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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Updated: December 22, 2:56 AM ET
From freestyling to hairstyling

By Tes Sewell
ESPN.com

Robert Distler
Robert Distler is happy to ply his trade at Salon Krush Hair Salon in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Robert Distler, along with his older brother John, was one of a wave of freestyle motocross riders who came out of Arizona in the late 1990s. These were young, easy-going individuals who were often characterized by the California freeriding set as the "Ramp Kids."

Distler put in some impressive performances in his early years, but almost seven years ago he abruptly left the motocross world to explore an atypical avenue of employment as a hairstylist.

We caught up with him in a rare quiet moment away from Salon Krush in Scottsdale, Ariz.

ESPN.com: Do you remember the first time that you actually rode a dirt bike?
Distler:
I was too young. I was 2½ and I still had a diaper on. My dad built training wheels for a Z50 and took the shifter off, left it in first gear and I rode around the back yard for like four hours.

Did your older brother, John, ride before you?
Same time. So he was 3½, almost 4 and I was almost 2½.

What was it that made your dad want to get you guys on a dirt bike that early?
[Laughs] My dad has always been a dirt bike guy. It's kind of weird not to see him ride a dirt bike or a quad anymore. He got into RC airplanes pretty heavily. His wrists just couldn't take it anymore, otherwise he probably still would [ride].

So did you progress into racing really early?
I didn't. My family didn't really have a lot of money to afford four bikes for four kids -- my mom and dad had four boys. For them to race and support all of us doing that would be way more money than we could afford. We just kind of did it for fun in the desert. I used to race BMX bikes and that's how I got into the dirt bike tricks, before it became a sport really.

So how early did you actually start your freestyle career?
My first contest I ever entered was in '99. It was the big Las Vegas "jump in the bowl and jump out and jump over" [editor's note: organized by now-defunct 4Leaf events].

It was pretty nerve wracking because I did not have a lot of experience with new jumps and things like that. I think it was the same time Twitch [Jeremy Stenberg] started.

We went there with our bikes to see if we could ride, but we didn't really sign up or have any proof that we could do it. So the next contest we were able to get in and qualify. [Mike] Metzger was there to talk us through how to jump stuff and he kind of just taught us a little bit.

Robert Distler
" I'm sure there's stuff said behind my back, but I'm going to work to hang out with girls all day and not working at an auto shop," Robert Distler says.

So he just mentored you?
Yeah, me and my brother showed up and they're like, "Who is this kid"? In Arizona we don't ride with many California people and Metzger was the first one to say, "Hey, I saw you guys out there doing some new tricks."

You just needed to get more time on the track to kind of figure it out. I was doing bar hops and stalefish sarans -- all the stuff that they were doing. I just didn't have the jumping skills because we didn't have enough jumps out in Arizona.

You guys came out and Nate Adams appeared. It was like this move from the "Arizona kids."
I took Nate to his first contest a year after my first contest. We went to an IFMA [International Freestyle Motocross Association -- also now technically defunct] at the Houston Astrodome.

Seth Enslow did his long jump in there, we had monster trucks and we had a full circle track of big 80-foot dirt doubles that were like BMX jumps. I started jumping all the jumps and I was "this is good, it's easy, you know?" So Nate came out of the corner, cases it, knocks the wind out of him and hits his balls. You could just see it in his face: "This is not the way I wanted to start out."

So he went back, fixed his bars, cleared the first jump good and after that he was pretty much set. It's that first jump with being somewhere new, inside, out of the corner, the dirt. The jumps were big -- they were steep and 80 feet.

Did Nate have that gifted riding ability that early?
He was always consistent, the way he is now. But the first jump was a pretty big setback of casing it and going over the bars and laying there for a minute with the wind knocked out of you.

He definitely has to try to do [well]. He's not a fully natural motocross rider, which makes me respect him even more. He has to try and when he does try you can see it.

What do you remember as the pinnacle of your own freestyle career?
I remember doing a contest at Irwindale Speedway, Calif. Some contest that all the California guys went out to and they had a whip contest. Metzger, Carey Hart, Twitch -- anyone else that could actually do a whip was out there doing the whip contest.

I think it was my second or third year of riding freestyle and I remember winning that night and being on TV. I was pretty stoked that I actually beat Metzger and I did actually do a good whip. To be able to say that I beat someone who I had looked up to for three or four years while I was learning to try and do freestyle, it was pretty rad to take that check home.

