My Friend, My Rebecca Rusch
An Unlikely LT100 Friendship
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
There will be one less pro-cyclist at this Saturday’s Leadville Trail 100 (LT100) Mountain Bike Race. And she’s one of my favorites. It’s my good friend: My Rebecca Rusch.
I met Rebecca Rusch in 2009, at her inaugural LT100. And it was my first as well, but this time as the Public Relations Manager for the Leadville Trail 100. And the truth be told, I was somewhat of an unlikely person for the job.
While I had covered the LT100 events for years as a Leadville journalist, that year I found myself on the other side of the fence, coordinating media requests and interviews instead of conducting them.
In addition, I did not race; I didn’t even own a bike. But when LT100 race founders Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin approached me after the Leadville newspaper I was working for closed its doors in 2008, I was happy to take the meeting.
Ken and Merilee knew my skill set and clearly understood my passion for Leadville. Plus, they needed the help. After 2008, when Tour de France Champion Lance Armstrong took on legendary LT100 MTB 6x champion Dave Wiens – and lost – the race exploded in popularity and notoriety! The added exposure and media attention was putting a lot pressure on things and a more formal staff position for public relations had been established. However, I was still unsure how I would fare in the racing world culture.
Then, Chlouber dangled a carrot in front of me: We want to expand the women’s field this year. We want to bring in more female competitors, get some women cycling pros at the start line, he explained in his Oklahoma accent. That was the final straw for me – I was in. I might not be a racer, or a cyclist, but I am an advocate for women athletes.
Fast forward eight weeks later when I found myself in the throes of what I can only describe as the most organized chaos I have ever been a part of: the LT100 lottery. And this is not the electronic lottery that racers now experience; this was the last year of PAPER applications!
Additionally, if the LT100 had seen growing interest up until then, Armstrong’s announcement that he would be back TO WIN in 2009 pushed applications and requests from pros, sponsors, and “long lost friends and relatives” into another stratosphere.
And as the list of favors and special requests grew longer, Chlouber’s fuse grew shorter.
The daily rants ranged from “I wonder if this guy even owns a bike!” to “Well, did they enter the lottery like everybody else? Cause if the answer’s no, then my answer is no! Fair is fair!”
I reflected on our initial conversation about growing the women’s field. And so, not to be outdone by all the other favors being called in, I decided that the next female pro cyclist application to come across my desk would be my pitch.
Enter My Rebecca Rusch. I had never met her. Nor was I aware of her athletic prowess, but for whatever reason, it was this woman athlete who became the subject of my toe-to-toe with Chlouber.
But first, I did a quick search of this Rebecca Rusch who had – like dozens of other pro riders – made a special request for entry into the 2009 race. Even back then, her accomplishments were impressive. However, there was another trait that kept popping up in every story: She’s nice! Hmmm, that might come in handy, I thought.
So at my next opportunity, I brought Rusch’s request to Chlouber’s attention.
“Well Kathleen,” Chlouber often addresses me by my formal first name, “did she go through the lottery?”
“I couldn’t find her?” I offered.
“Well then, it sounds to me like she didn’t go through the lottery,” he said swinging his chair back around to his desk. Now, if you chose to believe anything about the “old-school” LT100 days, it’s that Ken and Merilee stayed true to the lottery process; very few exceptions were made.
“But you said that you wanted to grow the women’s field. That you wanted to bring more women racers to the start line!” I protested.
He put his pen down, swung his chair around, and leaning back, put his hands behind his head. He was ready to listen.
So, I made my case for this Rebecca Rusch. I rattled off her athletic accomplishments and statistics, her impressive sponsorship list, basically anything I could find to make my case. Ken listened, shaking his head in agreement.
“Well, she sounds great, but we’ve had other pros that are just as accomplished as her that went through the lottery process and they didn’t get in,” he retorted. “Not this year!”
