If you look up the definition of “determined” in the dictionary, there may be a photo of Kelli Montgomery next to it. Montgomery - who was the 2014 XTERRA 40-44 division XTERRA World Champ - is gumption personified and thrives on difficult situations.
While Montgomery was always an athlete and competed in Division I swimming, track, and cross-country at the University of Syracuse, she didn’t have an easy time with mountain biking.
In 2001 she was a professional triathlete on the road circuit and decided to compete in XTERRA Richmond on a whim.
“I had never been on a mountain bike before and it was a horrible experience,” said Montgomery, 44. “I was off my bike walking for most of the course and I thought, I’m never doing this again. This is the craziest thing. I’m staying on the roads.”
Fast forward to 2013 when Montgomery bought a mountain bike for training during the Connecticut winters. She lives there despite her claim that she is not really a cold weather person.
“I got the bike just to get some miles in, but I was horrible,” says Montgomery before she begins to laugh. “I was just horrible. I was scared of everything.”
Despite her reservations, Montgomery entered a Cat 2 mountain bike race where she encountered a fellow competitor who gave her simple, but clear advice.
“This guy,” said Montgomery. “I would catch up to him and pass him and then I’d get scared and get off and walk. This guy was like, if you would just stay on your bike, you could actually be OK.”
As luck would have it, Montgomery happened to live only 35 minutes away from Jimena Florit, an elite mountain biker from Argentina, who finished 20th and 12th in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic women’s cross country races.
“I’m so lucky to have met Jimena. She taught me how to corner, how to handle the bike, and what techniques to practice. I just tried to keep practicing and get over the fear.”
In 2017 – in her first year as an XTERRA pro – Montgomery spent many days racing on the mountain bike and cyclocross circuits, facing her fears and getting better at the sport.
“I learned a lot,” she said. “Unfortunately most of it was through trial and error. In general, I guess I’m kind of determined. I know I can figure it out. If it goes wrong in one race then I know the next time, I won’t make that mistake again. I won’t give up. When you are with the pro women, they are so good on the mountain bike and I just wanted to get to that next level and step up my skill.”
Her hard work paid off at XTERRA Costa Rica in March, where she was the day’s champ. She credits her cyclocross races for her ability to deal with the sand and windy conditions in Playa Reserva Conchal.
However, it’s not just in her sport that Montgomery displays determination. Dig a little deeper and you will find that determination is her trademark. In 2012, she was diagnosed with celiac disease, and in 2013 - the same year she started mountain biking - Montgomery was in a serious car accident.
“I was determined to get back from that car accident,” she says, when asked how she could go from a debilitating injury to an XTERRA World Champ title in less than a year. “The accident made me appreciate how fun it was to be able to go out and compete. And after my celiac disease was diagnosed, I felt so much better than when I was in my twenties. I appreciate all of that. Even though I’m a pro now, I think it’s important that it’s fun. You just don’t perform as well when it’s not fun.”
In addition to training at an elite level and heading up her own coaching business, Montgomery works about 20 hours a week for her local Wallingford Parks and Recreation Department as a Health and Fitness Supervisor. She is also the mom and mountain bike coach to two active boys, aged 10 and 13.
A typical day in the life for Montgomery begins when she gets her boys up at about 6:30 AM because they are out the door for school an hour later. That’s typically when Montgomery does her first workout of the day and follows it up with her personal coaching work.
“Then I do the second workout and by then the kids are coming home. You know it gets a little crazy,” she said.
In addition to juggling the many balls that Montgomery effortlessly keeps up in the air, she uses her career to show her boys what is possible for them to have in life. She is also quick to show her boys that it’s not just all about winning.
“Last year, the pro mountain bike races were new to me and I was at the back of the field most of the time. I think it was good for my sons to see that. I’m at the back and I’m OK with not winning. I hope my kids see how hard I work. I don’t think I have a ton of natural ability, but I hope that they see the dedication it takes to get to that level and how much fun I’m having.”
This weekend, Montgomery hopes to make the podium at XTERRA Uruguay. Next weekend, she will head to XTERRA Brazil. While she is modest, it’s clear that she wants to follow up her success at XTERRA Costa Rica with another win or two. But true to form, Montgomery is more focused on the journey than the destination.
“I have never been to Uruguay or Brazil,” she said. “But I’m sure it will be an adventure. The travel adds an extra challenge. There are different cultures and foods and language barriers and you have to navigate where to stay. It just makes it all even more fun.”
Learn more about XTERRA Uruguay at https://www.xterraplanet.com.
Photos courtesy Ignacio G. León-Páez