Australian race walker and reigning Commonwealth Games champion Jemima Montag says she’s embracing the pressure of defending her crown just days away from competing at the Birmingham Games.
The Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medalist is shaping up to be the walker to beat at the event, aiming to become the first woman since Jane Saville in 2006 to successfully defend a gold medal in walking.
The event distance has been shortened from a 20km road race and will now be contested as a 10km track race inside Alexander Stadium.
“I’m keen for it to be half the distance,” Montag said.
“I really feed off the crowd’s energy and excitement. I remember back to 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast and there were so many Australians … just giving us their energy for that entire hour and a half.”
In February, Montag broke Saville’s long-standing 18-year 20km Australian and Oceania record by 13 seconds. It’s a moment in which she reflects on, after her ‘turning point’ when pulling on the green and gold four years ago at the Gold Coast.
“Representing Australia means embodying the Australian values of mateship and a fair go and giving our all to something. I think that’s what the Australian audience really wants to see us doing,” she said.
“Crossing the line and hitting the tape at the 2018 Commonwealth Games was the first moment I believed in myself as capable of competing on the world stage and representing my country well.
“I tried to enjoy the final couple of laps and interact with the crowd and grab the flag, and crossing that line, hitting the tape, and then having Nathan Deakes pop the medal around my neck.
“It felt like a real rite of passage and a sense of belonging after years of struggling with self-belief.
“I feel pressure and expectation to bring some medals home (at Birmingham), but I remind myself that all the Aussies and my family just want to see us going out and being leaders, setting a good example for the younger generation and embodying those values .”
Change in mentality for national record
Montag said the Australian and Oceania record — a time of 1:27:27 — came about from a motivational shift in mental techniques. The change lifted the weight off her shoulders, going on to reset goals for the remainder of the year.
“We got to the finish line about 30 seconds quicker than the national record,” Montag said.
“I’ve done a lot of reflecting since then about the power of values-based motivation as opposed to fear-based motivation.
“It was a very special day, I think that was bigger than winning the Commonwealth Games or making it to the Olympic Games or anything.
“Being the fastest woman in the country to cover that distance is pretty cool.”
It was only a matter of minutes after the race that an exhausted Montag received a call from her idol, Saville, who celebrated the achievement with her.
“It was amazing. I was in the tent half-dead on the physio table, and she was there on the phone, so supportive,” she said.
“I think that’s a true sign of an excellent sportswoman when they just want to see their sport moving forward … and she had the record for a couple of decades or whatever it was and she was she was so happy.”
The importance of role models
Despite the accolades on the track, winning doesn’t appear to be everything for Montag. The near misses are cause for just as much celebration, after coming fourth at the World Athletics Championships by just 19 seconds in July.
“Humans have just decided that 1-2-3 get medals and fourth is one spot away from that. I think that fourth rocks, it doesn’t suck,” Montag said after the meet in Eugene, Oregon.
Being successful off the track and showing there’s a human behind every athlete is just as important as Montag inspiring the next generation of athletes.
A medicine student who loves to cook and spend time with family, the 24-year-old also talks of superstitions; like the lucky number three, her lucky pyjamas, and a lucky golden bracelet she wears from her late grandmother.
“I lost my nana about a year ago, just before the Olympic Games, and it’s only in the months that have followed that we’ve really been able to unpack her story as a Holocaust survivor,” Montag said.
“It’s something that understandably she didn’t want to talk about much, and there was a lot of pain and trauma there.”
A golden necklace became a keepsake for Montag and her two sisters, who split it into three bracelets to continue her nana’s legacy.
“I wear my nana’s bracelet as a lucky charm now. And it reminds me of that strength and resilience,” she said.
“It’s just a really tangible reminder of what she sacrificed for dad and then me to even be alive. Sometimes, you know, sport is hard and it comes with its challenges.
“(But) it’s a reminder that I choose to be out there day in, day out at these competitions doing what I do. And it’s hard, but it should be fun.”
Walking is ‘much bigger’ than just a sport
Montag is using walking as the ‘vehicle’ to create positive messages as a role model.
“Race walking to me is much bigger than the physical sport. It’s somewhere I belong and it’s a vehicle through which I can explore my values of the pursuit of mastery, of challenging myself, of inspiring the next generation of boys and girls, and just exploring my mental and physical limits,” Montag said.
The Australian champion was chosen as one just 25 athletes across the globe — the sole representative from Oceania — in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Young Leaders Program from 2021-2024.
“We’re choosing a pressing local issue that we’re passionate about that connects to the sustainable development goals, and we’re building a sport-based solution,” Montag said.
“I’ve chosen to focus on the decline of young women and girls in sport and physical activity, which is something I’m passionate about because I’ve seen how much sport and physical activity has brought to me.
“I’ve also seen friends that I’ve made through sport gradually face barriers and drop out and how challenging it’s been for them and how I was almost driven out of the sport.
“I was able to get to the bottom of: what are the unique barriers to women and girls in sport, what’s driving them out at twice the rate of boys?
“Then the tricky part was what do we do about it? Because if we had all the answers, then I’m sure they’d be being enacted already.”
Through Montag’s program ‘Play On’, a vision of creating enabling environments through education and training for young women is changing perceptions.
“So often I found that girls and women are blamed for being lazy or just not committed enough for choosing to drop out of sport,” she said.
“And we’re not really questioning whether the environments are made for them or welcoming them or attuned to their needs.
“I built a team of 14 women experts who are very diverse — some Paralympians and Olympians, some are community leaders, some are doctors, some in the political space.”
With four topics to address positivity — female athlete health, mental health, nutrition, and inclusivity — Montag is aiming for a stronger connection between schools and parents, who often rely on one another to address responsibility gap issues of retaining women in sport.
“We challenge the idea that there has to be a cookie cutter image of what a female athlete looks like that’s tall, blonde, thin, able-bodied, neurotypical a certain race,” Montag said.
“I’m hoping that by listening to the experts in those four areas, 15-year-old girls have what I wish I had at their age, and that they’re armed with the tools to navigate any challenge that might come up for them and to help themselves.
“Having the opportunity to be a role model for the younger girls and women coming through has added a whole new layer of meaning and enjoyment to my sport.
“No longer is it a lonely individual pursuit, it’s something that I can really leverage and use to make a difference to other people’s lives, which feels amazing.”
That pursuit this weekend at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games is something Montag is hoping to use as inspiration for future walkers who will be watching her race.
“It’s something that’s a really important biological marker of health that we should celebrate and just learn how to navigate on the track and in life,” she said.
“I’m really careful with the legacy that I’m leaving to the next generation and the words I choose and what I say to them.
“It really doesn’t matter what any of us do, it’s really about ‘why’ behind it.
“And so that ‘why’ is belonging to a community and being a good leader and inspiring younger women and girls to take up whatever physical activity it is that feels good for them to look after their physical and mental health.”
Montag will compete in the women’s 10,000m Race Walk Final on Saturday at 7:30pm AEST.