He was just about to shut me down for good, when for some strange reason, as it’s not necessarily in my nature to play this card, I added, “And, everyone says she’s nice!” I held out my research papers as if they were some theater critic’s blog from the New York Times and Rebecca was a Broadway play: The reviews are in – She’s nice!
“Oh, she’s nice!” chuckled Chlouber. “Well, then, by all means, give me her application and we’ll get her right in.” He took the copies from my hand and as quickly as they slipped from my grip, so did any hope I had for controlling the situation. The rest was in fate’s hands.
“In fact, I’m going to call her right now and let her know.” He picked up the only (cordless) phone that the three of us shared in that office and started dialing.
“Rebecca, Ken Chlouber, Leadville Trail 100,” I had heard him say those words a thousand times, but this was different. I went back to my desk, hoping for the best as their conversation faded into the background. A few minutes later, Ken got off the phone and announced, “Well Your Rebecca Rusch is in the race!”
And so right there, in that very moment, she became My Rebecca Rusch. Wow, I thought, this chick better know how to ride a bike!
In the months leading up to the 2009 LT100 MTB race, the office banter grew more frequent: “Well, Your Rebecca Rusch this, and Your Rebecca Rusch that.” Yes, she had officially had become “My Rebecca Rusch.” I still had not met the woman, but I was determined to do anything I could to help her.
So on that fateful August day, when town was bursting at the seams with spectators, Lance Armstrong crossed the finish line with a flat tire to clench his legendary comeback win. The newly created LT100 media center was on-fire with international journalists frantically typing and filing their reports after what many described as a once-in-a-lifetime interview with the legendary cyclist. Armstrong was eventually joined at the interview table by 2nd place finisher Dave Wiens, making for a classic David vs Goliath tale of cycling.
After the interview with the top male finishers, the media center was buzzing with sports reporters tapping away on laptops, when my phone rang. It was Ken.
“Hey Kathleen, the first female rider is headed to the finish line. Should I send her to the media center?” Yes, I answered, to which he replied, “It’s Your Rebecca Rusch!”
So, the moment had finally come. I hadn’t planned it, or perhaps I had been planning it my whole career. It was time to level the playing field for women athletes.
“Gentlemen,” I said to the room of male sports journalists. “The female champion is on her way in and if you ever want to come back to cover this race, you will go back into that interview room and give her the same respect that you just did for the guys.”
Now, not everybody jumped up right away, and certainly some thought twice about it, as deadlines were looming for the “big” story. After my directive, I left the media center, heading to the finish line to watch My Rebecca Rusch win the first of what would become four straight LT100 championships. The crowd was going crazy as I escorted her back to the reporters.
There were nearly a dozen magazine, TV and radio journalists waiting for the newly crowned champion as she took her rightful place at the interview table. Rusch had earned the same respect, honor and accolades. Her story was just as compelling.
The rest is history, as they often say in old west towns like Leadville. There were the movies (Race Across The Sky, 2009 and 2010). There were the 4 LT100 championships, making and breaking records along the way. And in 2014, Rusch released her first book: Rusch To Glory, a must read for all cyclists, but especially women.
But of all the attributes I have read about my friend, I often return to the very one that could have determined her fate: She’s nice! Rusch genuinely is a nice person, which also makes her a natural advocate and encourager for other athletes, especially women, which includes the younger ones who have taken her off a few podiums spots.
This Saturday, Rusch won’t be at start line with the other pros. In fact, she’ll be thousands of miles away in Iceland as she prepares for yet another epic challenge: The Glacier 360. No doubt, she’ll be missed by her legions of cycling fans, including me, as the LT100 race frenzy shifts into overdrive for Leadville his weekend.
But not to worry, as there is much to expect from this LT100 champion in the coming months: from a Red Bull film documenting her cycling journey across Vietnam in her father’s honor, to a second book, to another film chronicling her recent trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, Rusch is clearly not slowing down.
She has rightfully earned her place as one of the world’s top female athletes. But as for me, she will always be, My Rebecca Rusch.