At the moment, Leah Rush is pinned down in Durham, a community settled on the hills of Northeast England and populated by nearly 50,000 that work and play under overcast skies about two-thirds of the calendar year. The River Wear flows north and meanders on both sides of a town center that has changed little in the past two centuries, creating a peninsula and geographic isolation from a more modern world.
There, she is studying for a master's in development anthropolgy and, in return, playing and coaching for the university's intercollegiate team, as well as second club team that barnstorms the country. It's one of the rare junctures, as much as she might hate to admit, Rush has a permanent residence. But even there, she escapes. A weekend trip to Portugal at the start of March was a simple "quest to find the sun."
Being on-the-go is not what Rush does; it is who she has become. The former Sooner has developed a passion for turning the eight leather panels on a basketball into social change, and is doing so in some of the most turbulent locations on the planet.
Leah was the fan favorite. She played alongside better shooters, faster players at the University of Oklahoma. But Leah Rush was the nail, coming to work every day with a lunch pail packed with intensity and determination. Rush exited the locker room to execute her passion, on the way to the court passing by a quote that read: Leave your story better than you found it. Lloyd Noble Center crowds watched her hit the deck for every loose ball, hammer defenders with screens. She found a way to affect every play, whether or not she touched leather.
Rush made the dirty parts of the game look good, and has made that attitude transcendent off the court.
The "bug" hit when she was 14. A mission trip to Mexico provided the first look at a foreign land, different customs and a look at how other human beings on this world live. It fueled a desire to travel, but, at that point, she was just burgeoning as an elite young basketball player and getting the bite from colleges.
"I discovered how much I loved basketball around the same time," Rush said, "After I left OU and began living abroad, my love of cultures and travel was rekindled. Playing hoops was something I was still passionate about, though."
As a pro athlete, you're engaging your body all the time. The focus is physical...Mentally, spiritually, socially, I wasn't where I wanted to be...I wanted to make basketball become a tool for me that I could really use, rather than just play along, enjoying the game.
Within a year of playing professionally overseas, Rush became conflicted between the yearning to compete and a craving to see the world.
"So I started wondering how I could incorporate some of the things I love. I am a big believer that we should leave the world better than we found it and live a life of service. I began writing down the things that were important to me and I kept coming back to: traveling, helping people, and activity."
That's when Rush first learned about sport for development. Still blessed with an ability to play at an elite level, she joined a team in Sweden and was off on her adventure, each step figuring out how to incorporate all her desires into a flourishing plan.
"I loved the idea of playing abroad long before I ever went. I am independent and confident, so I was never worried about being alone or anything like that. It was an exciting adventure to go to a place where I knew nobody, didn't know the language, the customs, or anything else. That was thrilling.
"At that point, I hadn't really thought heaps about sport for development. I was still trying to be 'Michael Jordan' and ball was definitely a top priority for me and to play good ball, you go to Europe during the year."
A European tour provided a Rush with the introduction to traveling solo in a comparably safe environment.
"Europe isn't too bad off, so it just worked out like that. Now more than ever, I'm more interested in the less developed, hidden spots on the globe. But it wasn't like that my first year out."
Of course, Rush didn't start out globetrotting. The college standout was drafted by the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. She entered training camp in May and burned the hardwood with the same passion that made her a star in Oklahoma. Rush made an instant impact with the staff in Phoenix and fell in love with her teammates. Only it wasn't to be. She was the final cut, released on the day before the season-opening game.
"It was a numbers thing. That was a heart-breaker. I really felt like I deserved to be on that team and I think they genuinely liked me there, too."
The next year, she signed with Seattle but, again, was released at the end of the preseason. Rush was picked up by Chicago, where on a team with a starting frontcourt of Candice Dupree and Sylvia Fowles, she played in just two games.
"Seattle was tough. That year for camp I was deciding between a few teams and I chose Seattle, which I learned quickly wasn't the right decision. I felt like they brought me in solely to fill a spot during camp until the others with guaranteed contracts arrived. I think they run a good club, but for me, that was a really frustrating time."
Rush joined a Spanish league team based in Madrid and there, dissatisfied with the lack of control she was finding in professional sports, decided not to return to the United States to continue a career in the WNBA.
"There's a beauty to amateur athletics that I love. When money is involved, people change. Professional sports are a really neat thing, but at the end of the day, it is a business and people's jobs are on the line. I learned a lot the first year out of school, both through experience and through friendships with people who had been in the game for a long time.
"At that point I was a little jaded with pro hoops. I had seen and experienced some parts of the professional game that I didn't love. I was feeling very one-dimensional.
