When Sydney Leroux left her family and friends in Canada and moved by herself to Arizona at 15, she knew life would be hard. But the young soccer star had dreams of grandeur, and she thought they had a better chance of coming true in the land that produced such legends as Mia Hamm.
Without the support of family, high school was tumultuous and her body soon became something of a personal journal.
Now a junior at UCLA, Leroux survived and thrived, becoming the leading scorer for a soccer team that will play host to Brigham Young in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday at 5:30 p.m.
A road map of her journey to success is etched across her body in the form of tattoos — 11 of them.
Among the most symbolic:
A silhouette of a child standing next to her mother under an otherwise barren tree sprouting a few lively flowers
As a child, Leroux couldn't stand being separated from her mother. Not even for a sleepover at a friend's home — which usually ended with her asking to be driven home in the middle of the night.
"I couldn't be away from her," Leroux said.
After her move to Arizona, she regularly suffered through four- to six-month stretches without seeing her mother. Even now, being away is hard for her.
She wanted a tattoo to remind herself that even though she and her mother may be apart, their lives are interwoven.
"The dead tree has a big place for its roots," Leroux said. "Even though our branches can go in different directions, we'll stay together."
The word "caterpillar" in Leroux's handwriting
When Leroux was in high school, she never played for her school team on the advice of her club coach, who was afraid she might be injured.
As a result, she lacked the camaraderie of teammates.
"I was an absolute no one," she said. "I went from being popular to having nothing — no friends, no family, nothing."
She would go straight home after school and sleep until practice. After practice, she would sleep until she had to go back to school.
During a two-year period, she lived with five host families. Sometimes she would call her mother sobbing and ask to come home.
But her mother, Sandi, encouraged her to stick it out.
Leroux said she will be forever grateful for that advice.
She flourished on the soccer field, earning All-American honors for UCLA and starring for the U.S. under-20 World Cup championship team in 2008. She was eligible because her father is American, and she ended up winning the Golden Ball as the team's most valuable player and the Golden Boot as its top scorer.
Last summer, she was the top scorer for the U.S. team that reached the U-20 World Cup quarterfinals.
Recently, she was one of two college players invited to a camp with the U.S national team.
She feels her path has closely emulated the life of a fictitious character she invented in her youth.
"I had written a story in elementary school about a caterpillar that was really scared of people," Leroux said. "It was kind of gross and grimy, but it became a beautiful butterfly that no one could catch."
Her fiance's initials, B.R.L.
When she was 13, Leroux struck out a boy named Brett Lawrie, who was known for his baseball skills.
But soon after, they lost touch — until last year.
Lawrie, another Canadian, had become a first-round draft choice of the Milwaukee Brewers, and they reconnected after he bought a house in Arizona.
"He was exactly how I remembered him," Leroux said. "A goofball."
When Leroux missed a penalty kick that cost the U.S. a game during the U-20 World Cup quarterfinals last summer, he was the next person she called after her mother.
"I was bawling," Leroux said. "I couldn't even get words out I was crying so hard. He always knows the exact thing to say to make me feel better. We have the same passion for what we want to do and what we've given up."
Lawrie proposed to Leroux a few weeks ago at the top of the ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier.
"I have an amazing fiance, an amazing relationship with my mother, and things are going well for me with soccer," Leroux said.
There's something she'd like to add to that list, though: a national championship with UCLA.
That might inspire another tattoo.