From near retirement to greatness, ASU runner Bernie Montoya rose from adversity

A Sun Devil track and field runner had a heart scare that nearly ended his career.

Sports can be a way for some to escape their troubles, and focus on a narrative within competition. But for the Sun Devils' redshirt junior distance runner Bernie Montoya, a health disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy nearly made sports a trouble in itself.

This isn’t the story on his fall, but a story on his return.

In the winter of 2014, Montoya was given the news after tests were done that revealed scar tissue on his heart. Because his heart was enlarged, it seemed like a guarantee that the Arizona native had the disease and crushed him in the process.

“It was devastating not just for me but for my family, too,” Montoya said. “Especially what I’ve done in the past like in high school, that’s really all I’ve known and it’s where it got me, gotten me my scholarship here and, to be honest, it was fun. When something like that is taken away from you, I broke down, and it was something I wasn’t sure was real.”

With the news, Montoya said the thought of not competing instilled fear in him. His head distance coach Louie Quintana said he spent about an hour talking to the young man, and trying work their way through this mess, telling him he will have a spot on the team, as he was concerned for only the health of his athlete.

Montoya said he refused to believe this was his fate, believing in his heart that what the doctor told him couldn’t be true. He went out to get a second opinion on this heart, and after months of getting MRIs, stress tests and checkups, Montoya was cleared for competition.

Quintana was at the Pac-12 Championship when he heard the news.

“I was just stunned,” Quintana said. “Excited, but stunned in that period of time. In that 6 months, from January to May, his growth, his perspective, in meeting expectations, everything changed. ... When the misdiagnosis came through I thought, ‘Boy, he’s really going to take this second chance to heart.’”

Though Montoya received good news after his heart scare, it left him in no shape to compete during those six months of testing, as he was forced to sit out and not do any time of athletic activity.

He became, in his words, a couch potato.

He needed to get back into shape, and although he had a couple months before the 2015 cross country season began, he still needed more of a foundation before he could run at his top speed. He went through a brutal training that Quintana compared to a "Rocky" training scene.

“We spent about eight to ten weeks of 100-mile weeks, 18 to 20-mile-long runs on Sunday," Quintana said. "Basically we went straight to the essence and the core of training. Sort of 'Rocky Balboa'-it over the winter, and once we came out of that, then I knew we’re were ready, like the foundation had been set.”

With this training and his hard work, Montoya returned to compete in the Sun Angel Classic and the Bryan Clay Invitational. Montoya ran his best time in his career in the 1500-meter run, hitting 3:45:52.

Through all of this, Montoya has gained a new lease in the sport, and has much more appreciation toward what he’s putting all this work through.

“The difference I see now compared to when I got diagnosed with this is I love the process of it, and whatever happens on the track, performance-wise, it's just icing on the cake,” Montoya said.  "All this stuff, I just love to be active. Having that second chance, you tend to appreciate it a lot more than before, so I just take whatever I can with it."  

His teammates also took what happened to Montoya to heart, not only for the fact it happened to a close teammate, but how the sport could be taken away so quickly from you.

“Any time anyone has to take time off running, whether it’s from an injury or especially what Bernie went through — because it was such a long ordeal and he couldn’t do any sort of exercise — you remember why you do it, and you start to miss it," redshirt freshman Ryan Normand said. "Because a lot of times, while you’re in it, you don’t appreciate it as much.”

With all the work and pain that Montoya went through, he has reached a level higher than the one he was on before he received the terrible news, and he plans to run as long as he can keep on going.

Related links:

ASU track and field to compete in two tournaments, deal with lack of depth over weekend

ASU track and field finds mixed results at two meets


Reach the reporter at osoussi@asu.edu or follow @omarksoussi on Twitter.

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