My Perfect Adventure: Alysia Montano

One of the world's fastest women tells us which tropical island is close to her heart, how an older cousin inspired her to hit the track, and why you might see her someday on the big screen

Alysia Montano.     Photo: Courtesy of Alysia Montano

As a child, Alysia Montano wanted to prove she could be stronger and tougher than most boys, without actually being one of them. Montano, who grew up surrounded by her brother and several male cousins, once distinguished herself as America’s fastest female 800-meter runner, but she’s also known for another trademark: before every race she tucks a bright flower behind her ear, as a sign that strength and femininity can go hand in hand. Now 26 years old and an Olympian, she has worn her blossoms through every racing milestone, including four U.S. national titles, two NCAA titles, and a World Indoor bronze.

Even on her bad days, there’s no doubting Montano’s toughness. At the Olympic trials in 2008, a foot injury made it impossible for her to compete after the first round, but she didn’t let that get her down. She started rehab and vowed to make a comeback, and she did, becoming the world’s fastest woman in 800 meters in 2010 with a time of 1:57:34. And although she didn’t take a medal at this year’s Olympics, she’s keeping a good attitude. “[I got] fifth at the London Olympics; no medal, but still super sick to be fifth, keep on climbing!” she told Outside in an email. Still fired up to be the best she can, she’s also striving for balance, with an emphasis on taking time to appreciate life’s little pleasures, like the sweet smell of a flower. Here, Montano tells us which tropical island is close to her heart, how an older cousin inspired her to hit the track, and why you might see her someday on the big screen.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
A perfect day for me is a day when I wake up, my family wakes up, and we live to enjoy another day. On a perfect day, everyone in the entire world would reduce their consumption, reuse, and recycle, as well as exercise, eat healthy, and care for one another. A perfect day for me consists of the great outdoors, caring for the environment, family, love, laughter, peace, and new adventures. It also wouldn't hurt if Katy Perry came to hang out with me. In short, a perfect day would consist of loving the day like it was my last, enjoying the people and things around me, not taking a single thing for granted, taking life head on with a huge smile on my face, loving every minute of it, and going to sleep dreaming of waking up to do it all over again.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
I’d love to travel to every little crack and crevasse of the earth. I love exploring and discovering new things as well as seeing the beauty this world has to offer. If I have it my way, I’ll travel the entirety of this earth before I’m 100 years old.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
The best place I’ve ever visited was Jamaica. My family's roots are in originate from this tropical place, and I love the laid-back yet spicy lifestyle there, not to mention the culture, my family’s culture. My late grandmother, Doris Simpson, emulated everything that was beautiful about Jamaica, and I had the opportunity to have her in my life for 26 years. She had an easygoing, worry-free lifestyle where she enjoyed life’s blessings. That lifestyle kept her here for 100 years, and she was able to pass it on to all of her 10 children and grandchildren.

After Jamaica, it’s hard for me to pick just one place that I love most, since I see greatness in every place I’ve ever been. Especially since I love the outdoors, places that offer an abundance of outdoor activities often rank very high on my list of favorite places.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
If I could have lunch with any adventurer, I’d have to choose Bear Grylls, the born survivor from the TV series Man vs. Wild. I’d ask him to tell me all the secrets of areas I have yet to explore, and then I’d ask him to come with me when I go explore them, to ensure I live to tell the stories of my travels.

What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
I can't travel without my legs ... isn't that obvious? I need those.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
When I arrive at a new destination, the first thing on my agenda is finding out what I can do there that I can’t do anywhere else, and finding out what I need to see. I love getting submerged in a culture, understanding a new place, and taking it all in. I also usually get food and take a nap before the adventure begins.

What motivates you as a runner?
My motivation is an unexplainable piece of fire that comes from within, telling me to climb the ladder and push myself harder to be the very best. I love challenges—making a goal and seeing myself take the necessary steps to achieve it. It’s highly satisfying going on that journey. I often joke with my husband about becoming an Olympian, saying: 'Now our children will respect me.' That gives us both a good, long laugh.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
My dream job as a child was to become a professional athlete. I played many sports growing up, and at one point I thought I would be the first woman in the NFL. Then there was the WNBA, and then thoughts of becoming a professional soccer player. I didn’t give up on any of those dreams, but trying and succeeding in many sports left the doors wide open for me. Track and field was how I reached my childhood dream of becoming a professional athlete, but it went further than that: as a child I also wanted to be an Olympian, and it turns out that I could kill two birds with one stone.

When and how did you first start running competitively?
I started running competitively, well, out the womb. My family is highly competitive, and every game or sport against my brother and cousins was played to the death. My oldest cousin in California, Marc, started running track before everyone else. I was four years old and there he was, just three years older than me, running on the track, jumping over hurdles and dominating. I remember watching him and thinking I could beat him, but at the same time I looked up to him with the utmost respect and awe. Since I was just four, I had to wait a year before I could join the team, so my other cousins, my brother, and I just ran beside Marc on the infield as he raced. The next year, when I was five years old, I could join the team on my own merit, so I did, and I never looked back.

What's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring track star?
Dream big, set a goal, make a plan to achieve it, and then go out there and achieve it. Remember: No one can want it for you more than you, but allow others to help you get to where you want to be with discretion and respect.

Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
I’ve had many role models and mentors through the years, just because I was willing and wanting to squeeze out as much information from inspirational people as possible. Sometimes I might just think: 'I like that [idea] to some degree, so I’m going to take some of that and modify it for me.' I’ve always wanted to be my own best version of me, not the next anybody else but the next best me. I’ve learned from too many people to list them all, but I think that’s what it’s all about, taking positive mental notes, studying and applying.

Do you have a life philosophy?
My life philosophy is to live each day to the fullest and smile while doing so, to appreciate the little things, and to remember to take time and smell the flowers—that’s why I keep one in my hair at all times.

Have you ever made a mistake or experienced an injury that made you think twice about racing again?
I fractured the navicular bone in my right foot in 2008, but never for a second did I think about never running again. I wanted to run and race again, so I was motivated to cross-train and rehab at all hours of the day. I was determined to come back, and I was going to come back strong.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
If I had to choose a different career, I’d love to be an actress. I studied theater and performing arts at the University of California, Berkeley. I love the challenge of the stage, and in a way, the track is my stage at this point in life. Eventually I’d like to make the transition into a screen actor. I see myself in many different roles; I love action and comedy.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Three things I would like to cross of my bucket list are:

Star in a major movie or TV series.

Open and own a successful gym, and help people lead a healthy, fit, nutritious lifestyle.

Get my whole family to move up to the Bay Area. My husband and I just love it here, but we also really love our family.

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