Ryan Dungey has faced menacing courses and some serious competition as a supercross and motocross champion, but one of his most important journeys came far removed from the rough-and-tumble dirt roads he made his name on.
Dungey, 29, was on hand this weekend to help his young friend Gabe, a 9-year-old cancer survivor, take his first steps nearly two years after surgery left him wheelchair-bound.
“I have chills just thinking about it,” Gabe’s mom Andrea tells PEOPLE. “All week, Gabe talked about it. ‘Is it time to go see Ryan? Is it time to go see Ryan? Is this the day we get to see Ryan?’ ”
Gabe, a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, was treated successfully for medulloblastoma, a cancerous tumor of the brain, in 2018.
He remains cancer free, but suffered posterior fossa syndrome after the surgery, which left his brain having to essentially relearn all basic skills, including breathing, talking and walking.
Though it’s been a long two years, Gabe took his first steps on Saturday in Minneapolis at one of St. Jude’s 63 national walks to benefit Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
“Leading up to that day, I was nervous. Gabe was excited. He said to me, ‘Mom, I was born ready. I got this,’” Andrea recalls.
Dungey, who retired in 2017, was right by his side in an orange “Team Gabe Strong” T-shirt as Gabe put one foot in front of the other, as was Andrea and a service dog named Tesla.
The trio linked arms as Gabe successfully walked to the sound of an enthusiastic cheering crowd.
“With what Gabe has been through and now that he is cancer free, it just goes to show all the work everyone is doing,” Dungey tells PEOPLE. “He’s living proof of that. I’m pretty speechless, but it’s just amazing to see. It makes me feel good to help in the effort to help kids beat the odds and take advantage of everything life has to offer.”
Following the milestone steps, Gabe felt good, too, and boasted of his impressive accomplishments to his mom.
“After the event, Gabe told me, ‘Mom, did you see how good I did? I walked far, right? I did good,’ ” Andrea says. “He told me how special he felt that Ryan came to hang out with him that day and helped him walk.”
Prior to his diagnosis, Gabe was a big fan of dirt biking, and even rode competitively, hoping to maybe one day follow in the footsteps of Dungey, his idol.
The two forged a friendship in October 2018 after meeting during one of Dungey’s visits to St. Jude, a cause he has supported for years, and became fast friends, with Dungey inviting him out to several supercross races.
“Ryan is his hero, so for them to be buds is the most amazing thing that could happen to him,” Andrea says.
Dungey says welcoming his now-3-month-old daughter Harper helped put things in perspective for him, and only bolstered his dedication to working with St. Jude, which has become an official supercross partner.
“Because of him, it has opened up the riders to the idea that, ‘Hey, life is bigger than a race. And we want to get behind this and support this,’” Dungey says. “Thanks to Gabe, the whole supercross-motocross community is getting behind it, for a cause bigger than racing dirt bikes.”
And just as Gabe has inspired Dungey with his can-do attitude, Dungey has inspired him right back with his resilience.
“Telling Gabe about Ryan and other supercross riders going to rehab after they get hurt and getting better made him say, ‘Oh, they’ve been through rehab, too? Well, then I can do it, too,’ ” says Andrea. “I think that’s what’s helped push him along the way. I think the way he worked hard to do motocross before he got sick helps him now think, ‘I can keep going… I can get back to what I love, and everything is going to be fine.’ ”
As for what’s next for Gabe, Andrea says her son is working with a gait trainer to be able to walk longer and go further, and eventually say goodbye to his wheelchair.
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