“If I had a magic pill to regrow my leg, I don't think I'd take it.” The para jujitsu champion says to me as he cheerfully waves at some of his students who are leaving the gym, “All the experiences that I've had since I lost my leg… It took a hell of a lot of determination.”
Meet Rustin Hughes: husband, father, veteran, and a “Person of Determination.” At least, that’s what he is known as in the United Arab Emirates, where Rustin first heard the term. “We flew to Abu Dhabi as a part of the para jujitsu team, and they said that they don't have the term disabled or disability,” Rustin explains, “In Abu Dhabi, they say people of determination instead.” This anti-discriminatory language is meant to recognize strength and focus on individual achievements, rather than obstacles along the way.
Nowadays, Rustin’s individual achievements in fitness and community impact are impressive. He’s an amateur MMA fighter, and on his way to becoming one of three above-knee amputee Brazilian jujitsu black belts in the country. He not only trains fellow MMA fighters but teaches a wide variety of classes for all ages and abilities, from kid’s classes to Rock Steady classes and beyond. He also owns and runs B-Bold, a non-profit here in Fort Collins, which features adaptive boxing and grappling classes for the differently abled.
Back in the early 2010s though, Rustin’s life was on a completely different trajectory. When Rustin had first finished his military career in 1997, he was married and had dreams to run his own food truck. By 2014, he was a widower powering through his grief to complete a culinary externship in Key West. It was when he returned from Key West, that his culinary dreams fell apart.
The doctors had found a blood clot in his leg.
“They showed me the length of the blood clot,” he says, holding his hands about a foot apart, “and I knew that the amputation was going to happen. And at first it was definitely scary. It was like they were speaking Spanish. I could hear them speaking to me and what they were saying, but it just was not making sense to me. They were saying amputation and the last time I looked, amputation means like they're gonna cut my leg off.”
After they had determined that amputation was the best option, Rustin had six weeks between the diagnosis and the operation. What followed was six weeks of anger mingled with fear, which he funneled into training to assist his recovery.
After his amputation, Rustin spiraled downward for six months. They gave him a lot of opiates, which he used to address his physical, but mostly mental pain. During that time, he was fighting against pill addiction, homelessness, and deep depression. “I just didn’t want to feel anything.” He explains, “It was so easy to get those pills too.”
Rustin’s existence had narrowed down to the hospital, a small hotel room, and a bottle of pills. One night, in the hotel room after another round of rehab, Rustin hit rock bottom. Scratching and darting in the shadows of the hotel room were vermin, mice. He spent the better part of half an hour trying to chase the disgusting creatures out of his room. “Then I realized there were no mice. I was hallucinating.” Opiate-induced psychosis, such as hallucinations, can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a full day.
It was a pivotal moment for Rustin. He put the painkillers away that night and instead focused on the future. One thought kept bouncing in his brain: What could he do now?
What could he do now? Always eager to test the limits of his body, Rustin set his sights on a new goal: could he bike 600 miles from Fort Collins, Colorado to Omaha, Nebraska?
The hospital put him in touch with a nonprofit called Adaptive Adventures, who were eager to help him make his dream come true.
It was only when he left the hospital that Rustin realized he had never really rode a bike beyond his own neighborhood, let alone for six hundred miles. Still determined, he found adaptive equipment instead. “I found a handcycle on Craigslist for super cheap. I knew a guy that could fix them up, and so I was able to get one for $300. And I trained on that thing.” Rustin would ride on his hand cycle around 30 miles a day. “People thought I was crazy, because that's all I do is just go there and sit there for like, an hour, hour and a half, two hours or whatever, and just ride that thing.”
Hand cycling wasn’t Rustin’s only training during the two-year period between his amputation and when he attempted his ride. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Ryan Shultz, the owner of the gym Trials MMA, would pick him and bring him to work out. Rustin would hit the heavy bags while Ryan coached class and then they'd hit mitts after Ryan’s classes. As he began to improve, Rustin started videotaping his sessions once a month. The tapes showed his mobility improving, but they also showed Rustin just being a little bit happier. “I think everyone needs to hit something real hard, every now and again.” He confides cheerfully.
As his training continued and his happiness grew, Rustin realized that this could help a lot of other people too. That's when the idea for the nonprofit began to form. The name B-Bold was chosen in honor of his late wife, Brandy. “Anytime that she would see her grandpa, he'd always shake his fist and say, ‘Be bold, Brandy!’” He says, “That's what she had on her license plates, just kind of a motto.”
A motto taken to heart. Just three months after B-Bold’s official start, Rustin took off on his 600-mile bike ride: a celebration of both overcoming his amputation, and to kick off his new non-profit. They left from Fort Collins and rode for six days. “You know, I think there were two days in a row where we had 100-plus miles. And the most that we did was 120 miles and that was on my birthday. So, when I was done, I was yelling at the wind.”
Since then, Rustin has dedicated himself to building B-Bold up to what it is today. He prides himself on his community of boxers from all ages and abilities, who build each other up.
His classes attract a huge variety people of almost every ability out there and everyone gets a good workout. “Amputees, paralysis, Parkinson's, MS, CP, vision impairment, PTSD, you name it, I think that they've been in” he says, “and if they haven't yet, we can accommodate them when they do. That's one thing I think is really cool about boxing, is that anybody can do it.”
Everyone in Rustin’s B-Bold classes are people of determination. The term ‘disabled’ isn’t used. “It changes people's mindsets of their ability. It's easy to say that you can't do something because you're disabled, but it's hard to say you can't do something because you're a person of determination.” There are events in life that can either be a blessing or a curse. “At times I think we all are disabled. There's something that disables us from doing certain things at times. And, you know, if you can come into my boxing class and get over whatever that is, then we did our job.”
"There are events in life that can either be a blessing or a curse. “At times I think we all are disabled. There's something that disables us from doing certain things at times. And, you know, if you can come into my boxing class and get over whatever that is, then we did our job.”