WHEN DONNA CHEEK JUMPED OVER RACIAL BARRIERS on the back of a horse, she leapt past discrimination and into record books. Rebecca Rusch, called the “Queen of Pain,” put a new face of endurance athletics as she pushed past physical and mental thresholds to conquer mountain trails and cliff faces. At the first gala for the Women’s Sports Museum in Sarasota, Cheek took home the Trailblazer Courage Award while Rusch was honored with the Trailblazer MVP Award. Both women spoke with SRQ about their successes and the challenges facing all women athletes.

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What drew you to equestrian COMPETITION? I started when I was seven, as a little girl that loved horses. I wanted to have riding lessons. I was blessed enough to have parents supportive enough of this crazy idea. I’m sure they were thinking this is a phase. It never ever faded. Once I competed and did really well, I was hooked on the idea of winning. When a young athlete is that willing to sacrifice everything else, that’s a gift, planted in you because you can’t control it. I would get up in the morning at 4:30 to braid my horse. I just kept on kicking it up a notch. 

Did you feel the weight of the history you were making? Not at all. I was insulated from racism and the ugliness of the sport. I knew I was black, but didn’t have any concept of what that meant with the sport. There was a guy who was a renowned trainer who thought I had talent. My dad wanted me to work with him but he said no because his board of directors at that riding club would not want a rider of my color. When it happened, I asked, “why can’t I ride with him,” and my Dad told me. I wasn’t “Oh, woe is me.” I said well, there’s somebody else. My dad calls me Little Relentless.

Was it important to insulate you from that kind of racism? When I was an adult, I became very disenchanted with my sport when I understood how unfair it was that hard work, sacrifice and commitment weren’t enough, because it took so much money. Let me tell you: it’s worse now. When I came up, there was a lot of participation in the sport by middle class families. Now the middle class has shrunk; it’s just one-percenters all the way. I’ve tried to get the horses out of my blood, but it’s what I do best. People think a horse is doing all the work. I’m 5-foot-1 and weigh 110, and these horses are 1,500 pounds, and I’m trying to convince them to do something they are sometimes not interested in doing. It’s always hard to be the first. When I was going through it, it was my reality and it didn’t seem hard. As I’ve gotten older and pondered my past, I thought, “Wow, that was really tough.” To be a trailblazer you have to have a lot of courage and be self-motivated. It’s got to come from your gut.  

You’ve mentioned the importance of maintaining femininity in athletics. Why is that important to you? What I do is so butch. It’s a dirty sweaty job. I enjoy just surprising and shocking people, because I “clean up well.” There’s a balance, but as a female athlete, you have to be very deliberate. You have to put effort into being a feminine girl. We can have muscles and be fit and capable, but yet be a girl. I may have just unloaded a ton of hay and stacked it, but when we go to lunch or dinner, my nephew needs to open the door. 

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What have adventure sports done for you? I didn’t set out to be a professional athlete. I just really liked to do these things. Eventually that morphed into a career and a way to continue to see the world. It was an avenue to see Morocco and Australia and all these places I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go on a vacation. It’s how I found the home in Idaho, how I met my husband and filled up a bunch of passports. 

Why was it important to document some of this work on film? The most recent expedition down the Ho Chi Minh was documented in the film Blood Road, but I didn’t pitch that to [corporate sponsor] Red Bull as a film project. It was just an athlete project I wanted to do, and it evolved into a film because the story is really rich. The idea was to be the first person to ride the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to have a historically accurate representation of that, but also to find the place my Dad’s plane was shot down in Vietnam. It was an important story to tell for my Dad, for myself, for a lot of people healing and dealing with the loss of a family member, or just recovering from something devastating like a war. There have been a lot of years of people saying, “why do all this stuff, what are you looking for?” I never really knew the answer. But now, I honestly believe he’s been bringing me there for a long time.   

How often have you run into people presenting roadblocks to your achievements?  Every day. What you don’t see is 30 years of sacrifice, living out of my car and having no health insurance and no place to live, questioning what am I going to be when I grow up. I’m a part-time firefighter, adventure athlete, rock climber—all historically male-dominated fields. But it’s also growing up with a single mom. Mom was one of the top executives in the computer industry, which was very unusual at that time. My sister is a colonel in the Air Force, which is also unusual for a female. There was never even a conversation about how girls don’t do this type of career. There were roadblocks, but never from my family or the people close to me. 

What does being honored mean to you?  It’s a huge honor. More importantly, having an event like this and having a museum. It’s not necessarily for me or the people being awarded; it’s for the future generations and the girls dreaming of being a colonel in the Air Force or being a professional athlete or whatever it is. It’s super important to recognize that, not for the people standing in the room today, but for the people who are going to be making a difference tomorrow.