The Cult of Bernie
After crossing the finish line on Saturday, Cibola's Bernie Montoya's broken down body was led by a volunteer over to the tables full of sports drinks and water.
For the third straight year, Montoya had won the Arizona Interscholastic Association Division I Cross Country State Meet and he crouched down catching his breath and getting fluids into his system. He could have walked around to cool himself down or went to find his coach to celebrate the accomplishment only one runner had done before him. Instead, he went by the small opening in a temporary chain-link fence and shook the hands of nearly every runner who finished after him.
“I was never first in some races and I always wanted to shake the first-place finisher's hand and sometimes they're busy, they're doing their cooldown,” Montoya said. “I always wanted to congratulate my competition because they're doing the same thing I'm doing. They're going through the same pain I'm going through. That's a lot of respect for me.”
Almost all of them, through their heavy breaths, congratulated the three-time champion by name. One runner who finished well after Montoya — just a footnote of the 165 runners — summed up what many of them were thinking. He reached out his hand and said, “It was an honor to run against you, Bernie.”
It is rather extraordinary to cover a cross country meet that Montoya is racing. His fame in the city of Yuma is well-documented but his notoriety in the entire state when it comes to cross country is another thing entirely.
I was walking from the finish line of one race to the start of another when a group of three boys came past me from the opposite direction. I only overheard one sentence of their conversation, but it was more than enough.
“That's like saying you don't know who Bernie Montoya is,” one of them said.
The fact is that Montoya's fame in the world of cross country has spread across the entire Grand Canyon State. There are his three straight cross country state championships. There are his two state records. There was his first-place finish in the prestigious adidas Dream Mile in New York — which features a who's who of runners in the nation.
“We've been lucky to have some good runners but some things went his way and got some extra attention that you couldn't plan out with losing the shoes and ran hot at nationals and ran some races that brought him a lot of attention,” Cibola coach Kris Norton said.
When I first arrived to Cave Creek Golf Course on Saturday morning, I searched through the sea of tents to find a local school. There were a pack of girls from a non-Yuma school giggling to each other on whether or not either of them has seen Bernie yet. Eventually I found Norton and the rest of the Cibola team and Montoya sat there on the ground — a look of tranquility and focus across his face.
As I walked away, that same pack of girls had spotted him. Standing at a safe distance, they smiled and stared toward the Cibola camp.
“Go say hi to him!” one of the girls was pressured as if they had just spotted a movie star in a restaurant.
Such attention is nothing new for Montoya. After he finished his race on Saturday, there was his regular post-race routine. He shook the other racers hands, spoke to a handful of the media, hugged his family and friends, then spent time taking pictures with opposing runners and fans. The photographer snapped the shot with his camera phone then asked if he could take one with somebody else. Montoya politely accepted.
“We tease that he's like a rock star wherever he goes,” Norton said. “He signs a lot of autographs and takes a lot of pictures but he loves it. He's almost like a small-town kid.”
Regardless of his newfound celebrity, Montoya seems the same humble person. He deflects his accomplishments with a shy smile, calls it a blessing and attributes his success to his teammates, coaches and family. He makes time for his fans across the state to get a picture or autograph to save if Montoya ever ends up making it to the Olympics. It was clear after overhearing his name countless times, seeing the faces of people as he walked to the start and as he wandered through the crowd after the race and seeing strangers essentially waiting in line for just one picture with him — the 2012 AIA Cross Country State Meet became something resembling the Cult of Bernie Montoya.
“He's got two state records and the people know that, the crowd knows that,” Norton said. “I think what really plays on that is he looks like such a fun-loving kid in the pictures and a good-natured personality and wants to be friends with everybody so everybody ends up loving the kid.”
Jesse Severson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 539-6881. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/YSJesseSeverson.