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AMA MX: The Long Hard Road To Superstardom

November 4, 2011

Blessed with mammoth talent and saddled with equally high expectations, Ryan Villopoto has at last lived up to all the hype.

Since first bursting onto the professional motocross scene in 2005, Ryan Villopoto was tabbed as the sport’s next superstar. And it didn’t take long for the Pacific Northwest native to live up to those expectations; by the end of 2006, Villopoto was already a national champion, winning the 250cc title in his first full AMA Motocross season.

Villopoto backed up that inaugural title with an AMA Supercross Lites championship to kick off 2007, and then followed that up his epic breakthrough season in which he registered arguably the most dominant MX2 performance in Motocross of Nations history at Budds Creek. Villopoto quickly achieved the superstar status for which he was destined.

However, the road soon got bumpier. During his farewell season in the smaller displacement, Ryan encountered some hard luck he was not accustomed to experiencing. Several bouts of misfortune ultimately cost him his bid for back-to-back titles in Supercross Lites, and despite another dominant season outdoors en route to a third-straight AMA Motocross championship, Villopoto lost his stranglehold on the class at the tail end of the year to budding rival Ryan Dungey.

Despite that, Villopoto established himself as the most dominant 250cc rider to date and was clearly ready to make the highly anticipated move into the premier class. Despite being pit up against the likes of past champions—not to mention surefire hall of famers—James Stewart and Chad Reed, many considered Villopoto to be an immediate title threat. Based on what he had accomplished in just three seasons, the hype was seemingly justified.

The rookie campaign took time for the momentum to build, but once he got a taste of the podium for the first time in Houston, the Kawasaki ace began to hone on his abilities on the bigger, more powerful 450cc machine. But just as Villopoto got the ball rolling—posting three podium finishes in five rounds—he began to uncharacteristically show signs of fading in main events. Based on his incredible resume and previous success to that point in the season, something appeared to be wrong.

Villopoto took a break from competition in search of finding a diagnosis, and ultimately discovered a virus that limited his endurance, causing rapid fatigue. He sat on the sidelines for three rounds before returning to action in an attempt to pick up where he left off.

The triumphant return came at his home race in Seattle, where Villopoto broke through for his first career win on a 450. After posting two wins in the final three races of his rookie season, there was nowhere for Villopoto to go but up.

The subsequent motocross season began where supercross left off, with a victory, but Villopoto’s season was cut short with a knee injury. While a debut to be proud of, it also presented an increasingly familiar run of adversity that Villopoto used to his advantage the following season.

Following a slow start to his 2010 campaign in supercross, Villopoto caught fire, winning a series high seven races, and reigniting the developing rivalry with Dungey. The sport’s most coveted title was within reach, but then Villopoto’s season, and his career, took another traumatic turn.

The frightening crash Villopoto experienced at the St. Louis Supercross has been well documented. It was the worst injury of the rider’s career, and helped set the stage for the emergence of Dungey as a premier class champion in both Supercross and motocross—and new face of the sport—a role most previously assumed for Villopoto’s for the taking.

Overall, the 2010 season was the darkest point of Villopoto’s young career. There was little doubt that Ryan would, at the very least, be a major player in the outcome of both championships that season and could have potentially won both titles, just as his nemesis ultimately did. However, while that will never be known, Villopoto took every ounce of motivation to be scrapped from his failure and used it to his advantage in preparation for his 2011 comeback.

Through three near-perfect seasons on a 250cc machine, Villopoto had experienced more hardships in two 450cc campaigns than many riders experience throughout their entire careers. The speed was obvious, as was the confidence, but, the luck was missing.

For 2011, he took matters into his own hands, and set out to make his own luck by revamping his entire training program and entering this season more prepared than ever. The addition of Aldon Baker to his off-the-bike routine helped give Villopoto that extra edge that may have been missing in prior seasons. The pace of competition and the overall level of performance being put out by the sport’s elite riders was at an all-time high, and Villopoto was willing to do what it takes to come in ahead of the game, rather than being forced to play catch up, like in years past. With multiple championships achieved while in the corner of both Stewart and Ricky Carmichael, Baker’s credentials spoke for themselves.

As 2011 kicked off, Villopoto wasted little time demonstrating that the title would go through him. He won two of the first three races of the season, and began to assemble a near-insurmountable points lead by showcasing incredible consistency while his competitors faltered. Some freak misfortune at Jacksonville made the championship interesting as the season wound down, but in the end, there was little doubt who controlled the competition. A series-leading six wins and 12 podiums later, Villopoto was finally a 450 Class champion, but he was just getting started.

A short, yet aggressive bout with flu-like symptoms forced Villopoto to come-from-behind to begin the motocross season. However, he found his way to the top step of the podium by the third round. And from there, Villopoto showed a patience that was regularly rewarded, displaying the consistency of a champion. Through 12 brutal rounds of competition, Villopoto never failed to finish off the podium and ultimately secured three overall victories, to go along with a series-leading 10 moto wins. Just as it did in Supercross, the title fight came down to the wire, but Villopoto prevailed yet again to complete a season sweep of his own.

And just last weekend, Villopoto capped off the most successful season of his career by leading Team USA to victory at the Motocross of Nations for the fourth time. Moreover, he compiled the best individual effort of any rider in the entire competition.

In six seasons of professional competition, Ryan Villopoto has experienced the best this sport has to offer, but has also been touched and shaped by the seemingly endless depths of its lows. The past three years have been trying times for the fastest rider in the sport today, and many others faced with the same adversity would have likely quit. Villopoto refused to give up, and instead found growth in each dire situation. Through it all, he found a way to become better than he was before, and as a result, now sits atop the entire motocross world. To say he’s lived up to the expectations that were bestowed on him upon turning pro would be an understatement. Villopoto is a superstar indeed.


Courtesy of Speed

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