Women's Sports Museum Gala Honors Trailblazers



Sports pioneers gathered in Sarasota on Friday for the inaugural Trailblazer Lifetime Achievement Awards, presented at the Women’s Sports Museum Gala in Sarasota. And living legends Donna Cheek and Rebecca Rusch spoke with SRQ Daily about the challenges in their paths as they reached the top echelons in their field—and how they soared past them.

Cheek in 1981 became the first black equestrian of either gender to represent the United States in international competition at the American Junior Show Jumping Competition. She said it didn’t occur to her at the time how groundbreaking her achievement had been, but looking back feels proud. “I was very insulated from the racism, very insulated from the ugliness of the sport. My parents were aware of what was going on, the good, the bad and the ugly,” Cheek explains. “I wasn’t.” She first got a hint of that ugliness when her father tried to sign Cheek up with a top-notch trainer whose riding club wouldn’t allow Cheek’s entry. But even then, her focus remained on the next step, finding a trainer who didn’t care about her color. Her father would coin the nickname ‘Little Relentness’ for Cheek for her determination to gallop past all obstacles, including ones presented by those within the sport. 

On Friday, the Women’s Sports Museum honored Cheek with the Trailblazer Courage Award, causing the celebrated rider to reflect on the hurdles of life. “When I was doing it and making history and making things happen, it was just my reality and it didn’t seem hard,” she says. “As I have gotten older and pondered my past, I though , ‘Wow, that was really tough.’ To be a trailblazer, you have to have a lot of courage, and have to be self-motivated.”

Rusch, an endurance athlete perhaps best known for her history-making mountain biking sojourns, was honored with the Trailblazer MVP Award. Rush has made headlines recently for being the first person ever to ride the entirety of the 1,800-kilometer Ho Cho Minh Trail in Asia. The trip documented in the film Blood Road and included a visit to the plane crash site where her father died in the Vietnam War. Taking the road less traveled (or never traveled) led Rusch to acclaim, but it was in no sense of the words an easy trail. “You can always look back and say you’re a world champion this or that, but what you don’t see is the 30 years of sacrifice, the times when you are living out of your car with no health insurance and no place to live,” she recalls. "There are lots of failures, falling down and questioning ‘What will I be when I grow up?’”

But Rusch says she would never let anything stop her along the way. “I’m a part-time firefighter and an adventure athlete, all historically male-dominated fields,” she says. “But growing up with a single mom, we never even had a conversation and ‘Girls don’t do this career’ or ‘Girls don’t do that.’ That was never even the vocabulary in our house. Yes, there were road blocks, but not from me family or the people close to me.”

The Women’s Sports Museum also honored sports journalist Lesley Vitter, the only broadcaster to work telecasts for the Final Four, Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Triple Crown, Olympics, U.S. Open and World Figure Skating Championship, with a Visionary Trailblazer Award and tennis player and coach Ann Kroger, who most recently served as head tennis coach and associate athletic director at Haverford College in Pennsylvania before announcing her retirement, with a Trailblazer Lifetime Achievement Award.

Photos by Wyatt Kostygan: Donna Cheek, left; Rebecca Rusch, right.

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