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A long comeback completed

9/13/2011
Ryan Villopoto took three overall wins, but it was his consistent riding that earned him the title. Simon Cudby

It was going to happen. Nobody could have expected it to take three years but Ryan Villopoto would win a 450 AMA Pro Motocross Championship before his career was finished. That's why when he was crowned the 2011 AMA Supercross champion in early May he was only halfway from completing his long comeback.

He was already supposed to be the champion. The three-time 250 champion (2006-2008) won his very first moto in the 450 class in 2009 but then suffered a major knee injury in moto two. In 2010, a severely broken tibia and fibula from a Supercross crash required two surgeries totaling 14 hours. He didn't walk well until late into the summer.

This summer, Villopoto and the majority of his competition stayed healthy. He didn't win the most races but he was the most consistent and the only rider to score points in each of the 24 motos. One big challenge still remains on Villopoto's calendar before he can truly relax -- the 2011 Motocross of Nations in France this weekend. Villopoto, teamed with Ryan Dungey and Blake Baggett, is representing Team USA for the fourth time in his career and the first time on a 450.

ESPN interviewed the new champion immediately following his 1-3 performance to earn the title at Pala Raceway in California last weekend.

ESPN.com: You could barely walk a year ago. How emotional of a comeback has this been?
Ryan Villopoto: To get a Supercross championship and then a motocross championship all in the same year it's been a hell of a year and it's going to be hard to beat it. The bar is raised so high so next year is going to be a tough one for myself.

What surprised you the most about this motocross season?
That it started off so slow. I didn't expect that. You forget how hard motocross really is. It was looking pretty bad at the beginning of the season and then even during the middle of the season we were pretty far back in points. We just didn't feel 100% on the bike side of things. We were testing and doing everything we could but we started the season so quick [following Supercross] that there's no time to really do a whole lot of testing.

How did you recover from that mentally and physically?
Just got better and better every weekend and made sure we stayed somewhat close. Then we made our transition to the 2012 bike at Unadilla [round 9 of 12] and that was a huge benefit for us because we were struggling with our bike. Internally and then the frame were the only things that we changed.
The last turn pass on Dungey at Steel City was gutsy.

How did you know that you could make a pass like that on the outside in the last corner of the moto?
I wasn't going to lose any time. The race was over. It was a luck-of-the-draw thing. You never follow and you're always told to guard the inside. That's what Dungey did and it ended up not working for him.

You had a 14 point lead after round 11 but at the Steel City press conference you said that you were going to race for the win even though you didn't need to. Why?
When you start thinking, 'Oh, we're just going to go there and do this or that and hold back,' that's when mistakes happen. That's not what you want.

You had a scary moment in moto one today. Did your heart stop a little bit when you had the handlebar swap while battling with Dungey?
My hand actually fell off the bar after I landed so that was a scary moment. The second moto came and we rode so late that the sun was in our eyes and it was a sketchy moto that we had to do but everybody had to deal with the same stuff.

You've had a lot of fierce rivals in your career. What kind of competitor is Dungey?
Definitely tough. All you can really tell is that he's going to be there every weekend and always be fast. You have to make sure you show up every weekend because you know he's going to.

How big of a relief is this title for you and your team?
Huge. It's nice to finally get it over with and relax.