Illini 4000: Fighting cancer on two wheels


Sydney Laput

Jonathan Yuen, senior in Engineering, and Maya Korol, senior in LAS, are both members of Illini 4000. I4K is a student-run organization that holds a yearly 4000-mile bike ride from the East to the West Coast.

By Conor Blount, Staff Writer

Jonathan Yuen was a seventh grader when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer recurrence. As a young pre-teen, Yuen was convinced that his mother would take it in stride. He was soon forced to find out just how devastating cancer treatments can be on one’s physical and mental health.

When he came to the University of Illinois to study computer engineering in 2019, he was introduced to a group called Illini 4000, or I4K for short. It is a student-run, nonprofit organization that holds an annual 4000-kilometer bike ride from the East to the West Coast to raise funds for cancer research. On top of fundraising, I4K also documents cancer stories across the U.S. for their Portrait Project.

“Originally, it was the bike ride that attracted me (to I4K),” Yuen said. “I always wanted to do something that was an endurance trip, whether it was biking across the country or a marathon. But once I found out the nitty gritty about cancer research, funding and the Portraits project … I wanted to dedicate a ride to my mother.”

Unfortunately, the world shut down when the pandemic broke out, canceling I4 K’s 2020 ride. More hard news hit Yuen’s family as his father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

“When he got diagnosed … it was a pretty scary time,” Yuen said. “Having an immunocompromised person in our household, we did all we could to keep him as safe as possible. Even now, he has not left the house much as he continues to go through treatment.”

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    Yuen said he hesitated to go on I4K’s 2021 ride, facing the possibility of it not being as fulfilling as he hoped. He later moved into an administrative role as I4K’s director of information, where he would stay for two years.

    Before his senior year, Yuen decided he had unfinished business with the ride and joined the 2023 Bike America Team. He said he dedicates his ride to his parents and everyone else in his family who has helped them through troubling times.

    “I am definitely sad that ride did not happen (in 2020),” Yuen said. “I was really hesitant to do this ride because I was worried it might not live up to the expectations, but having been a part of the organization for four years, it’d be a shame not to do the ride.”

    Maya Korol, vice president of I4K and 2021 rider, described a different story that motivated her to join the organization. Korol said her father was a survivor of late-stage bone cancer, but her family never talked about it.

    “It was just something that happened, and no one asked questions,” Korol said. “That was not necessarily the reason why I joined the club, I was just looking for something to do … but inadvertently, it allowed me to connect with my dad and talk about his cancer experience.”

    Yuen and the 2023 Bike America Team will start their two-and-a-half-month trek across the country this May in New York City.


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