Matt Llano, ’11, was always taught to follow his passions to find his purpose in life.

Llano came to the University of Richmond with the intention of being a biology and chemistry major, but soon decided that wasn’t a path he wanted to pursue. Instead, he chose to combine three majors that were more in line with his personal interests.

With family from Spain and Puerto Rico, a major in Latin American and Iberian studies was a way to learn more about his heritage and the language of past generations. A psychology course at the University inspired him to take a more in depth look at the subject. And theatre was a chance to have fun with a creative outlet.

“For a long time, I had this idea that I wanted to be a doctor; that was my idea of success,” he says. “Then I realized that’s not what it’s all about and I wouldn’t be happy. I wanted to be sure that I was passionate about whatever I was doing.”

His time at Richmond also led Llano to consider turning his biggest passion — running — into a career.

Llano wasn’t a standout track athlete in high school, but still aspired to run for a Division I university.

“I wanted that competition to push me faster,” he says. “If it meant I would never be a national champion, then that’s what it meant. But if it meant that I could run that much faster, that’s personally a way that I see it as being successful.”

While most university coaches didn’t have a spot for Llano in their program and told him he should give up running, Steve Taylor, head coach for men’s track and field at UR, saw his potential.

“[Taylor] told me that the coaching staff really enjoyed taking someone at my level and seeing what they could do,” Llano says. “I guess he saw the dedication I had and the drive I had to succeed. I’m thankful for that.”

Just over 4 years later, Llano has improved beyond his own expectations. He helped his team rank among the top 25 in the nation at the 2010 NCAA Division Cross Country Championship and received All-American honors at the 2010 NCAA National Track and Field Championship — the best performance by a Richmond runner since 1984.

He is now preparing for a professional career in running. His immediate goal is to qualify for the Olympics for the 10K, but he also plans to compete in marathons and other races.

“Reading up on the professional athletes that are out there now and seeing where they were in college, where they were in high school, how they progressed — some weren’t anything particularly special in college,” he says. “After college they amped up their training and were able to achieve great things. I realized that if this is something I’m passionate about — which it is — then success is defined by me and what my expectations are and what my goals are.”

Llano may have his sights set on his own future, but he’s also working to help improve the student-athlete experience for future Spiders. President Edward Ayers recruited Llano to serve on the Academic Excellence Working Group for the Athletic Department Strategic Plan, which is responsible for creating a balance between academics and athletics.

“We’re figuring out how we can ensure that our athletes are not only athletes, but that they’re student-athletes,” Llano says. “I wanted to help in any way that I could in my last six months here to make our experiences as student-athletes as good as they can possibly be — that we could ask for no more.”

Photo: Daniel Petty