Rebecca Rusch, a member of Delta Zeta, has traveled all over the globe for her athletic career. From holding the record of the first female ascent rock climbing El Capitan in Yosemite, California and summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro by bike to competing in the Eco Challenge in Argentina, there isn’t much that she hasn’t seen in her lifetime.
Rebecca’s father, Stephen Rusch, was an Air Force weapons systems operator during the Vietnam War. When she was just 3-years-old, his plane was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, and he was listed as missing in action. Rebecca grew up not knowing her father and though she had strong female role models in her life, like her mother, the not knowing what happened to her father created a void. It wasn’t until 2007 that Rebecca and her family received the official news that his remains had been found. That moment in the jungle would come back to Rebecca over the years, and eventually she would want to fill the void left by her father’s death and find out more about what happened to him.
Rebecca says that it’s a common misconception that she had her career all mapped out. When she graduated from the University of Illinois with a business degree, it isn’t like she thought to herself, hmmm, I’m going to be a professional athlete. The choices she has made throughout her life, though not planned in advance, all follow the same pattern. “A lot of things I have done have been out of curiosity and not being afraid of taking a calculated risk. From starting a climbing gym, to living out of my car so I could climb and adventure race to starting a bike racing career at 38 or being a firefighter, they are all things where I had a curiosity about them,” Rebecca says.
She says herself that she has a beginner’s mind. Constantly learning and growing, she stays excited and curious, which then allows her to hear the subtle messages of where she should go next. Just like a kid who is always learning something new, with wonder about what is around the next corner, Rebecca seized the opportunity and did what most athletes wouldn’t even attempt – she remade herself into a mountain bike racer. That decision then laid the groundwork for the very personal journey which we see in the movie, “Blood Road,” released last year on her journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in search of her father. If she had never taken the chance to evolve herself into a mountain biker, Rebecca may have never found what she calls perhaps her most important life’s work.
Her long term sponsor, Red Bull Media, helped her to put together her plan to ride the trail and to capture the story that she was finding on film. The trail was used by the North Vietnamese to move soldiers and equipment during the war, which in Vietnam was known as the Resistance War Against America. It was officially fought between communist North Vietnam and the government of South Vietnam, with the United States supporting South Vietnam and, in the course of that support, had thousands of airmen making daily bombing runs in the area that Rebecca’s father eventually disappeared over. The original goal of her journey to the Ho Chi Minh Trail was to find the coordinates of where her father disappeared. Rebecca knew that, as an athlete, she needed a physical challenge to make the connection to the personal loss that she has felt since she was a young girl. In the course of the journey, which is captured in the film, Rebecca shared that she felt her dad was showing her where she would be concentrating her efforts next.
Riding the trail showed Rebecca that though the war ended in 1975, there were unexploded ordnance and debris still there that kill and maim the citizens of Laos every year. When Rebecca found the tree in the middle of the jungle where her father’s plane went down, she knew that there was still a problem here and that she could use her reach and influence to make a difference. Working with the Mines Advisory Group, a non-governmental organization that is working to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance from Laos and other countries, Rebecca has led two mountain bike groups back to the area since her initial expedition in 2014.
None of the accomplishments that Rebecca has garnered over her career would have been possible without the help and support of community. As a 20-something self-described loner on the college cross country team, Rebecca was looking for her niche and place to belong when she encountered Delta Zeta. The Alpha Beta Chapter at the University of Illinois was just reorganizing and the idea of starting a new group, with a collective goal, appealed to Rebecca. Starting new things comes naturally to Rebecca, and she has continued to do that since college.
Now, in her new work she found during her Ho Chi Minh Trail journey, though not earning her spots on medal podiums, she is changing lives in communities half a world away. From the Be Good bracelets, inspired by the last letter her father sent the family decades ago, to the funds raised by the “Blood Road”film, Rebecca is on her way to realizing her dream. “If I can clean up all of Laos in my dad’s name this feels like the most important work I’ve done.”