The Long Way Home

Rebecca Wardell is an athlete from New Zealand who competed in the heptathlon at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. After retiring from athletics she started working at the International Olympic Committee. In April 2018 Rebecca set off on a journey along with two other friends, also Kiwis, to bike all the way from Lausanne, Switzerland to New Zealand. Although they started off as three, eventually Rebecca’s two friends, Emma and Sarah had to go back home to start working again, and Rebecca was left to ride on her own. She biked all the way to Singapore (the furthest east she could get by bike) where she packed up her bike and got on a plane. Once she got to New Zealand, she hopped back on her bike and completed her ride. Despite having to overcome several challenges she was able to complete her ride in April 2019.  

Rebecca Wardell not only had to face several struggles caused by practicality, but her gender also caused some issues along the way.  “In Iran we had to cover up by law – fully all legs and arms covered and also wear a headscarf,” Rebecca mentioned in an interview I conducted with her. “It would have been much easier to cycle through Iran in the mid summer heat in shorts and t-shirts – which would have been the case if we were men.” This was one of the biggest barriers that Rebecca had to face on her journey, as she was biking through Iran in the middle of summer in 40 degree heat. “I was motivated by a drive to complete the journey, despite the barriers. I knew I was going to be visiting a lot of school kids in NZ and I wanted to be able to arrive and tell them a story of how we overcame the difficulties and continued anyway. To show to them that if you just keep moving and pushing through the tough moments, eventually things get better. And then you can look back with pride and a sense of achievement, rather than looking back and wondering “what if I didn’t give up”?”  She also mentioned that although sometimes she felt uncomfortable, at no point did she feel in danger because of her gender. “Sometimes we felt uncomfortable when some men or groups of men would approach us, but we never really felt like we were in danger, it was more like they were very curious about who we were and what we were doing, as it wasn’t usual in some countries to see groups of young women alone doing something like riding bikes”. 

Although Rebecca mentioned that she struggled with some things because of her gender, she mentioned that actually sometimes her gender helped her in some situations. “I actually think that in some cases it was easier because we were women, in particular in finding places to stay. People were far more likely to invite us into their homes as women, whereas to invite a strange man into your home is more dangerous I guess. People felt safe with us. As a result we spent a lot of time in the homes of some amazingly generous people, rather than camping! People probably offered us more help than they would have done to a group of men cycling, maybe because they considered us more vulnerable?” People welcomed her into their homes, and she also mentioned that at no point in the journey did she ever feel like anybody was rude to her because of her gender, which she mentioned was really nice and helpful. 

Although her gender definitely did impact the journey there were a lot of other struggles for Rebecca. “To be honest, the biggest challenges on the journey were related to the weather (wind, snow, heat etc.) or to finding somewhere to sleep, rather than because of my gender.” She also mentioned having struggles with her visa getting into Iran,which she believes is due to a safety concern. “ We only had an issue with our Iranian visa, but this was because they thought we were going to go to the area of Iran that borders Pakistan and Afghanistan and they were concerned for our safety, not specifically because we were women, but you never really know the reasons!” 

Despite people not believing in her, Rebecca was able to push through several challenges including a broken knee, two stomach bugs, sleeping under highways, biking in extreme weather to arrive at her final destination 354 days after her departure. She biked 20435 kilometres, climbed 104533m (which is twelve times Mt. Everest), and rode for a total of 1137 hours. “Many people thought that we were crazy and that it was a long way to travel. No one outright said to our face “I don’t think you can make it”…but you could see that they were thinking that. In particular because none of us had any experience riding a touring bike or doing any kind of long distance bike travel, but also because there were so many unknowns about the journey that could have caused us to not be able to make it the whole way (e.g. accidents, closed borders, denied visas etc. etc.)” Despite people thinking that it was a crazy idea Rebecca Wardell made it home the long way.