In 2015, ultra-endurance athlete Rebecca Rusch set out to find the place where her father’s plane was shot down during the Vietnam War and, in the process, found a new purpose.
Adventure racer, author, and volunteer firefighter Rebecca Rusch is used to facing trials and coming out on top. The seven-time world champion has won the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race four times, cycled Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, river boarded down the Grand Canyon, and was the first female to ascend El Capitan in Yosemite National Park by rock climbing.
Rusch’s mental toughness and grit has earned her the nickname “The Queen of Pain.” Always ready to expand her horizons, Rusch wanted to become the first person to ride the entire length of the 1,200-mile Ho Chi Minh Trail. But this trek wouldn’t be about winning a trophy or setting a time record — it would be about connecting with her father who was shot down in 1972 during the Vietnam War when Rusch was only a child.
Like many life-changing moments, it took a while for the pieces to come together. Her father’s remains were found in 2007. “That’s when we knew he died in a crash and wasn’t a prisoner of war,” Rusch says. “He wasn’t suffering.” Almost a decade later, in 2015, she and her Vietnamese riding partner, Huyen Nguyen, set out across Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to find the place where Rusch’s father was shot down.
Their amazing journey along the former North Vietnamese military supply line, through jungles and landscapes pockmarked by bombs, is chronicled in a new film, Blood Road. The exciting and touching documentary — set for wide release on June 20, 2017 — has already nabbed the Audience Award at Sun Valley Film Festival and “Best of Fest” at Bentonville Film Festival.
Rusch says the journey was physically demanding, but her years of training and racing prepared her for it. The biggest challenge, she says, was “logistically trying to map a historically accurate route. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is not an established thing like the Appalachian Trail.”
Border crossings were also difficult. “The areas we were in don’t see a lot of tourists. What we were doing was unusual,” she says. “We were definitely welcomed, but it took a lot longer sometimes to do something as simple as pass through a village. As guests, we’d have to find the village chief and ask permission, for example, to go through their land. Sometimes we would sit around a slaughtered pig, give thanks, and drink some mystery alcohol because that’s the custom. While those moments were challenging, it allowed us time to get to know the villagers, too.”
Ultimately, the biggest tests for Rusch were more personal than physical. “I went there thinking it would be an amazing journey and I’d find out more about my dad,” she says. “But I didn’t really expect to find out so much about myself. I kind of thought I had that figured out, and you know, at 48 I found that I still didn’t.”
The biggest surprises? “I didn’t plan to be so moved by the people and meeting them,” Rusch explains. “I’m an American, and my dad dropped bombs on these villages. I wondered how we’d be received. There was nothing but open arms and welcoming from the friendliest people I have ever met in my life. That was a good lesson for me in forgiveness.”
The physical remnants of war were also unexpected. “The war ended [nearly] 45 years ago and it’s still killing people today with bombs that didn’t explode,” Rusch says.
Seeing the unexploded bombs and plane wreckage led Rusch to work with MAG (Mines Advisory Group), a nonprofit organization that cleans up leftover war material in Laos. “I left there feeling like I needed to use my reach as an athlete and my bike to expedite the cleanup and get rid of the bombs, finally,” she explains.
Rusch has already taken a group mountain biking on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to raise money for cleanup efforts, and select stops on the Blood Road film tour will be used as a fundraising tool for MAG.
For the trailblazing Idaho resident, it turns out her trip wasn’t about finding closure but opening herself up.
“This adventure allowed me to look outside myself a lot more,” Rusch explains. “Being a professional athlete is somewhat a selfish career. You really are thinking about yourself, your training, and winning the next race. It’s not to say I’m done racing, but I’m looking at the world with different eyes . . . I found a purpose. I’m going to clean up these bombs that my dad was dropping and that’s why he brought me there — to continue with the healing.”
To listen to Heidi Wachter’s interview with Rebecca Rusch, check out “A Path Less Traveled.”