Alone in a one-bedroom apartment, nearly 2,000 miles from home, Ryan Dungey struggled as the loneliness and laundry piled up.
Just 16 at the time, he had chosen, with his parents' blessing, to move from Minnesota to California, where his blossoming professional motocross career could get more traction.
Painful as it was at the time, the move turned out to be the best he's ever made.
"It was tough. It's hard every day you've got to get up and do it all yourself, but I knew it was going to get better and better and it has," Dungey said. "It's been more than I ever could have dreamed of, so it was all worth it."
The latest step in Dungey's dream ride comes this weekend in Northern California when the AMA Pro Motocross Championship kicks off its 12-race season at the iconic Hangtown Classic. The 42-year-old event is named after Placerville, a former Gold Rush town where a long-ago local judge was quick with the rope.
Dungey heads into the dirt-bike classic as one of the favorites to bump off defending series champion Chad Reed.
The 20-year-old from Belle Plain, Minn., is coming off one of the best Supercross seasons ever, winning six races to join Jeremy McGrath as the only riders to win the premier division title as a rookie.
He has become a star, the face of the knobby-tired future.
In a way, it's been surprising rise to the top.
Motocross, like most sports in today's have-to-know-now era, identifies its stars early. Dungey, by most accounts, wasn't supposed to be one of them.
He had a good-but-not-great amateur career, enough to get some attention, probably not enough to land a factory ride. At least that's what he — and just about everyone else — thought.
A call from legendary rider and Rockstar Makita Suzuki manager Roger DeCoster changed that.
Dungey grew up around dirt bikes, he and two brothers following the lead of their father, Troy, an amateur rider. The Dungeys enjoyed watching the motocross races when the circuit hit town and Ryan sought out DeCoster to express his interest in riding professionally.
DeCoster, a five-time world champion rider, remembered the enthusiasm Dungey had and kept tabs on him as his amateur career continued.
"I thought the kid was really into it, really serious about learning, had a great attitude and was polite, so he was worth looking at," DeCoster said.
Wanting to get a close-up look at Dungey, DeCoster invited him to California to test ride a race bike. Dungey rode the knobs off, impressing DeCoster with his speed and fitness level.
So, five months after blowing out the candles at his 16th birthday party, Dungey made the rare move of landing a factory ride straight out of the amateur ranks after figuring he'd have to wait at least another year just to turn pro.
"It kind of came up when you least expect it," Dungey said. "I never would have expected it like that, to come about the way it did. It all worked out perfect. It couldn't have been better."
Turns out, Dungey was just getting started with the surprises.
First, though, he had to get through those 10 grueling months on his own. His parents both worked full-time jobs, so they allowed their son to live and train in California, visiting him when they could.
Dungey locked in on riding to get over the loneliness, avoiding the late-night trappings that could be so tantalizing for a 16-year-old on his own. The focus and upgraded equipment started to make a difference.
When Dungey was younger, his family didn't have the resources to go to all the big events or buy the best equipment. There were, after all, three brothers riding at the same time. Once he hooked up with DeCoster, Dungey had the support of a factory, riding top-of-the-line Suzukis.
Also, being in California, he was able to ride year-round for the first time in his life, not forced to visit warm places when the cold hit Minnesota.
Under the guidance of DeCoster and with the help of motocross legend Ricky Carmichael, Dungey made steady progress toward the top, validating his manager's eyebrow-raising decision to sign a less-than-heralded amateur.
"He's very dedicated to what he's doing," DeCoster said. "He has no other distractions. That, and he's followed advice well and maybe a little bit of luck; in sports, you always need a little bit of luck, but most of the time you make your own luck."
Now, Dungey has become a star, one of the biggest names in motocross.
Instead of doing laundry on his own and missing his family, he's surrounded by fans who cheer his name, want his autograph.
Sometimes, it's still hard to believe.
"When I was little, I never really thought I'd be at this stage this early," Dungey said. "I thought it'd be more toward the end of my career, but I'll take it."
Source: AP News