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Courtney Duncan at the 2018 Grand Prix of Germany

Courtney Duncan: walking her own World Championship path

May 212018

The #151 blue Yamaha stood out at the Grand Prix of Germany thanks to the bright red number plate. Courtney Duncan, a 22 year old from Dunedin in New Zealand, ‘closed a book’ at the fast and daunting Talkessel circuit at Teutschenthal. It was here in the summer of 2016 that a rosy-faced rookie to the FIM Women’s Motocross World Championship clipped a photographer, crashed and lost her lead in the series as well as time to recover from the broken bones that wrecked a dream debut.

Last Sunday Duncan was dominant. Her pursuit and relegation of world champ Kiara Fontanesi was executed with aplomb and then eclipsed by a masterful performance of control from the front on Sunday. It was the form of a number-one in the making and another episode for the racer that travelled from the furthest point imaginable to make her name.

Courtney is looking in fine shape for what is her third attempt at an FIM title. It is a campaign that is sprouting fruit of the lessons learned on the track, the frustrations and loneliness of existence halfway across the world, the pressure of a six round contest where the smallest error can resonate widely and white-hot determination to meet a goal…

"I still have a lot to learn but I’m happy with the speed we’ve moving and where we are."

A third Grand Prix season: you’re definitely not a rookie any more…

Yeah, this is my third, and obviously my first season was cut short but like you say I have been here long enough to understand how it works, what you need to do, what you shouldn’t do and so on. It has taken some time but I feel like I have found my roots. I still have a lot to learn but I’m happy with the speed we’ve moving and where we are.

Is it really possible to split your life between two hemispheres? It’s unusual compared to many other Grand Prix riders. Is it a head-mess?

Erm, to be honest with you it can work out quite well because when the season is finished here I can head home, catch up with friends and enjoy the New Zealand summer while having a bit of a break before looking to move again. It is difficult at times though. It is a big change coming from New Zealand and over to Belgium: completely different countries. You also feel the distance. I think a number of riders can say ‘right, I’ve had enough this week, I’m gonna head back to see friends or family for a couple days’ and it obviously takes me a couple of days just to get home! In that aspect it can be tough, and I’m just here with my mechanic…but we are getting to know more people.

"In the end every day I spend overseas makes me tougher and will make me a better athlete and person in the long-run..."

Without wanting to paint a bad picture of it, the margin of pressure to succeed must go up. You cannot afford to drop the ball over here…

You don't have those creature comforts like you do at home and if you have a bad race then there is not much to fall back-on or bounce-off and cheer you up. In the end every day I spend overseas makes me tougher and will make me a better athlete and person in the long-run. I don't have home GPs or people to cheer me on but I keep telling myself all the time that I’m good enough to do it and I have the talent and the work ethic. Bjorn, my mechanic, has been really important to me and has been so supportive and Josh [Coppins] as well. I was able to learn a lot from him.

People tend to assume that as a Pro athlete you have this heightened level of determination but the truth is that some people are more motivated than others. Where does yours come from aside from those factors of distance, relocation and being a bit of an outsider? Where does the fire come from?

Really wanting to be world champion: that's where it comes from and there were not really any other goals for me growing up and watching Josh, BT [Ben Townley] and Katherine [Prumm] on the TV around the time I was fourteen. Since those days it was a case of ‘that's what I want’. I went through hard times and injuries in New Zealand but the goal was always to come to Europe. I did a stint in America but it was not what I wanted because I hankered for the GP scene. Being world champion fires me.

"I’m so proud to be a Kiwi and I love hearing that national anthem on the podium. I always think of the people that I know are back home supporting me. It’s pretty cool and a moment I think you cherish forever."

It’s meant a journey to reach this point. Have you see how wide the world actually is?

Completely. Even going to places like Portugal was a first for me. You don't forget to appreciate it: doing a sport you love and travelling at the same time. You see how different people live. It’s pretty cool and it makes you appreciate how lucky you are as well to live in New Zealand. You see both sides. I’m so proud to be a Kiwi and I love hearing that national anthem on the podium. I always think of the people that I know are back home supporting me. It’s pretty cool and a moment I think you cherish forever.

You crashed in Germany in your first year in a freak accident and before that you were almost dominating. How much did that injury and abrupt halt hit your confidence?

Yeah, it was hard to come back. Before the crash it was a picture-perfect start to a debut season where I didn't really know what was going on. It felt like nothing could go wrong. I even won in Valkenswaard after not riding the sand before in my life. I believe that things happen for a reason so that crash meant being world champion that year was not the right time. I think it hit my confidence a little bit but I was able to come back later that season and win in Switzerland and Assen. 2017 was tougher because my speed was good but I made too many mistakes and it cost me. I think I had some hype after 2016 and people expected a lot of me. Sometimes I delivered and sometimes I didn't. I understand how it works now and I don't have to go out there and be on-fire. If you win by 30 or 3 seconds then it is still the same amount of points.

The ‘things happen for a reason’ philosophy: did that come from some hard knocks? Or maybe just your character?

Maybe from my family. I was taught that if you keep working then eventually you get to where you want to be. I believe I can make this happen. That first year was just not the right time. Now I have more experience. Timing is so important and a big part of it. You see it with other riders [who don't make it]. You need the right team, right bike and to be in the right place at the right time. It is so crucial because at world championship level everyone is working and there isn’t one person who is competitive that isn’t putting their heart and soul into the sport. You have to have everything on point.

A word on the series because for several years WMX has gone down to the last race of the last round. It’s a short championship and you really cannot put a foot wrong…

A big mistake can really cost you and maybe in some of the other GP classes you can get away with a DNF. With six races we cannot afford that or even to be off the podium. Coming down to the last race a few times now shows how crucial each point is and just one position higher or lower in the second or the third round decides a championship. You have to make those motos count.

Three championship contenders and all on the same bike. Do you feel you need to make a bit of elbow-room for yourself with Yamaha?

Haha…you could look at it that way or you could see it like we are all here to do our own job. I’m not so fazed or worried about anyone else but to do the best job I can for myself, my team and my sponsors. I rarely look to others.