Alysia Montano is one of my favorite athletes to interview. During the week before the 2013 NYC Marathon, Alysia, who runs for ASICS America, gave the Shoe Addicts a very thoughtful series of responses to my questions about racing, FootLocker and high school athletes.
Alysia Montano Does It Her Way
July 13th, 2014
There is a light-hearted but nonetheless poignant expression about distinctive personalities and character development that proclaims, “At the end of the day you just have to be yourself, because everybody else is already taken.” World class middle distance runner Alysia Montano doesn’t try to be anybody other than who she is. Comfortable in her own skin, the 4-time USA outdoor champion in the 800 meter run approaches life in her own special way – and she is confident that her way is right for her.
The Montano way was never more evident than on Day One of the 2014 USA outdoor national championships when the three-time defending national 800 meter champion – 34 weeks pregnant – stepped out onto the sunbaked Sacramento track to race in the first round of the women’s 800. Having bypassed any type of pre-race fanfare, tweeting, or press release, the expectant mom earnestly pressed around the track twice before stopping the clock in an incredible 2:32 – just slightly over 5 minute per mile pace. “I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. I wanted it just to be what it was and have people perceive it however they felt,” explained Montano about her race that, in fact, was perceived as a big deal by many. “After the fact, it was received so well – which is what I was hoping – and I couldn’t be more grateful. I felt it was so necessary and so pertinent for not only for the public but also for other pregnant women who may have been scrutinized in their pregnancy,” explained Montano who is charting a 2015 return to world class racing. “It was important for others to see that this is what we can do. We are not fragile. We’re not going fall apart.”
Growing up in southern California, the feisty elite middle distance star was raised in an era and within a family support system that encouraged the young athlete to look beyond any antiquated notions of women’s limitations. “Stereotypically, boys always go do their sports while girls go play with their Barbie dolls. Luckily, my family didn’t think that way about boys and girls,” explained Montano. “So when all the boys would go out and play, my family would say, ‘Alysia, you go out and play, too.’ And they’d add, ‘They’re going to play rough, so you better be prepared to play rough.’ And that’s just how it was. And I am so grateful because it developed my character to be the way that it is now and it helped me be empowered as a female.”
Montano likes to recall a particular character-building flag football game against boys from outside the neighborhood who questioned Montano’s ability to play and worried about her safety. “Anytime that happened, I would get this fire to make sure they knew that I could play. ‘Don’t worry about me. I can play.’ On one particular downfield pass play, the other team sent a guy ripping down the field, past our entire team, and there I was playing free safety. I just got that fire in my eyes, that feeling of fury. I went sprinting across the field, flew in the air, and tackled him as we both went skidding.” After denying what clearly would have been a touchdown, Montano got up, plucked a daisy from the sideline, stuck it in her hair, and proclaimed, “And I’m a girl!” That impromptu floral coiffure combination would go on to become her own signature race day fashion statement.
As an Olympian who is the #5 all-time American performer in the women’s 800 meter run [1:57.34], the former University of California athlete has tasted considerable success. With four USA outdoor 800 titles, she has been a significant – if not a dominant – force on the U.S. women’s 800 meter scene since 2007. And while she does have a piece of global indoor hardware [bronze in the w800 in the 2010 world indoor championships], Montano has yet to climb the medal stand at an outdoor championship gathering. She has been frustratingly close: 5th in the 2012 Olympic w800 final and 4th in the w800 final in the last two world championships.
As one of the premier two lap specialists in the world, Montano likes to employ an aggressive racing style from the starting pistol. She doesn’t agree with or worry about others who may suggest a more measured racing approach would bring her greater success. “My coach [UC/Berkeley’s highly-regarded Tony Sandoval] understands me and we work well together. He understands me as a person,” Montano explained. “Obviously, if this [my front-running] was something that needed to be changed, we would talk about that. He knows that this is how my body chemistry works. It has never been a discouragement which is why I am confident in doing it. My coach does not try to make a single formula for success work for everybody.”
It is clear that Montano strives to be a first rate version of who she really is – not a second rate version of someone else. “We’re all individuals. I am not comparing myself to anybody else. I don’t go out there with the pre-conceived notion that I have to be out there in front. I am running what is comfortable for me, what feels efficient for me as a runner. When you set a bar, people want to get to that bar. I am challenging people to get on my level. I am not coming down to your level.” And to those would criticize her pace-pressing racing style, the 800 meter specialist has a candid response. “I’m trying to win. I’m going to run fast. And if you don’t want to, that’s fine. But if you want to, then you have to step up.”
So how does one of America’s all-time great 800m runners take that next step – the one that places her on the podium? “To go to the next level, I think it is about forming an environment that keeps you happy and keeps it fresh and keeps it motivating,” offered Montano. “I am a self-motivated person, but when you are doing something that can be very monotonous, it does get very lonely. And it can take away the innocence and the fun of the training,” the Nike athlete revealed. “For the long run, it is really important to find someone – one or two training partners – to go through it together. For me, our training is on par, we improve yearly. I know I am destined to run a very fast time. I just need to execute, really.”
There may be a way to inspire that execution. Some – athletes as well as persons in different walks of life – can be strongly motivated in the face of others’ skepticism of their ability to achieve specific goals. “I am definitely one of those people,” the world class athlete admitted without hesitation. “If you tell me I can’t do something, I am definitely going to show you that I can. Everything is impossible until somebody makes it possible,” declared Montano in citing an oft-quoted expression “I believe I am one of those people. You have to show people what is possible. And I really don’t think there are that many things that are impossible. Often it comes down to this: are you willing to be the person to break that barrier?”
During her young life, there have been many instances where Montano has succeeded doing it her own – often unconventional – way. Through it all, there have been occasions when she has proved others wrong and debunked stereotypical notions of women’s limitations. And – it should be noted – her most crowning successes have often been achieved against the headwind of those who told her it couldn’t be done. Maybe we should tell Alysia Montano there is no way she can win a global championsh