To make U.S. sprinter Ryan Bailey laugh, ask if it's a little surreal to be chatting by phone from a chic waterfront hotel in Monte Carlo.
"It's unbelievable," he said with a chuckle.
Only six or seven years ago, Bailey was living out of a car with his mom, making friends with gang members and skipping more classes than he attended. Now the 23-year-old Oregon native has drastically altered his life, qualified for his first Olympics and emerged as one of the future stars of USA Track and Field in the 100 meters.
[ Photos: U.S. Track and Field trials ]
Despite not setting foot on a track until his sophomore year of high school and focusing more on football than sprinting until late in his senior year, the 6-foot-4 Bailey flashed enough raw potential to turn pro soon after his 20th birthday. His technique requires further refinement in the coming years, yet Bailey still managed to earn a trip to London by finishing third behind Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay in the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
"I'm on cloud nine," Bailey said. "Every time someone says something about the Olympics, I still get a smile on my face. The Olympic trials were pretty much a coming out party for me. A lot of people didn't know who I was until I made the team."
It's a testament to Bailey's talent and persistence that he made it to London because his path there was anything but smooth.
He's tall in a sport in which height was viewed as a disadvantage before Usain Bolt. He hails from a state better known for producing distance runners than sprinters. And while other sprinters have adversity-filled back stories, few endured a rockier childhood than him.
[Related: Ryan Bailey's unusual path to the Games]
The youngest of eight children by seven years, Bailey was raised by single mother, Debra Galban. She remarried when Bailey was 7, but her new husband went to prison not long afterward, leading her and her youngest son to move frequently in Oregon to stay close to him.
Since Galban was often unable to work because of fibromyalgia and degenerative arthritis, paying rent on time was often a struggle. At times when they didn't have a roof over their heads, Bailey often crammed his oversized body into the front of her car to go to sleep when he couldn't crash on the couch at one of his siblings' houses.
"It was pretty rough," Bailey said. "I was young back then so it didn't faze me too much, but at the same time it was still pretty hard not knowing where you're going to be living from one day to the next. That was a really low point for me. I didn't want to go back there. It made me want to do something to change it."
Between moving almost every year as a kid, struggling with attention deficit disorder and not always having a place to sleep at night, it's no surprise Bailey wasn't a model student at McKay High School. He skipped classes. He got into fights. And he hung out with kids who have since landed in jail or worse.
There was no seminal moment that helped Bailey change his life, just a series of incidents that made him realize he was going down a bad path. In particular, being suspended from school for a semester for fighting and spending time in the hospital after getting stabbed by a rival gang member helped persuade him it was time to make a change.
"I just realized the people I was hanging with were going to be going down the wrong road, so I made the decision I wasn't going to be part of that lifestyle anymore," Bailey said. "It was a pretty big relief knowing I didn't have to worry about that crazy stuff anymore."
School and sports were Bailey's ticket to a better life.
He had more interest in football than sprinting until a memorable encounter with McKay track and field coach John Parks late in his sophomore year.
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Unaware that the school sprinting records listed on a board at the track were also state records, Bailey naively bragged to the friends he was with that he could beat those marks. Parks overheard him and challenged him to prove it.
When Bailey showed up at the track in basketball shorts and sneakers a few weeks later, he was nowhere close to as fast as he thought he was yet he showed enough promise for Parks to keep him on the team. Bailey briefly dabbled in the high jump and 400 meters before making the wise choice to switch the short sprints.
Injuries and disciplinary issues kept Bailey from running regularly until his senior year at McKay in 2007, but that season he won Oregon state titles in the 100 and 200 meters, setting state records in the process. At the same time, he worked hard to catch up in the classroom so he could graduate on time.
"It wasn't really until late in my senior year that I realized I could even be decent," Bailey said. "Of course, everyone dreams of being an Olympian, but I didn't think it was actually possible until a couple years ago."
Despite sporadic injuries that have kept him from training or competing as steadily as he'd like, Bailey has shown that Bolt may not be the only tall world-class sprinter in the coming years.
He won junior college national title in the 100 meters at Rend Lake College in Illinois in 2009. He set a personal best in the 100 the following year, running it in a blazing 9.88 seconds. And he made the U.S. Olympic team last month, crossing the finish line in 9.93 seconds, one-hundredth of a second faster than fourth-place Mike Rodgers.
Finally fully healthy and training with legendary sprints coach John Smith, Bailey views himself as a dark horse medal contender in London. He's probably a couple years away from being technically sound enough as a sprinter to reach his peak, yet he has enough talent to capitalize should Bolt, Yohan Blake, Gatlin or Gay falter in London.
"Once you make the Olympic team, it's so much more real to think about that you could actually win a medal," Bailey said.
It seemed like an impossible dream to Bailey when he didn't have a roof to sleep under in high school. Now that he's jet-setting around the world, staying in swanky hotels and preparing for his first Olympics, it's not so unrealistic anymore.