, the Olean native found a way to combine his passions for athletics and the pro-life.
"I've been going to the pro-life marches along with my family from the stroller all the way to now," he said. "The pro-life cause has been so instrumental in my life, helping me appreciate the sanctity of human life in all its stages. Where God placed me, I have unique opportunities to give a voice to those who do not have a voice, but also to support young mothers in difficult pregnancies."
During this year's March for Life in Washington, D.C., a speaker suggested those who march carry boxes of diapers instead of signs to show support for the mothers who choose to keep their babies. In that spirit, the money he raises will go to the Mother Teresa Home and the St. Gianna Molla Pregnancy Outreach Center, both run by the Office of Pro-Life Activities. Located in Buffalo, the Mother Teresa Home offers a safe residence for women who have received pressure due to their pregnancies. The five St. Gianna Centers provide material, emotional and spiritual support for families in need during and after pregnancy.
"To put a young woman in the position where she has to choose between the life of her child and her own, is that loving on our part?" he asks.
The marches have helped prepare him for the grueling 144.6 miles race that combines swimming, biking and running, but the real motivation was walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain.
"It was a really wonderful thing. Through that, I really grew to appreciate how far you can go on your own two feet. That was really something; in 40 days to cross an entire country," he said, adding that the walk from Lourdes to Fatima increased his devotion to Our Lady.
It was around this time that he took up running. He still played intermural sports at the Catholic University of Steubenville, Ohio, which led to him tearing his ACL during a game of ultimate Frisbee. He calls the tear a "huge downer," but had a reconstruction, and six months later ran his first half Ironman. That's 1.6 miles of swimming, 56 miles of biking, a 13.1 mile run. He's been training hard ever since. He now has two half Ironmans under his belt. The race on Aug. 18 in Penn Yan, will be his first full triathlon.
Although it is a full race, it is not a sanctioned Ironman, rather it is a Peasantman Steel Distance Triathlon, founded as a less expensive race.
He has to train for three disciplines each with its own skill set.
"Training at (Christ The King) seminary is a good place in East Aurora because you can run all over or you can bike all over. It's really a perfect place," he said, adding he ran a marathon with fellow seminarian James Bobak. He has biked from Olean to Binghamton last summer putting 169 miles on his tires. After spending the night with some cousins, he tried to make it home, but needed to call his father for a ride after 100 miles. He's also been taking swim lessons at the University at Buffalo. He knew how to swim, but needed to learn to swim competitively by using his legs less to save them for biking and riding. Kicking only lends itself to 10 percent of your speed.
Already doing long runs to prepare for triathlon, he began to reach out to collect donation in spring. He toured both the Mother Teresa Home and the St. Gianna Center in Olean, shooting video tours of the facilities.
"That was an eye opener for me. I don't know how many people know about the Mother Teresa Home or the St. Gianna Pregnancy Care Centers - what they do, what they stand for. That's a message I would like to help people hear."
Cygan receives sponsorship from his hometown Knight of Columbus Council 338, allowing all the money Cygan collects to go directly to the pro-life cause.
He hands out business cards with information on the race and online links to give a per mile donation.
"I didn't want to deal with money on my part, just from a particle standpoint. I want people to just donate straight on there," he said. "What I love about these cards is, whenever I present one to someone I have to explain to them what the Mother Teresa Home is, what is the St. Gianna Pregnancy Care Center. I found I love spreading the word because I just love talking about the pro-life ministries in our diocese. I find so much hope in that, and I'm willing to fight for it too."
He has raised over $1,500 so far and is still accepting donations.
Cygan, whose brother Paul just celebrated his first anniversary as a priest, is still four years from his ordination, but has known the priesthood is where God has wanted him since he was 7 years old. Even during these difficult times, he has not been deterred.
"I wanted to be on the front lines and I was definitely on the front lines this year," he said.
He faces his vocation the same way he faces the road when he runs. "Sometimes it's difficult to say yes to something that's so big, but what I do know is that I can say yes to God right now. I can say yes to God today. That's something I've been thinking a lot about lately. In the Ironman it plays out when you look at the mile markers and you see there so much ahead, but you can say to yourself, 'The finish line is so far away, but what I do know is that I can say yes to reaching the top of that hill.' Step by step you work yourself to the end of the race."
Donations can be made online directly to Mother Teresa Home (www.buffalodiocese.org/mother-teresa-home) and St. Gianna Center (www.buffalodiocese.org/st-gianna-molla-center).