Professional athlete and middle distance runner Alysia Montaño’s career has taken her not just out of her comfort zone, but right across the globe. Her message is simple: be bold and courageous – a philosophy she feels every traveller should adopt when facing new challenges on the road.
After narrowly missing the chance to compete in this year’s Olympics, we caught up with Alysia as she reflects on Rio and explains why it’s important to step out of your own (metaphorical) shoes when exploring other cultures.
Where was your last trip?
The last trip I did for pleasure was to New Zealand. It was so much fun; we ended up skydiving, which was something I had had on my bucket list for a while. New Zealand is such an adventure playground.
What is your first travel-related memory?
My first travel-related memory is going to Jamaica for a family reunion when I was five years old. I remember it very vividly. We went hiking along the Dunns River Falls and we went everywhere from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios to Kingston, which is where my grandfather, who's just turned 103, lives now.
Aisle or window seat?
I prefer an aisle seat because I’m an athlete so I have to stay hydrated – the downside of being hydrated is you’ve got to pee quite often. So if I’m in the window seat, although you get to look out at all the landscapes, it doesn’t beat having the freedom to get up and move around without disturbing your neighbours.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
I love wearing compression tights on flights, the ones that go right up to your waistline. The problem is all the tights basically just come in beige, and I would describe my skin tone as more burnt sienna. Plus, I have no shame in whatever outfit I choose to wear over those tights, sometimes even shorts.
On top of that I'm a snacker, so I generally I carry a backpack full of food when I travel – sandwiches, trail mix, dry fruit, you name it.
Favourite city or country or region?
I really love Stockholm, Sweden. It’s got a great city vibe in one portion and it’s got this nice country feel in the other, so you get the best of both worlds. And I love the food there; it’s great that they are into natural, organically grown food.
Italy and Japan are up there too – it’s really hard to pick just one.
What sparked your decision to become a professional athlete?
It wasn’t a definitive decision, it was something that sort of happened organically. I’ve always been involved in sport my entire life; I did soccer, basketball, and I ended up doing track after watching my cousin run. So I think I showed a natural liking for sport and along with that I showed ability.
Tapping into that natural talent threw me into opportunity after opportunity that led me to the University of California, Berkeley, where I did track and field, and from there it kind of soared. It was sort of like it chose me.
Tell us a bit more about the flower you wear in your hair during your races?
I’ve been competing with a flower in my hair since I was very young. I grew up around lots of boys, my brother and my cousins, and we’d often all play team sports together and it was usually very competitive and physical.
One day we went to the local elementary school to play (American) football with some of my brother’s and cousins’ friends and some kids from the neighbourhood, and some of the other kids started saying things like, ‘your sister’s going to play with us? She’s not going to be on our team. She’s going to get hurt’ etc. Of course, my cousins and my brother knew that I was a real fighter and that I would hold my own, so they put me on. So this kid comes sprinting down from the opposite team, thinking he’s going to make a touchdown, and I go sprinting over to him and tackle him to the ground and he is stunned.
There was a daisy in the grass so I pick it up and put it in my hair and say ‘and I’m a girl’ and walk away. Since then it’s been a symbol of strength for me as a female and a recognition of how much strength I harness and that my gender doesn’t stop those abilities and that presence from coming though.
What have you learnt from working alongside so many different people from so many different cultures?
I’ve learnt that seeing things through different lenses is really important in life, but at the same time we should recognise that we’re all doing this, this thing called life. It’s all a cyclical process in that we all have a lot to learn from each other.
Do you take any home comforts on the road with you?
In 2014 I had a daughter, and I’ve started taking a locket with me that has my daughter’s namesake flower on the front, the linnea flower. Taking that with me gives me a small piece of home if she’s not going to travel with me.
What do the 2016 Rio Olympics mean to you?
I think that it’s about being part of a place that is struggling right now and bringing a beautiful scene and energy to it. Every city should have the opportunity to host the Olympic games because it is such a unifying experience.
Your philosophy is to be bold and courageous; how do you think that translates within the travel sphere?
It should be every traveller’s motto. With travelling it’s important to take off the shoes that you were wearing when you left home and put on the shoes that everyone else is wearing when you land. Live their way for a while. That takes being bold and courageous.
Have you ever had any mishaps on the road?
In 2011 I was booked on a flight to attend a track meet in Zurich, but when I looked at my travel ticket (after I was already on the flight) I realised the meet was actually on the day I would arrive in Zurich, not a few days after. Not only that, my flight took this ridiculous route that went from Jeju, South Korea, back to California, where I would be for less than 24 hours before I had to fly back to Zurich.
Of course, my flight got delayed so I ended up getting booked on an additional flight to Canada so I could make one of the other connecting flights. That's when I start to realise I’m not going to get any time to sleep before my race. Thankfully on the flight to Canada the airplane had this big six-seater middle row, so I asked the people to my right and my left if they would mind if I sleep under their feet – I managed to get a good six hours in before I got into Zurich. I ended up getting second place at this race!
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
Probably one of my worst travel souvenirs was when I decided to buy three Swiss army knives in Moscow that had little Russian dolls painted on them. I had only taken carry-on so the knives where in my hand luggage and I caused the biggest freak out at the airport. As you might imagine I didn’t even get to bring them back.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
My advice would be (to reiterate some of my motto): leave your shoes at home and just be in the moment of wherever you land. Allow yourself to take in the sights and the smells and absorb the environment and your surroundings.
To find out more about Alysia check out her website at alysiamontano.com.