Getting To Know Vienna Gao
Explore Vienna Gao's unique story as she went from student to walk-on and learn all about the scientist/musical enthusiast in this Q&A.
Q: What was one of the main factors that brought you to USC?
VG: I'm a walk-on, and for me, it came down to academics. I was given a half-tuition merit-based scholarship. That honestly was just one of the dead giveaways that I was going to come here. I was like, wow, this school wants me, which means that it's probably a good match for me. I came into it with just this academic mindset. Then what really drew me in was the environment. It came down to the fact that everything was so convenient, the resources were great and the environment was just so friendly. Despite having a huge work hard, play hard kind of energy.
Q: As a walk-on did you have to do any sort of try out?
VG: It's actually an interesting story. Last year, it started as me being in this mindset, like I wanted to keep training and I wanted to keep running, even if it's not with the team. I trained for and ran a marathon, and a couple half marathons, a couple track races and a 5K. So that was all on my own last year and in the beginning of the year, there was just one random opportunity for me to actually sit down and speak with a coach. I just introduced myself, let him know who I was, and kind of demonstrated throughout the year that I was hard working and really was passionate about running even without any of the accolades. Then eventually it turned into a trial process in the sense that I had times and he saw those times and that kind of served as the tryouts and I eventually was just brought into the team, which I'm so grateful for.
Q: Where do you participate in these marathons?
VG: It was the L.A. Marathon, and the half marathons were all in the area and I just had weeks where I was doing school and in the back of my mind thinking it's a race this weekend. I wasn't thinking about it like this back then, but I was basically being a student-athlete without really being officially a student-athlete. That is why I'm so adjusted to this lifestyle pretty well, because I already was doing this last year just on my own.
Q: What part of USC academically got you to come here?
VG: I mean I care about my academics, but I kind of knew that it was about how my environment worked with that. So if I was at a school with the best 'insert your major program here', that wouldn't necessarily mean I would be the most successful if that makes sense. Because let's say my environment was super stressful, and people were just highlighting negatives here and there, that would just make me not successful in the long run because I would be brought down by my environment versus USC. I just kind of took it in as a big picture like yes, USC has great academics, like very well rounded, but also the student body is just friendly, outgoing, nice and not super cutthroat.
Q: How's it been from the atmosphere being on the team?
VG: It's been, honestly, exactly what I expected, which is great. I feel challenged by my teammates, but I also feel supported. There are people who are also kind of in this mindset of being in it, right now. We're just in the middle of it, and that's definitely the kind of environment that I want to be in. I feel like it's not just the track team necessarily, it's more like USC athletics as a whole. There is a very clear mindset that everyone wants to be great and that is a shared collective mindset and it's very helpful for me.
Q: What has been one of your favorite moments? If you could only choose one from this year?
VG: I think one of my favorite moments was being able to race for the first time in a college setting. I surprised myself in terms of doing better than I thought I would. And the feeling that came out of it, especially being a walk-on, it's not that I felt alienated or anything, but it's a different kind of process. I don't think anyone else on the team is doing the exact same kind of journey that I'm doing. We were all doing the same thing. We all were just doing a race and prior to that, I hadn't raced yet in college, and I was just coming into it, so I still felt like I was doing a different thing right then. But at that moment, it was like we were all doing the same thing. We're competing in the same race. We all contributed to this one effort.
Q: Outside of racing and competing, what is your favorite thing to do?
VG: Yeah, as nerdy as it sounds like honestly, it's research. I do research down at the Children's Hospital and being able to get off campus is so nice. It's like, my social life, my academic life, my athletic life, all of it is here, like campus is where I sleep and study. It's all on this campus, which is honestly kind of a small campus relative to the student body size. So being able to go off campus and do some very technical tasks that just requires a totally different part of myself outside of athletics and being a student, just makes me feel like a scientist. It's really good for me to just reset somewhere else and come back to campus. I know that sounds nerdy, but it does really help.
Q: Is there any particular research that you're focusing on right now?
VG: Right now I work in a neuroscience lab and we're studying trauma in the brain.
Q: What is a fun fact about you?
VG: I played classical piano. I'm going to use past tense here, because right now I'm just not practicing very often, but I have played classical music since I was five years old…so almost 15 years. I grew up in a very musical household. My dad is a composer. I have a very strong background in classical music.
Q: What is your favorite classical music piece?
VG: I like Chopin a lot. I like Chopin because they're very difficult pieces. Like even people who don't really listen to classical music, it usually sounds really nice to them, and there are a lot of pieces that someone who really listens to classical music can appreciate. But I feel like there are some pieces that a lot of people who don't really listen to it can just be like, oh, that sounds really nice.
Q: Do you use music to train yourself mentally?
VG: Classical music is something I like to play and I like to create, but it's not necessarily something that hypes me up and that's kind of what I need right before a race or before a hard workout for example. For me, I do use music a lot like whenever I'm gearing up towards shifting my mind somewhere else. Classical music is meant to be a little bit more at a relaxed pace compared to, let's say, a really hard workout. I don't really pick hype music or like, a lot of rap or like hip hop or anything like that for those kinds of runs. And it's pretty intentional, just because I use music a lot to like, to set myself into the kind of mood that I want to be in before a run or a race. Before a race I like to listen to music that hypes me up.
Q: What is your dream job?
VG: Honestly to be both a pro runner and a scientist at the same time. And what that would look like is me continuing to do school and then not med school, but get my PhD in neuroscience. I would be getting a graduate degree but just not med school. Then ideally, which I am working on achieving in my day-to-day life 24/7, is to be able to continue on in athletics.
Q: Where is your favorite place to unwind around here?
VG: I really like the Kaufman Dance Center. I remember last semester, they would always have jazz band or some sort of combo performing or practicing and I would just sit outside and work and listen to them play. There are also some music groups that play out in the village and I just like working there. Even just chilling on my phone, it's just nice to be around USC. It's awesome, being around the student body. Just the energy is great in a lot of places.
Q: Would you ever consider being a musician?
VG: I think in another life, I definitely would. I think the main thing is my perspective is not that I'm not doing it, it's more about the right now. I'm focusing on other things. It's not that it's just kind of like sitting there in hibernation. It is not like I'm not going to touch it. It's nice to have a lot of history with it. But right now. I'm interested in other things. So yeah, in another life maybe, but it's currently this life.