During his time in Iowa City, John Meehan got his medical degree and began to pioneer advancements in pediatric robotic surgery. He also founded Jingle Cross, a 17-year-old cyclocross race that donates its proceeds to University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
Emily Nelson
Mary Larson

Seventeen years ago, a pediatric surgeon at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics hosted a cyclocross race on Iowa’s Ashton Cross Country Course. About 50 mostly local cyclists participated in the inaugural event.

Today, Jingle Cross is one of North America’s premier cyclocross races, drawing hundreds of professional and amateur cyclists from around the world to its track at the Johnson County Fairgrounds in Iowa City while thousands watch the globally televised event.

Much has changed through the years, but one thing remains the same: Profits from the race benefit University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

“I don’t know if I could do this anywhere other than Iowa,” says Jingle Cross founder John Meehan. “I’ve lived all over the country and there’s nothing like the people of Iowa. There are wonderful people all over the world, but the people of Iowa City are special.”

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Meehan has been a pediatric surgeon at Seattle Children’s Hospital for the past 12 years, but his love of and gratitude toward the UI and Iowa City keep him coming back and giving back—including during the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

Meehan grew up in Vermont and studied engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. After working for a while on fighter jets at McDonnel Douglas in St. Louis, Meehan switched gears. His girlfriend and now wife, Tammy Meehan, was from Iowa and had been accepted into the UI Carver College of Medicine. He decided to join her.

After the couple graduated with their medical degrees in 1993, they left Iowa to complete residencies and fellowships, but returned in 2002. That’s when Meehan, then an attending pediatric surgeon and longtime runner, tried his first bike race.

“I didn’t have a clue how to race the race,” Meehan says. “I just followed everyone else and had fun.”

Knowing he had been a cross-country runner, friends suggested he try cyclocross, a mix between road racing and mountain biking that requires riders to navigate grass, mud, gravel, sand, and a whole slew of other obstacles.

A month after his first cyclocross race in 2004, Jingle Cross was born. It grew quickly, becoming a Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) event in 2007.

“That’s a big jump,” Meehan says. “We were a C2 event, which is like a Major League Baseball game because now you’re with the pros. A C1 is like a playoff game, and the World Cup is like the World Series.”

C1 events soon followed, and in 2016 Jingle Cross was named a UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup site, one of only two in the United States that year. It remained a World Cup site for four years.

“I’ve got a great career and I have a great passion for cycling, and that all started at the University of Iowa and in Iowa City. I’ve lectured and taught pediatric robotic surgery all over the world. It’s been a great experience and Iowa got that for me. It’s been much appreciated. It’s why giving back is so important to me.”

John Meehan
University of Iowa alumnus and pediatric surgeon at Seattle Children’s Hospital

As the event grew in size and importance, Jingle Cross never forgot about the kids. Along with donating proceeds to Stead Family Children’s Hospital, it also involves current and former patients throughout the weekend, such as having them escort winners to the podium.

Laura Phearman, a nurse clinician in the pediatric wound and skin clinic at the Stead Family Children’s Hospital, worked with Meehan at the children’s hospital and has been involved with Jingle Cross since the beginning. Along with recruiting kids and guiding them through the weekend, she chaperones riders during drug testing.

“It’s always extremely exciting for the kids and it’s been fantastic for the children’s hospital,” Phearman says. “Some of the kids have even stayed in touch with these pro athletes through email.”

In recognition of its longtime commitment, a room on Level 9 of the children’s hospital was named after Jingle Cross.

“We are very grateful for this partnership and that John has chosen to give back to the community through this event,” says Britt Bergquist, assistant director for development at the Center for Advancement. “The philanthropic support and recognition that Jingle Cross brings to UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital has such a positive impact on our facility as well as our patients and families. John has not only elevated Iowa City in the cyclocross community, but has used his platform and event to do good and impact pediatric patients in Iowa.”

Along with bringing funding and increased awareness to the children’s hospital, Jingle Cross also has benefited hospital staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kateřina Nash, a professional cyclist sponsored by Clif Bar, contacted Meehan in April about a Clif Bar promotion to thank health care workers. Meehan connected Nash to Stead Family Children’s Hospital staff, who shortly after received a shipment of 30,000 Clif bars.

“Kateřina has been racing at Jingle Cross for years, and she’s an amazing athlete,” Meehan says. “She always wins something at Jingle Cross, and every time she donates some of that money back to the children’s hospital. Every time.”

Jingle Cross

competitors carry their bikes at Jingle Cross in Iowa City

This three-day event features professional and amateur cyclocross races. All proceeds benefit University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

Phearman says this donation was particularly special because many hospital staff are involved with Jingle Cross, either as volunteers, racers, or spectators.

“During this time when we are all are running a bit ragged, it’s nice to know people are thinking of you,” Phearman says.

Meehan says he is thankful for all he gained from Iowa.

“I’ve got a great career and I have a great passion for cycling, and that all started at the University of Iowa and in Iowa City,” Meehan says. “I’ve lectured and taught pediatric robotic surgery all over the world. It’s been a great experience, and Iowa got that for me. It’s been much appreciated. It’s why giving back is so important to me.”

Meehan was in Denver for work in early March when Seattle became an early hot spot for COVID-19. He canceled the rest of his trip and headed home.

“I admit I was scared, mainly because it was so unknown,” Meehan says. “Now after working in this environment and learning all the things we’ve learned, I’m more comfortable. I think this was a big wake-up call. We as a world did not expect this, nor were we prepared for it. We have to realize that this or something like this will always be threatening us. We have to learn from this and adapt—and I think we will.”

With the 2020 Jingle Cross scheduled for Oct. 9–11, the planning committee is keeping an eye on COVID-19, but Meehan remains hopeful the Jingle Cross will happen in some fashion, even if it’s different.

“Jingle Cross has grown into a globally televised sporting event and the biggest cyclocross festival in North America,” Meehan says. “We continue to adapt and innovate, and already have something exciting and new planned for the future. All the while it’s completely volunteer-based and a charity for a children’s hospital. There’s nothing else like it in any sport.”