London Calling: Cal Alum Alysia Montano Heads to the Olympics in Search of a Medal

  Montano’s first Olympic race will be the morning of August 8. The final is held on August 11. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Montano’s first Olympic race will be the morning of August 8. The final is held on August 11. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

Traditionally speaking, rummaging through a collection of YouTube videos featuring a middle distance runner is not exactly an enthralling experience. Unless, of course, you are talking about the video library of newly minted US Olympian, Alysia Montano. A runner who makes watching a pack of girls run two laps around a track not just tolerable, but downright captivating.

At last month’s Olympic Trials, Montano cruised to an impressive victory in the Women’s 800m with a time of  1:59:08. It was the fourth time Montano had won the US Title in the 800, and it was her first time punching her ticket to the ever-elusive Olympic Games. In the case of Montano, elusive would be the operative word, considering the long road Montano was forced to take to arrive in London.

The first thing anyone notices about Montano (formerly Johnson before marrying in 2011) when she sets foot on a track is the flower she wears in her hair for every race. But then comes the infectious smile, the hell-bent running style and the happy-go-lucky post race interviews. And then there’s the way Alysia Montano likes to finish her biggest races, with a tumbling dive across the finish line. It is this signature dive that might find the UC Berkeley graduate in NBC’s London studios alongside Bob Costas, discussing the triumph of winning an Olympic Medal.

Alysia Montano’s first notable dive on a national stage came in 2007 when she was a just a junior at Cal. The overwhelming favorite going into the race was the eventual three-time Olympian Hazel Clark, a seasoned racer with a long frame and smooth running style. It wasn’t an Olympic year, but it was Montano’s first chance to lay claim to the title of “Fastest 800 Meter Runner in America.”

On a rainy, wet track, Montano shot out in front of Clark and dared the seasoned Olympian to try to catch her from behind. Well versed in the strategies of middle distance running, Clark hung back behind Montano, letting the youngster set the pace and complete the stressful task of leading from the front. On the second of the two-lap race, Clark gradually closed in on Montano until the two runners were neck and neck as they crossed the finish. Clark and Montano both dove for the tape, with Montano winning by an inch. As her body bounced to an eventual halt, Montano was left with her tongue hanging out, clutching the blue finish line tape in her arms.

“Me and my coach were talking before the race and he told me that the last 50 meters was going be where I needed to find something and dig deep and go after it, and that’s what I did,” explained Montano, almost matter-of-factly.

With 2007 complete and an 800m NCAA and National Championship in hand, Montano set her sights on Beijing and the 2008 Olympics. She was the fastest woman in America now, with seemingly nothing that could stop her.

The 2008 Olympic trials were held in Eugene at the University of Oregon. Known as “Tracktown USA”, Hayward Field in Eugene is considered the Mecca of US track & field. With boisterous, knowledgeable crowds, the stadium is the last of a dying breed when it comes to track outposts that consistently draw big crowds and create memorable moments. What Madison Square Garden is to basketball, Hayward Field is to track and field.

2008 was expected to be the year that Montano would fulfill her dream of making the US Olympic team, but she instead suffered a runner’s worst nightmare. A nagging foot injury gave way completely during Montano’s quarterfinal race, leaving her writhing on the track in agony. Montano’s attempt at running through her injury resulted in a broken foot and subsequently, broken dreams. As track officials carried Montano off the track, she was left with the sobering realization that her next chance at the Olympics was four long years away. Hazel Clark would wind up winning that year’s Olympic Trials, sending her to her third Olympic Games. Montano could do nothing but sit home in Berkeley and ponder what might have been.

“I showed up at the Olympic trials and ran the first round, and my foot literally felt like it was crumbling,” Alysia told ESPN. “I remember kind of a black-out phase. I don’t really remember the last 50 meters. I remember looking up in the sky and felt like my dream had passed me by.”

