During a recent week at Willie Nelson’s ranch north of Austin, the crème de la crème of action sports gathered. Red Bull had called together its top athletes from the worlds of snow, water, bike, and board sports for a summit — among them, endurance mountain biker Rebecca Rusch.
“There’s all these brand-new Red Bull athletes — and I get inspired by them … There’s this mutual respect that’s very motivating to me — to meet people who are high achievers,” she says. “But then they meet me and they look up to me as a mentor … and I like being a good example for them in that way … that I’m still kicking ass at this age. And I always do tell them my age because they look at me and are like, ‘No way! You’re 49?! That is so cool!’ If you’re a high achiever, there’s a respect for it.”
Rusch has been operating at an elite level since her late teens. But what’s fascinating about her journey is both the diversity of sports she’s mastered — from running, to rock climbing, to eventually biking — and the challenges she’s overcome in doing them at a professional level.
The career of an action sports athlete is often fleeting. Sponsorships come and go in ways that aren’t always predictable: athletes fail to live up to their planned level of performance, or can be at the mercy of marketing managers wanting to divert their dollars elsewhere. Case in point: adventure racing.
Rusch was one of the elite in the multi-disciplinary sport that demanded teams overcome obstacles as they navigated a course over several hours or several days. For a while in the early 2000s it was broadcast on national tv and sponsor dollars flowed. Then, overnight, the networks dropped it and the sponsors followed suit.
At 38, Rusch was an athlete without a sport. On a friend’s urging, she turned to endurance mountain biking, competing in 24-hour races that she managed to win. Just over a decade later, Rusch is among the most decorated female endurance mountain bikers in the world. She’s won the grueling Leadville Trail 100 race (endurance riding’s Tour de France) five times in a row.
But what’s really impressive is that she’s evolved beyond merely being an athlete with a sponsor to building a brand that involves clinics, her own race, a book and, this year, the Red Bull-produced film Blood Road about her journey down the Ho Chi Minh trail.
“I think the difference between then and now is probably confidence,” she says. “Fifteen years ago, when a sponsor gave me $15,000 I thought, ‘What can I offer them?’ Because I didn’t feel I was worthy. Now, I know I have a lot to offer these sponsors. I know it’s not a handout. I have what they need now.”
That evolution beyond simply being an athlete has posed its own challenges. For someone who has spent her career striving for measurable results, the uncertainty of the creative space and running a business has demanded a new skill set.
“For me the biggest risks are the scary business ones — like, I’m about to hire more staff and I don’t know if I can pay them,” she says. “But in order to grow as a business that’s a risk I have to take. If we don’t then we’re just going through the motions.”
Don’t get her wrong — she’ll continue to explore the outer limits of what’s possible on a bike. And one of the truly eye-opening realizations for her has been the realization that her peer group wants to as well. In the past years, she’s mentored scores of people who are throwing themselves into bike racing now that their children have left home.
“Mentoring young people in their teens and 20s is cool because you want someone to use their potential. But that potential is still happening for the empty-nest group of people. They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh I can ride a mountain bike?’ And it’s cool to see that child-like excitement in somebody. I’m kind of really into mentoring at any age — it doesn’t have to be someone that’s super young.” And that realization has made the march of time easier to manage for an athlete still very much trying to push the limits.
“I’m more accepting of where I am because I’m still contributing,” she says. “That’s probably the key to victory for every age — whether you’re 10 or 100 — is being excited and motivated for whatever you are working on… When you’re 25, as an athlete, you’re striving for the podium to feel valued. The measure now of my value is a lot different, and it’s actually deeper; there’s more to it than a physical performance goal.”