Even though she grew up playing football, shooting hoops and running races against all the boys in her neighborhood, U.S. 800-meter champion Alysia Montano never wanted to be thought of as one of them.
As a result, she started wearing a flower behind her right ear to remind the boys they were getting beat by a girl.
The flower remains Montano's trademark even though her opponents are now world-class female middle-distance runners. The Southern California native donned a red flower to match her red Team USA jersey Wednesday in London when she breezed to a victory in her heat during the first round of qualifying in the women's 800 meters.
"The flower to me means strength with femininity," Montano said in June after winning the 800 at the U.S. Olympic trials. "I think that a lot of people say things like you run like a girl. That doesn't mean you have to run soft or you have to run dainty. It means that you're strong."
The greatest test of Montano's strength came four years ago when an ill-timed foot injury at the U.S. Olympic trials cost her an opportunity to go to Beijing. She entered the trials as the favorite in the 800 meters but faded to ninth in her quarterfinal and left the track at Hayward Field in a wheelchair as a result of the injury.
Montano has blossomed since that setback, capturing three straight U.S. championships in the 800 meters in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and finishing fourth at the world championships last year. Those results make her perhaps the U.S.'s most realistic medal contender in the 800 since Kim Gallagher won silver and bronze in 1984 and '88.
At the U.S. trials in Eugene in June, Montano handed out flowers to fans in the stands after she won her race. Expect Montano to be similarly generous in London if her flower power propels her onto the medal podium.
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