"As a pro athlete, you're engaging your body all the time. The focus is physical. I didn't do a good job engaging other parts of myself, and as a result, felt a bit unbalanced. Mentally, spiritually, socially, I wasn't where I wanted to be. I had really begun to consider what I wanted out of basketball. I wanted to make basketball become a tool for me that I could really use, rather than just play along, enjoying the game.
So Rush set off for Australia in a drive to visit a new, foreign land and reconsider the priorities in her life. It was in there that basketball began to share the ride with her drive to interact with the world, rather than be the focal point. The land down under supplied a unique backdrop. She began to wander.
"The weather in Australia was beautiful, so I would travel around to various places in the woods or on the beach or small communities and set up camp for a few days.
"I met a bunch of Aboriginals down by the river where I lived. They met up there all day, every day. I initially met them because I ran along a nearby path. Before long, I started stopping and hanging out with them.
The world hangs in a balance I suppose, of this good and bad, and I think it's important that people get out and see this balance, and that they pile their efforts on the side of the scale they most hope for.
"When I travel I like to be involved in the places I go, with the people I meet. I have little interest in staying in hotels, meeting lots of other 'travelers'. I much prefer using couch surfing or camping or meeting random people along the way. I get a truer sense of a place and the culture. Being aware of who's around and being open to serendipitous opportunities is pretty key."
Just when Rush was cementing her new foot forward, a misstep cut through her plans. Rush suffered an ACL tear and had to return to the U.S. for surgery. Once off crutches, though, she was back on the move, traveling around the country and joining the Sooners trip to Haiti last May.
Rush's dissertation focuses on the effectiveness of sports as a vehicle for development and the relationship between sport, social capital, and health and well-being. In sport for development, there are sports plus programs, which focus on sport as the primary aim, and plus sport programs, which focus on the social issues using sports as a hook. In the past year, Rush has trekked Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, visiting Turkey, Algeria, Iraq, Georgia, Spain, Scotland, Portugal and Norway among many other locations.
"This past summer I spent a bit of time wandering around in Turkey. I met up with some couch surfers in Trabzon and experienced some incredible hospitality there. They showed me the places to go, the things to see, and the areas to avoid.
"I was taken to a small mountain village and shown a monastery that only the locals would have known about. The monastery was beautiful, but getting to hear the history and what the place meant to the locals, by a local, was the highlight.
"After they left, I stayed in the village for a few days. I was invited into numerous homes, by countless people. There were little old ladies in these tiny little cabin homes high up in the mountains that would yell at me and wave me over. I didn't speak their language. They didn't speak mine. But they'd have me come in, feed me, and we'd enjoy each other's company for hours.
"I stayed in one of these homes for an evening when I was hiking in the mountains, night was coming, and I didn't want to hurry back down to my camp. The lady was insistent that I stayed there and not go back. She spoke maybe 10 words of English and I only about 10 of hers. I learned how to make traditional foods and about 'mountain living.' More than anything though, I learned what true hospitality looks like. That was an incredible experience for me."
The programs take her to emergency, disaster and conflict areas to work in IDP (internally displaced person) camps and traveling has not been without some trepidation. Her visits in Iraq were tightly regimented. A trip to Pakistan, where flooding and the presence of Taliban militants have decimated the region, was shelved and a plan to visit Egypt was halted because of the recent political uprising.
"I've rarely felt resentment or in danger for being an American. On occasion, I've felt it wise to say I was from Australia or Canada or somewhere other than the States. Largely though, I've not had problems. I think, speaking generally, Americans have this perception that the 'rest of the world' is dangerous and scary. Certainly, there's a lot of evil in the world, but conversely, there's a lot of incredible generosity and good. The world hangs in a balance I suppose, of this good and bad, and I think it's important that people get out and see this balance, and that they pile their efforts on the side of the scale they most hope for."
And this perception allows Rush to move as she pleases. Her travel is financed with the money she's earned and invested since leaving OU, and her sport typically gets her to the next destination.
"I live simply and I have few material wants, so I really spend very little money. Each year my possessions are fewer and fewer. They say if you want to travel fast and far, travel light. I tend to like going frequently and far and traveling light is definitely the only way to do that.
"I really don't have any keepsakes or anything I'm attached to. I nearly always have my journal and a world map with me, and I suppose those would be my most important things that I always carry apart from my passport."
Once her semester in Durham concludes, Rush will return to Australia to play another basketball season and continue work with Aboriginal tribes. The next stamps on the passport have yet to be determined. Rush has a propensity to pack and move at a moment's notice, and rarely spends more than eight weeks in one location. Wherever she goes, whatever the next chapter may be -- she will leave a better story.