  Agony in Eugene (Photo by Eric Gay, AP)

Agony in Eugene (Photo by Eric Gay, AP)

Done with college, Montano was faced with the lonely prospect of training on her own for the next four years, in hopes of getting another shot at her Olympic dream. After a year dedicated to rehab under the guidance of her trusted coach, Tony Sandoval, Montano put together a magnificent year in 2010, highlighted by her personal best 800m time of 1:57:34. No other female runner in the world ran a faster time during that calendar year. At the 2010 World Indoor Championships, Montano went on to win a bronze medal, not to mention her second US Outdoor Championship. After a year marred by injury, Montano was back winning championships and competing at an elite international level. A true testament to the impenetrable will and perseverance she’s known for.

2011 brought with it the exciting challenge of competing in the IAAF Outdoor World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. The event had the look and feel of a true Olympic competition and gave Alysia the opportunity to battle the best runners the world had to offer. In a race that Montano had no business winning, she maintained pace with the leaders throughout, only to fall short of her first international outdoor medal as she was bypassed down the home stretch. Once again, Montano found herself diving across the finish line in dramatic fashion, only this time, it was more like a full-blown barrel roll. The fact that the dive only landed her in fourth place was almost beside the point. Alysia had laid it all out on the line in a way which was inspiring to watch. If she was going to get beat on an international stage, she was going to make sure she went down swinging.

Mariya Savinova of Russia wound up winning the race, followed by Caster Semenya of South Africa and Janeth Jeposkosegi-Busienei of Kenya. Savinova and Semenya both hold sub-1:56 personal bests, while Montano has never run below a 1:57. People often say of track that runners are running against the clock, and in this case Alysia couldn’t quite beat it. “I got stuck twice during the last 150m, its just about positioning,” explained Montano after the race. “The 800 is an unforgiving event.”

This past month brought Montano full circle, as she arrived back in Eugene for the Olympic Trials with a second chance to realize her Olympic dream. This time, things went much smoother, as Montano exorcised her demons at Hayward Field and ran away from the pack to become the US Olympic Trials champion. During the race that secured her Olympic berth, Montano wore a Hibiscus flower in her hair to honor her grandma’s Jamaican heritage. Not just any grandma, mind you, her 100 year old grandma, a centenarian who still carries an unflagging vitalitiy and passion into her triple digits. A grandma who’s energy has undoubtedly rubbed off on her champion granddaughter.

The 800m is often debated as being the toughest event in track & field, as it requires the all-out effort of a sprinter coupled with the long term stamina of a long distance runner. Try sprinting a lap around a track at full speed, and when you’re done, do it again without stopping. “The 8 is just a fearless event,” Montano has said. “You have to go into it really believing in what you have been doing in your training, and believing in your coach and in yourself.”

Only two American women have ever medaled in the 800 at the Olympics. Madeline Manning won gold in 1968, while Kim Gallagher won silver in 1984 and bronze in 1988. The last Olympics in 2008 saw Pamela Jelimo of Kenya take the gold with a daunting time of 1:54:87. Needless to say, Alysia will have her work cut out for her when she arrives in London. “My whole mentality is to be brave and have heart and I have no control over what goes on when my heart is out there on the line. I’m prepared to run a really, really fast time. Those girls on the Olympic stage are not running slow,” says Montano.

Of course, there is a reason why Jelimo isn’t already wearing a London-issued gold medal around her neck; she still needs to show up to the track and cross the finish line first. An unexpected fall, inclement weather, an unusual pace, nothing is a foregone conclusion when runners take their marks for the gold medal race of the 800 meters.

In years past, the likes of Florence Griffith-Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee have captured the hearts and minds of the average American sports fan. Unlike some of her most celebrated predecessors, Alysia Montano will only be running one event in London and she certainly won’t be the favorite. But, with her penchant for beating long odds in dramatic fashion, don’t be surprised if one way or another she winds up tumbling across the finish line in a fit of glory.

Where it all started… Alysia’s photo finish to knock off Hazel Clark back in 2007 (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)