Alysia Montaño excels in a notoriously difficult Track and Field event: the 800 meters. But even if she weren’t a U.S. national champion and world medalist, her exceptional style and exuberant personality would make her a standout.
Known for the flower she tucks in her hair at every race, and the infectious laugh to which she’s prone at any moment, Alysia is a popular competitor on the world scene. But her free spirited traits go hand-in-hand with sharp intelligence and fierce determination. “The 800 meters is considered to be the ‘longest sprint’: to succeed you have to find the perfect balance of both anaerobic and aerobic fitness,” says the five-time All-American. “In competition, the race is long enough that pace is important, but short enough that there’s no time for fear. So you just have to be fearless.”
In addition to her four U.S. National titles and World Indoor bronze, Alysia has won two NCAA titles, holds numerous records, and was the world’s fastest woman in the 800 meters for 2010. After a carefully calculated “building block” year in 2011, she’s accelerating toward her dream of running at the Olympics in 2012 – and she’s got dreams for the rest of us, as well.
BORN TO THE PART
Christened Alysia Johnson in Queens, New York, where she was born in 1986, the lively little girl was raised in Southern California. “I was athletically inclined and grew up with a houseful of boys, so I tagged along with them,” Alysia remembers. “My oldest cousin did Track and Field; and when I was still too young for even a kiddie program, I’d just hang out with my cousins and run in circles around the infield. I couldn’t wait for my turn.”
By the time she attended Canyon High School, Alysia had found her niche in middle distance running. She was a varsity athlete in soccer as well as track, earning Santa Clarita Valley Athlete of the Year and a state championship in the 800 meters. When college recruiters came calling, she decided on the University of California at Berkeley.
At Cal, Alysia shone on two stages: she majored in theater and performing arts, taking part in numerous productions; but it was her performance on the track that captured national attention. In her breakout year, 2007, she won her first U.S. title at the USATF Championships, and as a senior in 2008 she was awarded Pac-10 Women’s Track Athlete of the Year. Along the way, not only did she set numerous records that still stand (Pac-10 800 meters; West Regional 800 meters; school records for indoor and outdoor 800 meters, 4 x 400 relay, and sprint medley), but she was twice the West Regional champion and twice the Pac-10 champion – setting a new meet record with each title.
With Alysia’s graduation scheduled for spring 2008, the timing seemed perfect for the athlete and theater major to play a special role as a member of that year’s U.S. Olympic team. But it wasn’t in the script.
A STELLAR COMEBACK
Before the NCAA Indoor Championships in February 2008, Alysia had felt a nagging pain in her foot. “I’d never had an injury and didn’t want to complain, so I didn’t say anything,” she explains. She took home a bronze medal and pushed on, only to have to pull out of the NCAA Outdoor Championships as the condition progressed. With her coach now attuned to the situation, an MRI was ordered, but the results were negative. Alysia saw no choice but to try to ignore the pain at the U.S. National Championships, which would also serve as the Olympic Trials.
“You hear such phenomenal stories of athletes battling injuries –- I told myself I was being a baby,” Alysia states. “Then, at Nationals, my foot completely gave out.”
Alysia was taken off the field in a wheelchair, and throughout what would be nearly a yearlong intermission from major contests, she waited in the wings, preparing for her next entrance.
When Alysia resumed a regular competition schedule in 2010, she stunned the Track and Field world. Instead of settling for a cautious comeback, within a few months she propelled herself to stardom. Not only did she return to the scene of her 2008 disappointment – the U.S. Track & Field Championships – to earn the 800-meter title, but she won her first international medal: a bronze at the IAAF World Indoor Championships. She also set the season’s world-leading time of 1:57:34, the fifth-fastest ever by an American.
Alysia’s success continued in the strategically planned low-competition year of 2011 – including another U.S. title and a silver medal performance on the Diamond League circuit. Her speed, ever-present flower, and megawatt smile were gaining instant recognition. When Alysia was boxed in during the last 50 meters of the World Outdoor Championships, she refused to give up, leaving it all on the track in riveting fourth-place performance that captured the hearts of international fans.
HER BIGGEST ROLES YET
Despite the triumphs and tribulations of the competitive arena (let alone the subject of her college major), Alysia is anything but a drama queen.
“I didn’t come back from 2011 Worlds with any hardware – that’s just the name of the game,” she states matter-of-factly. “Some days there’s going to be traffic you have to navigate, but that made me hungry to see how much I could push forth with the circumstances I was given.”
She adds, “It can take your whole career to get a perfect race. And I’m eager to find – and create – those conditions.”
Naturally, Alysia would love for those conditions to come together at the 800 meter event of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and that’s where she’s focusing her energies. (Many observers would also like to see her make a run at qualifying for the 4 x 400 team, which she hasn’t ruled out.) But for Alysia, focus doesn’t equate to obsession. Overall, her approach is the same as any other season – her workouts with coach Tony Sandoval and the Bay Area Track Club combine the endurance training of long-distance runners with the brutal repetitive sprints of short-distance athletes, as well as work with weights and specially designed exercises, some of which are suggested by Alysia’s husband, Louis Montaño.
The couple have known each other since eighth grade, and when they wed in March 2011, Alysia says, she felt like she was marrying her best friend. A strength coach with a degree in physiology, Louis works with Alysia to prevent injuries. Beyond training, he also provides a balance that Alysia feels is crucial in her life. Well aware that competitive pressure makes it all too easy for top athletes to become self-absorbed, Alysia treasures her relationships with family and friends. After 6:00 pm, she and Louis turn off their work phones and all other forms of technology that are “separators,” and when they planned their honeymoon, they booked a flight to New Zealand: no workouts, no strategic planning – just three weeks of quality “Montaño time.”
Alysia would like to help other families experience a greater quality of life, too. She talks enthusiastically of one day opening a personal fitness studio for working mothers – and fathers, and even whole family groups, for that matter. “I see my own mom: she works really hard, and by the time she comes home she’s exhausted. It’s hard to work out on your own,” Alysia acknowledges. “I want to teach people about exercise and fitness and how it can be really fun, and I want to help parents educate their children about it, because that’s where everything starts.” She’s also passionate about the possibility of working directly with kids herself, perhaps in school programs, saying, “It’s really close to my heart.”
The idea of performing on stage and screen remains close to Alysia’s heart, as well, and she looks forward to someday tackling the challenges of acting on a professional level. The limelight of an Olympic medal might be a stepping-stone to such a career; but, typically, Alysia doesn’t stress about it. In every aspect of this athlete’s multi-dimensional life, her philosophy comes down to one thing: appreciating each experience and having fun.
In many ways, she’s still that joyful little preschooler, running in circles and looking forward to what the next level will bring. “I’d love to set a new American record or be an Olympic medalist,” Alysia comments, but racing is still very enjoyable for me because I’ve been able to think of it like a kid does. They’re so innocent – they’re wanting to win but they’re having fun, too. As you get older, it’s easy to put importance on things that really don’t matter and then succumb to that pressure; so I don’t like to get myself wrapped up by talking about competitive goals too much.”
With a little shrug and a big smile, she continues, “I don’t know what each season will bring. But I do know that I can’t wait for practice every day. And I can’t wait to be out there in competition, testing my abilities.”