I was still a senior in high school and one of my classes was that you would take the last three hours of your day to go to work and my teacher was cool enough that when my day was up I would go home to ride. I remember when I came home from that weekend I had made like five grand from two shows and my teacher was like, "You just made more money than everyone put together, including me!"

I was 17 or 18 and thinking "Wow, I actually got something out of this."

What made you get out of competitive freestyle seriously?
Once everyone was doing backflips I knew that I didn't live to ride. I like a lot of other things in my life like driving my off-road truck, riding BMX bikes and I skateboard a little bit. I didn't want to have that be my only option.

There comes a time when you have to be realistic with yourself and say, "I can't do this my whole life, I have to figure something else out." I just can't picture having a family and doing motocross and getting hurt.

Did you ever flip?
Yeah, I took three years off from riding dirt bikes and just did hair. Then one year I started riding a lot with Jim McNeil. I would go every week with him and just jump and learn new tricks and he said "You know what? If you did backflips you could be riding the Dew Tour next time it comes around."

I didn't really care if I got hurt and I was just in the mode of wanting to do something awesome again on a dirt bike and learn how to flip. I went to the foam pit and landed upside down twice and didn't do it again [laughs].

Next time I came back and flipped it on a mini-bike and flipped it really good because I flipped BMX bikes, so I know how it feels. So that next time I did two or three good ones and then I did heelclicker flips and stuff like that into the foam. The first time I ever did it to dirt I did heelclicker flips and one-handed flips.

I feel supernaturally into how to do it and it was cool to get back in. I did the Jagermeister Supercross tour and that was one of my biggest reasons to get back into it, because it was guaranteed good money, fun money, hang out with Metzger and Kenny Bartram.

The whole thing of being on that team was really good for me because in Arizona we don't really see a lot of the industry so it was cool to have a bike hooked up and have suspension and gear. I have gotten a lot of free stuff, but never a full factory get-up. One of the reasons I learned to flip was just to be a part of that.

You have also got to judge a few of these contests now, so is it harder being up in the chair or harder on the bike?
It's kind of both. When I am here and they have to jump something I don't get sad that I am not out there. I get to relax, but when it is judging time you have to think of a lot of things and hopefully do what you think should happen.

I really like it because I like to see the sport go the way it needs to go. I have been on the bottom part of the judging almost my entire life so it's kind of fun to be the person giving these people scores and know how to judge because I got judged wrong.

I don't judge people because I know them or think they could do better, I score them strictly on what they did that time and I don't care what they did in practice and didn't do in the run.

Robert Distler
Robert Distler throws down in 2010 at the Supercross stop in Phoenix.

So how did you transition from motocross to styling hair? That's a pretty radical change!
My mom always did hair, so I was always around it and I told her everything to do to my hair when I was growing up. I started cutting my own hair and everyone would ask, "Yo dude, we like your hair. Who did it?" I would say, "Well, my mom did, but I told her how to do it exactly."

So they said "Cool, you can cut my hair next time" and I would. After a while I thought, "I need to get a real job" so I could buy a house one day.

The whole dirt bike thing was getting crazy with backflips and the top five were killing it, but for the rest you had to have a name to make money or be out doing something crazier than anyone else. So I'm going to do hair. I get to be in the air conditioning and hang out with cool people. I'm not much of a talker to random people, but once you talk to people a few times it gets much easier.

Do the other guys give you a hard time now that you are the hairdresser?
A little bit, but most of them don't know me enough to make fun of me. I'm sure there's stuff said behind my back, but I'm going to work to hang out with girls all day and not working at an auto shop, sweating with the plumber butt dude friend and looking at the girl walking down the street that's a roach and you're so manned out. It's cool to work around girls and they are all cool girls.

Is it something that you naturally come to, like being an artist, or do you have to train at it?
You have to train at first to really know what you are doing. It gets pretty repetitive, but when someone comes in and wants something new you have got to be out of your box.

Kind of like when you get to a show and it has a dirt jump that you have never seen or hit before. You say, "Here we go -- hopefully it turns out well." That happens with hair like if someone comes in and they want blond hair, but they have black, you know this might not work out, but you have got to try it. You have got to do your best for them. It is kind of exciting to do something new and it is a bit like being an artist.

Now you are going into your second career do you have other ideas of things that you want to do?
Oh, yeah. I like doing hair, but I don't want to die doing it. I actually came up with a hair product that we are trying to get samples ready for launch. It's kind of something new that I have not seen anyone do yet with a hair or scalp product. It should be cool and it should be used by everyone, so it's one of those things that just needs to happen and we need to try and get it out on the market.

It would be rad if people that are into this sport would recognize it as something cool and get it out there more.