Ambition and challenge are at the heart of fitness and sports—without them, you have nothing. And if you’ve stood on the podium countless times like professional expedition athlete Rebecca Rusch has, with sweat and dust on your face, gleaming, you may still, at those moments, wonder what’s next.
It turns out that what Rusch needed was a far deeper challenge, to break down her emotional limits like she’d broken physical ones throughout her life as a pro rider, mountain climber, and kayaker.
The biggest challenge she’d ever undertaken was a special one, and it all began with a desire to discover her father’s true cause of death in the jungles of Vietnam. To uncover this, Rusch was going to ride her mountain bike 1,200 miles along the rugged, uncharted Ho Chi Minh Trail, through Vietnam and Laos. She partnered up with a total stranger, named Huyen Nguyen—a champion Vietnamese rider in her own right—to find the crash site of her father’s shot-down Air Force plane during the Vietnam War, and to be there on the 40th anniversary of his death.
We sat down with Rusch to talk about how that epic month-long journey became a seismic shift in motivations as an athlete forever. How one athlete has found new life for her athletic career. Watch the documentary—on demand for FREE at RedBull.TV/BloodRoad—of Rusch’s epic journey, Blood Road, premiering November 11 on Red Bull TV.
HER LIFETIME RECORDS
Rusch knows no boundaries. She is a seven-time world champion in multiple sports, a four-time Leadville 100 MTB Champion, summited Mt. Kilimanjaro by bike, and due to this expedition—the biggest of her life—she is the first to ride the entire length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
ON EVOLVING HER CAREER, FROM PODIUM-CHASING TO SOUL-SEARCHING
“This trip has been another step in the evolution of my career. Over the past few decades there have been a lot of changes as an athlete—from rock climber, to kayaker, to cycling. And this journey on the Ho Chi Minh Trail has put me in an evolutionary phase. I don’t necessarily feel that everything from now on has to be bigger and better and more impressive than that journey, but this trip has taught me so many lessons about what’s next for me. And knowing that part of what’s next is using some of my platforms as an athlete. I’m definitely not done challenging myself, but I’m realizing that there is more I can do with it than saying, ‘Yay, me.’”
ON HER DRIVE TO EXPLORE MENTAL & PHYSICAL LIMITS
“I want to do more expedition rides like this and see the world on my bike and conquer other trails, like the Lewis & Clark trail [from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast] or the Silk Road [stretching from Asia to Europe] or the Native American Trail of Tears. It’s opened up this idea of traveling historical trails. That’s where I’ll find new mysteries to uncover and tell the story of the current social issue along these trails. All of them seem to have religious undertones or war or exploration or animal migration. I have always loved history. This next evolution for me is to explore the journeys that people are on, and tell those stories from my bike. That’s going to feed my soul.
ON USING HER SPORT TO HEAL THE WOUNDS OF THE VIETNAM WAR
I embarked on this in 2015, and had been actively planning it for about three years before. And I feel like my dad brought me onto that trail to show me that there are still unexploded bombs [aka UXOs, unexploded ordinances] in Laos and he gave me that instruction to help fix this situation. He’s teaching me even though he’s gone. And I can help clean that up.
ON BONDING WITH FELLOW FEMALE RIDER HUYEN NGUYEN
I have long-term friends who don’t understand me as well as she does now. That language barrier helped us create emotional expression rather than relying on language. Riding with a stranger was one of the hardest parts, and Huyen had never ridden that far or that hard in her life. We’re sisters now; we’re bonded for life. I can’t tell everyone what I saw on those 1,200 miles, but Huyen is the only one in the world who truly understands.
BY CAT PERRY