Four years after leaving the U.S. Olympic track and field trials at Eugene, Ore., in a wheelchair, Alysia Montano is the favorite again in the 800 meters as the trials return to Hayward Field.
"I am very ready," the 26-year-old East Bay resident said, "and also I'm not scared."
Certainly not scared about competing on the track she left in tears after breaking her right foot in 2008. Winning at the USA championships last year in Eugene "killed the ghosts" of Hayward Field, said Tony Sandoval, who has coached the former Alysia Johnson since her days at Cal.
More confirmation came three weeks ago in her season debut on the same track at the Prefontaine Classic, where she ran a meet-record time of 1 minute, 57.37 seconds -- the second-fastest in the world this year.
Montano is scheduled to run a first-round heat Friday, semifinals Saturday and the final Monday at what she calls "the baby big show."
"The big show is where I want to be," said Montano, who needs a top-three finish at Eugene to earn a ticket to the London Olympics.
Montano brings a sense of calm to the trials, something that didn't always come naturally to her.
In 2008, she was more anxious than eager entering the trials. A year earlier, she had swept the NCAA indoor and outdoor titles and the USA outdoor championship as a Cal junior, and Sandoval suggested she skip the '08 college season to focus on a shot at Beijing.
But Montano wanted the chance to compete for Cal one last season and defend her collegiate titles.
"It didn't even occur to me that I could get hurt," she said. "I felt like I was kind of invincible."
When a pain developed on the top of her right foot early in the spring, Montano played it safe, withdrawing from the NCAA meet. An MRI provided no clues.
Deep down, Montano knew something was wrong.
"In my own way I was in denial about it," she said. "I thought I could just do this Kerri Strug sort of thing."
But gymnast Strug had to run perhaps 20 yards on a sprained ankle before executing her final vault at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics to clinch a gold medal for the U.S. women. Montano had to complete the metric half-mile.
"Her foot blew up on her," Sandoval said, reflecting on Montano's ninth-place finish in a first-round heat.
"It was a devastating thing," Montano said.
Montano was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the navicular bone in her right foot. Because blood flow to the area is limited, recovery can be difficult.
"That injury can be career-ending," Sandoval said.
Montano didn't rush back. She changed coaches in 2009, signing on with Joaquim Cruz, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist from Brazil, and spent a season training in San Diego.
By 2010, she was back with Sandoval, but the one-year detour had a side benefit. She reunited with Louis Montano, her childhood best friend, and a year later they were married.
Now Montano is settling into a life with balance. She putters in the garden with Louis at the Berkeley home they purchased last year and surrounds herself mostly with friends who are not runners.
At the track, her husband and her coach help complete an ideal training team.
"Tony and Louis are pretty calming guys. It offsets my personality," Montano said. "Everything I do, I want to make it explode."
Montano is in such good shape that both she and Sandoval were convinced she needed just one prep race -- the Prefontaine -- before the trials.
"The anxiousness is gone," she said. "My mentality is very fit, so stable. I feel like it's easier for me now."
The 800 -- two laps at almost a sprint pace -- has appeared increasingly easier for Montano the past few years. In 2010, she ran the fastest time in the world (1:57.34) and finished the season ranked No. 3 globally. Last year, she made the final of the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, missing a medal by just 0.06 seconds.
Montano expects to enter the trials feeling fresh and ready to unleash the results of her training.
"It's like you've saved everything inside of this bag and you keep putting stuff inside of this bag until it's ready to burst," she said. "And when it does, all that goodness shows itself."