A Trek to Change the World

Patrick Cook-Deegan, a junior at Brown University, hopes to raise money to build a school in Laos by cycling across the country this summer.
Patrick Cook-Deegan, a junior at Brown University, hopes to raise money to build a school in Laos by cycling across the country this summer. (By Angus Phillips -- The Washington Post)
By Angus Phillips
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 6, 2006

Is there life after high school football? All right, how about after a highly successful run in football, track and lacrosse?

Former sports star Patrick Cook-Deegan is set to prove there is, with a 900-mile trek through Laos this summer for a good cause.

Sports have been good to Cook-Deegan. In his last two years at Annapolis High he was a three-sport mainstay -- starting defenseman on the lacrosse team that won a state championship, free safety on a football team that lost just four games over two seasons, half-miler on a track squad that was state champion.

"I loved Annapolis High," said Cook-Deegan, now a junior at the Ivy League Brown University in Providence, R.I., "and I loved those Friday night games."

He was recruited to play lacrosse at Brown and was on the field every game his first two years as a longstick midfielder. But everyone has to move on, and last year he did. "I'd been playing organized sports since I was 4 years old," he said. "I just realized after two years at Brown that if I kept playing, it was lacrosse and school, no time for anything else."

He opted for a summer off and a semester abroad that changed his way of looking at things. Starting last May, Cook-Deegan hitchhiked around New Zealand, backpacked in Australia, thumbed his way through Thailand and Laos, then went to Turkey for a semester at Bogazici University that included a bit of exploring Eastern Europe.

The place that left the strongest impression was Laos, which he described as "untouched by Western civilization -- so far." Traveling by boat up the Mekong River with five other adventurers, he stayed with farmers and fishermen and made friends playing soccer and volleyball with locals. "It was probably the most relaxed place I've ever been," he said. "The people are friendly, but not in-your-face friendly. And everything moves so slowly."

He made an impression at karaoke bars, where he said he was the only one who knew all the words to pop songs and understood what they meant. "They're so happy for somebody who actually speaks English and can say the words correctly."

Relying on locals to help as he scratched out a living on $8 a day, Cook-Deegan fell in love with Laos. When he returned to Brown, he hatched a payback plan. In June, he intends to return, this time with a bicycle, and ride from the northern to the southern border, about 900 miles. He'll send back Internet reports to sponsors he's enlisted in the United States, and the money he raises will go to build a school in a rural area in Laos.

He's working through a charity called Room to Read, which estimates it costs $15,500 to build a school in the country. Cook-Deegan said he's already generated about half that from relatives and friends and hopes to spread the word to raise the rest.

"It's a terrific impact for the money. Half the women and a third of the men in Laos are illiterate, but you can build a school for 150 kids there for what it costs to send one kid to private school for a year in the U.S.," he said.

The ride will be in the rainy season, but, Cook-Deegan said, he's prepared for the worst. He's training for a half-Ironman this spring, either in Maryland or Rhode Island. By the time college lacrosse teams head to Philadelphia for the NCAA final-four Memorial Day weekend, he'll be plugging along in the Laotian mountains somewhere, doing his bit for a better world.

To find out more about Cook-Deegan's ride, visit his Web site, http://www.cycleforschools.com , or the Room to Read Web site at http://www.roomtoread.org .

© 2006 The Washington Post Company