Some days were long, others were lonely and almost all of them were a mental battle yet Kiwi motocross sensation Courtney Duncan wouldn’t change a thing.
Now a double world champion after defending her FIM Women’s Motocross World Championship (WMX) title last weekend with yet another shining example of her grit and resilience, the 24-year-old is just a few more Covid-19 tests and 14 days in managed isolation away from freedom, family and friends.
The stop-start 2020 season has been the most mentally draining of Duncan’s career but she’s not complaining.
Duncan knows how fortunate she is just to have been able to compete internationally amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, let alone the success of defending her title.
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And she also knows 2020 has brought challenges far greater than sport for many Kiwis because of the pandemic.
Duncan owes a lot to her team and family but she’s also proud to bring a world championship home for all New Zealand sports fans and is humbled to share a moment of good news in “a tough year for everyone”.
Duncan, who arrives back into New Zealand on Monday, would love a third consecutive title in 2021 but that’s firmly in the back of her mind.
“This one has taken a lot to get, not so much physically but more mentally, it’s been a big year,” Duncan told Stuff from Italy.
“At the moment I just want to enjoy this one.”
She’s not excited about the prospect of 14 days in managed isolation on her arrival home but concedes it will be much more manageable than if she hadn’t have clinched the 2020 title.
“That would have been a very long two weeks if we hadn’t have won.”
After a year like no other, Duncan has plenty of experience in being cooped up.
For the past few months, she has lived a hugely restrictive existence in her time in the Covid hot spots of England and Italy.
Unless it was for training or racing, Duncan rarely ventured anywhere.
“You haven’t been able to do the normal things,” she said.
“You can’t afford to risk it because if you do test [positive] you can’t race so there’s your world championship done right there.”
Duncan returned to New Zealand after the first two rounds – in Matterley Basin (England) and Valkenswaard (The Netherlands) with a five-point lead – when the global Covid-19 pandemic shut the championship down.
She finally returned to England in early September – after three false starts in May, July and August.
With all the uncertainties, Duncan wasn’t able to switch off in her time back in New Zealand because every day she was training and stressing about when, if and how she would even get back to Europe and if the championship would even continue.
The Covid-shortened season resumed in late November with the remaining three rounds held behind closed doors in Italy.
Duncan returned with a victory in the opening moto in Mantova but then suffered a heavy crash that put her title defence in serious danger.
She returned to Mantova a couple of days later to claim a first and a second to be tied on points at the top of the championship ladder with Nancy Van De Ven heading into the final round.
But then came the toughest challenge and it wasn’t on the track.
The final round of the championship in Pietramurata was more than a month away, a long time in a hugely restrictive bubble.
“There’s been some really long days and when you have too much spare time you can start thinking about the championship too much,” Duncan told Stuff.
Speaking to family and friends back home was always a welcome distraction.
“But it’s hard, it keeps coming back, especially when you have a championship on the line.
“It’s just one of things you have to deal with. You just have to focus on the positives, find some little things that you enjoy doing and make do with what you’ve got,” Duncan said.
When she finally did get back on track at Pietramurata, there was more adversity to overcome.
In the penultimate moto of the season with her championship defence on a knife-edge, Duncan fell on the opening lap and went all the way back to last. Just like after the crash in Mantova, her championship hopes seemed over.
But a dramatic ride that came down to a last-lap pass saw her take the chequered flag.
Duncan concedes coming from last to first with a world championship on the line, the race was most likely the best of her career but it was “kind of effortless”.
“It was one of the races where you’re just so in the zone, not really thinking too much.
“I’m really proud of the way I was able to stay composed,” she said.
“To be honest that one race won me the championship, so definitely a race that I’ll cherish for a long time to come.”
Duncan then rode a safe final moto to finish third, enough to clinch the championship.
Despite the lack of fans when her moment of glory came, Duncan says clinching the championship still meant the world to her.
“That was weird but it was cool to have my crew here.”
Duncan was able to speak with her family over the phone, despite it being in the early hours of the morning, as soon as presentation and media commitments were completed.
“They were still up, still full of emotion and adrenaline so they were excited and weren’t going to sleep anytime soon.”
Duncan said those conversations were very special and emotional.
“Just knowing that we’ve worked for these moments for 15 years of our lives.
“It’s been the goal to get where I am today since before I was 12 years old.
“My parents knew I had the potential to get this far and there’s been a lot of sacrifices on their behalf … a lot of blood sweat and tears … you go through some crap times and your family go through that with you too.
“They see you at the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows but they are always beside you and when you win it makes that all worth it and it’s pretty special moments when you’re able to share that with them,” she said.
Duncan has now won two championships in as many years since linking up with the with British Kawasaki squad, BIKE IT Dixon Racing Team (DRT), and she will be back on her Kawasaki KX250 2021 bike with he same team next season as she chases a third consecutive world championship.
“We’ll look at doing things a little different in some areas and we’ll continue to grow and better our performance which is needed if I want to stay on top and get a three-peat.”