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'Striving for Perfection': Unconventional student, researcher prepares to paddle-board across Lake Michigan

Glennie senior John Maus poses for a portrait on March 29 at Central Michigan University.

After a wicked Kansas rainstorm hit the night before, Glennie, Michigan senior John Maus awoke on top of a picnic bench. His muddy, blue mountain bike had a flat tire and everything he had with him was soaking wet.  

Maus was in Andale, a small town of about 500 people, 20 miles west of Wichita. Maus, 30, was adventuring from Virginia to Oregon to raise money for Mott Children's Hospital's congenital heart disease foundation. His friend’s son had died of a congenital heart disease five years before. 

It was nearing the end of June 2018 and his goal was to reach the West Coast by August.

Hauling his bike to a nearby convenience store to buy some food for the long trip ahead, Maus met Jim Sobba who sparked up a conversation.  

“As I walked in and got my coffee, I saw a young man sitting down and eating breakfast,” Sobba said. “And I don’t know any strangers ... I like to get to know people.” 

Maus explained to Sobba the purpose of his cross country ride. Sobba told him there was someone he had to meet and led him to the Brunin Family Café and introduced him to its owners, sisters Amiee Engels and Andi Martin.  

Engels' grandson, Lucas, was born with De George Syndrome, a rare birth defect that affects the 22nd chromosome and results in multiple congenital heart diseases. Lucas received his first open heart surgery at Stanford University in California. He was on constant oxygen for the first seven months of his life. On March 16, Lucas received his second open-heart surgery. Now, he is recovering with his family back in Andale where residents have nicknamed him, "Lucas Strong."

Enjoying his visit, but eager to get back on the road, Maus intended to ride 20 miles out of his way to get his bike repaired. Sobba insisted on paying for a full-service repair, which included two new tires, puncture resistant tubes, new breaks cleaned and anything else the bike needed. 

“John had (seven) flat tires from Virginia to Andale. He told me he never had another flat tire after we put that stuff on,” Sobba said. 

The owners of the bike shop, which often cares for bikers along the Trans-American Trail, had access to a local church hostel. They offered the keys to Maus for a place to sleep, shower and do laundry.  As he dropped Maus off at the hostel, Sobba bid Maus farewell – “friends for life.”  

Inside the empty church building, Maus cried, overcome with happiness. He vowed to give back to those who helped him on his journey, starting with the family and their baby boy, Lucas Strong.

His next trek begins this summer. Maus will paddle board across Lake Michigan without food or provisions to raise money for Lucas and his family. At the same time, he will use this journey to advance his research in neurology and to feed his craving for adventure and struggle. 

"What I was taught growing up was to have a worldly perspective," Maus said. "Not to just look at the people around you, look everywhere in the world to see where you're needed."

Maus' Childhood

He "slept through" most of high school and struggled to find subjects that ignited any passion for learning. After graduation, most immediately go to college — Maus found himself doing manual labor.

“In my mind, it just felt like I was a disappointment to everybody," Maus said. 

Everything changed for him after he applied for a job at the local fire station. He began training his body and disciplining his mind for the work ahead. He became a wildland firefighter in Michigan and continued his career out west. First joining a fire engine team in Oregon, then becoming part of a hot-shot crew in South Dakota. Hot-shot firefighters are an elite team that are trained to fight some of the most dangerous fires in the country. 

“I was blown away with the level of intensity that was required to do that job,” Maus said. “You’re digging in the soggy, rocky, rooted earth with fifty pounds on your back next to a fire, breathing in nasty smoke.”

Years of punishing his body resulted in ginormous calves and biceps paired with an intense attitude and work ethic.

After four years of working 16-hour shifts fighting devastating infernos, Maus discovered the value of struggling, a need to help others and how much stress his body could endure. 

"Hot-shoting taught me how to draw out 100 percent effort," Mause said. "I realized when we give 100 percent effort, the potential to learn, adapt and grow is limitless."

Pursuing Neuroscience

Maus left the hot-shot crew in 2012. He studied at Alpena Community College for two years and transferred to Central Michigan University.  

He now seeks to develop his mind by pursuing a degree in neuroscience. He often speaks like a true scientist by asking questions and thinking existentially. Maus has already begun making connections in the field by closely studying with CMU professors like Dr. Ken Jenrow.

Maus is interested in exploring a phenomenon that he calls “flow.” Jenrow describes it as the feeling you get while in a near-death experience, such as a car accident, where time seems to slow down radically. 

He has been vigorously training for his voyage across Lake Michigan set for this August. Aside from raising money for Lucas and his family, Maus will take the opportunity to advance his neuroscience curiosity.

Maus’ hypothesis is that his brain activity would somehow be permanently altered upon completing his mission.  

Using connections as a former Henry Ford Health researcher, Jenrow offered to get MEG (magnetoencephalography) readings on Maus' brain before and after his voyage. These results will be compared and could possibly advance the hypothesis.

“What I recognize in John and what I respect in him is passion and a stubbornness not to compromise,” Jenrow said. “When you're confronted with someone like that, which is very rare nowadays, I felt compelled to help.” 

Jenrow said the pre-post tests are preliminary studies. He’s unaware if the tests will yield results that require further research. 

Nevertheless, Maus will stand motivated by philanthropy, the progression of research and a desire for adventure as he makes the three-day paddle across Lake Michigan.

Maus encourages students and community members to visit the Paddle for Peace Facebook page and donate through his GoFundMe campaign. He hopes to raise more than $31,000 for Lucas and his family.

Making a home at CMU

Maus can usually be spotted from a mile away wearing his grey sweatshirt and green backpack, often times running from his Deerfield home to CMU.

He became active on campus by working at the rock-climbing wall in Finch Fieldhouse and as a yoga instructor for Residence Life. He also hosts a podcast, “Central Conversations," in which Maus embraces his curiosity by interviewing CMU professors. The podcast can be found on Soundcloud

He met Ortonville sophomore Lynne Wummel during the Fall 2017 semester. She went on to become Maus' close friend and inspiration for his future athletic feats.

Wummel shares Maus’ adventurous spirit. She hiked the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, which is known as the longest hiking-only trail in the world, one year after graduating high school. After completing her first year at CMU she was, “itching to get back out there.” She was the one who suggested biking across the country to Maus. 

While he wanted to go on the adventure, Maus was not sure if the time was right.  

“Someday turns into never really quick” Wummel told him. He described her words as the epiphany he needed to get his foot out the door. Without her encouragement, he wouldn't have met Sobba and the Kansas family. 

“If you want something, you'll go get it," Wummel said. "A lot of people push it off, they say, ‘after I graduate’ or ‘after my kids grow up,’ but the timing will never be right. You just got to do it sometimes.” 

With his friends, Maus is humorous, easy-going and introspective. Wummel said while the duo might not always be on crazy adventures, they will always keep a special friendship.

Even while achieving great victories, both Maus and Wummel agree he can struggle with planning ahead and falling victim to reckless behavior. He’s also working to improve his writing skills in hopes to one day be published. 

While Maus appreciates the comforts of modern life, he strongly advises others to find ways to achieve an even “flow.” 

He claims it's his goal to always strive for perfection.

"My whole life has been looking everywhere and experiencing things just to understand life," Maus said. "Everybody gets caught up in doing their own thing, but that's only a snapshot of what it's like to be human."