Australian racer and reigning Commonwealth Games champion Jemima Montag says she is taking on the pressure to defend her crown just days before attending the Birmingham Games.
The Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medalist is shaping up to be the walker to beat at the event, with her aim of becoming the first woman to successfully defend a gold medal in walk since Jane Saville in 2006.
The event distance has been shortened from a 20km road race to a 10km track race at Alexander Stadium.
“I’m keen that it’s half the distance,” Montag said.
“I really feed off the energy and excitement of the crowd. I remember the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast and there were so many Australians… they gave us their energy for the whole hour and a half.”
In February, Montag broke Saville’s long-standing 18-year 20K record in Australia and Oceania by 13 seconds. It’s a moment that makes her think back to her “watershed moment” when she moved to green and gold on the Gold Coast four years ago.
“Representing Australia means embodying Australian values of camaraderie, fairness and giving your all. I think that’s what Australian audiences really want to see from us,” she said.
“When I crossed the border and reached the ribbon at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, that was the first moment I believed in myself that I could compete on the world stage and represent my country well.
“I was trying to enjoy the last few laps and interact with the crowd and grab the flag, cross that line, hit the ribbon and then let Nathan Deakes snap the medal around my neck.
“It felt like a real rite of passage and a sense of belonging after years of struggling with confidence.
“I feel the pressure and expectation to bring some medals home (at Birmingham) but I remember all the Aussies and my family just want to see us lead, lead by example to the younger generation and embody those values.”
Change of mindset for the national record
Montag said the record in Australia and Oceania – a time of 1:27:27 – arose from a shift in motivation in mental techniques. The change took the weight off their shoulders and reset targets for the rest of the year.
“We finished about 30 seconds faster than the national record,” Montag said.
“Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the power of values-based motivation versus fear-based motivation.
“It was a very special day, I think that was bigger than winning the Commonwealth Games or making it to the Olympics or anything.
“To be the fastest woman in the country to cover that distance is pretty cool.”
It was only a matter of minutes after the race when the exhausted Montag got a call from her idol, Saville, celebrating the win with her.
“It was amazing. I was half dead on the physio table in the tent and she was there on the phone, so supportive,” she said.
“I think that’s a real sign of an outstanding athlete if you just want to see how your sport is evolving… and she’s had the record for a couple of decades or whatever and she’s been so happy.”
The importance of role models
Despite the accolades along the way, winning doesn’t seem to be everything for Monday. The near misses are also cause for celebration after finishing fourth at the IAAF World Championships in July, just 19 seconds back.
“People have just decided that 1-2-3 will win medals and fourth is just one spot away. I think the fourth rocks, it doesn’t suck,” Montag said after the meeting in Eugene, Oregon.
Being successful off the track and showing that behind every athlete there is a person is just as important as Montag inspires the next generation of athletes.
The 24-year-old, a medical student who enjoys cooking and spending time with family, also speaks of superstitions; like the lucky number three, her lucky pajamas and a golden lucky bracelet she wears from her late grandmother.
“I lost my grandma about a year ago, right before the Olympics, and it was only in the months that followed that we were able to really unravel her story as a Holocaust survivor,” Montag said.
“It’s something she understandably didn’t want to talk about a lot, and there was a lot of pain and trauma there.”
A gold necklace became a keepsake for Montag and her two sisters, who split it into three bracelets to continue their grandmother’s legacy.
“I now wear my grandmother’s bracelet for good luck. 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. You know, sometimes sport is tough and comes with its challenges.
“(But) it’s a reminder that I’m choosing to be out there in these competitions, day in and day out, doing what I do. And it’s tough, but it should be fun.”
Walking is “much bigger” than just a sport
Montag uses walking as a “vehicle” to create positive messages as a role model.
“For me, walking is much bigger than physical sport. It’s a place where I belong and it’s a vehicle through which I share my values of striving for mastery, challenging myself, bringing the next generation of boys and girls inspire and just explore my mental and physical limits,” Montag said.
The Australian champion has been selected as one of just 25 athletes around the world – the only representative from Oceania – in the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Young Leaders program from 2021 to 2024.
“We’re taking a pressing local issue that we’re passionate about and that connects to the Sustainable Development Goals and we’re building a sports-based solution,” Montag said.
“I have chosen to focus on the decline of young women and girls in sport and physical activity, which is close to my heart because I have seen how much sport and physical activity has brought me.
“I’ve also seen friends I’ve met through the sport gradually encounter barriers and drop out and how challenging it was for them and how I was nearly driven out of the sport.
“I was able to get to the bottom of it: what are the unique barriers for women and girls in sport, what drives them off twice as fast as boys?
“Then the tricky part was what do we do about it? Because if we had all the answers, surely they would already be in effect.”
Through Montag’s Play On program, the vision of creating empowering environments through education and training for young women is changing perceptions.
“So many times I’ve found girls and women being blamed for being lazy or just not engaging enough because they chose to quit the sport,” she said.
“And we don’t really question whether the environments are made for them or are welcoming or catered to their needs.
“I have built a team of 14 very diverse experts – some Paralympians and Olympians, some community leaders, some doctors, some in the political arena.”
With four themes of positivity – female athlete health, mental health, nutrition and inclusivity – Montag strives for stronger connection between schools and parents, who often rely on each other to address issues with the accountability gap in women’s retention in sport.
“We challenge the idea that there needs to be a template for what an athlete looks like who is tall, blonde, thin, strong and neurotypical of a particular race,” Montag said.
“My hope is that by listening to the experts in these four areas, 15-year-old girls will have what I want when they are their age and be equipped with the tools to meet any challenge that might come their way and to help yourself.
“Having the opportunity to be a role model for the younger girls and women who are coming through has added a whole new meaning and joy to my sport.
“It’s no longer a lonely individual pursuit, it’s something I can really embrace and use to make a difference in other people’s lives, which feels amazing.”
This weekend’s pursuit at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games is something Montag hopes to use as inspiration for future walkers who will follow their race.
“It’s something that’s a really important biological health indicator that we should celebrate and just learn how to navigate on the track and in life,” she said.
“I’m very careful about the legacy I leave to the next generation and the words I choose and what I say to them.
“It really doesn’t matter what either of us does, it really is about the ‘why’ behind it.
“And the ‘why’ is to belong to a community and be a good leader and inspire younger women and girls to take up whatever physical activity feels good to take care of their physical and mental health.”
Monday will compete in the women’s 10,000m walk final at 7:30pm AEST on Saturday.