One Talk With... Jemima Montag

13 Sep 2021

Olympian and Commonwealth Games Gold medallist, Jemima Montag, has joined the One Walk Step Challenge to help defeat T1D!

We had a chat with the Olympic racewalker on her inspiring story on becoming an Olympian, her tips on staying motivated during hard times, her experience with using CGMs to help enhance her performance in the Olympics...and more! Let's dive in. 

You started athletics at the young age of 8 years old. Tell us about your journey from little athletics to recently finishing in an outstanding 6thposition at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

I grew up a generalist - Little Aths was my Saturday morning sport, but there were different sports and instruments every day of the week. I couldn't even tell you that athletics was my favourite - I did it for the social side and the treats from the canteen afterwards. With encouragement to focus on fun, friends and giving everything a try - I was able to gradually find the sport that made my body feel strong and free. I didn't have much (any) speed or power, so that quickly ruled out the sprints, jumps and throws - and I just didn't spend enough time with a ball and bat in my hand to develop great hand-eye coordination. Racewalking just clicked for me from my first little attempt, and I quickly started winning the Victorian Little Athletics Championships.

Of course, it hasn't been a smooth road. My first challenge arose in year 6 - when a schoolyard bully let me know that my strong legs were "manly". This would be the start of a slippery slope of body image challenges. Despite being quite "good" at sport in high school, it would only ever make me feel anxious, nervous and body conscious. I put far too much pressure on the outcomes, and compared myself to others. This meant that by 17, I stepped aside.

Finishing year 12, I had very little self belief and no plans to return to professional sport. My family and I went on a holiday in Japan, and my younger sister reminded me that the next Olympic Games would be in Tokyo, in 4 years time. "You should try to go to those Olympics so that the family has an excuse to come back here one day!" she suggested. I'm not sure why she wasn't volunteering to be the Olympian? At this point, I really didn't think it would be possible - but having played lots of sport herself, mum was able to lift my confidence with her belief that I did have what it would take.

I spent a year working on my confidence, building a high-performance team of a new coach, sports psychologist, sports dietician, etc. and working out how to balance all of this training with uni and hobbies (many epic fails and lessons here). 14 months on from the family holiday in Japan, was my special Commonwealth Games gold medal moment in 2018. The following year I was 2nd at the World University Games in Naples and 10th at the World Track and Field Championships in Qatar. We all know how 2020 went. And then of course in 2021 I've made that Olympic dream come true.

What was it like to win that Gold medal on home soil at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games?

This was so special, and a real turning point in my story. I had just turned 20 and this was my third time racing the 20km distance, so I was still a bit of a mystery on the global racewalking stage. This meant very little pressure coupled with a healthy confidence that I'd prepared well. I remember feeling a real pressure to perform in front of the home crowd in the days beforehand. Explaining this to a mentor, she helped me re-frame that downwards pressure to a forwards momentum.

I can honestly say that while I was walking, I felt like I was being pushed along by the support of that Aussie crowd - it felt effortless (until the last few laps). Hitting the tape and having Nathan Deakes, one of Australia's most successful racewalkers, drape the gold medal around my neck made me feel as though I was where I was always meant to be. After struggling with self belief for most of my teenage years, this was the moment I finally believed in myself again.

What were those last 5km of your race like at the Olympics?

The last 5km of a 20km are always the toughest, and it's the time where your mind is hopping between helpful and unhelpful thoughts. I've learnt not to label these as positive and negative, so that I can accept and make room for them, before returning my focus to the task at hand. Going into this race, everyone was expecting the three Chinese women to really take off in the last 5km because the times they've been doing this year have been minutes ahead of anyone else. But interestingly, with 5km to go, we were still just one big lead pack of about 12 women.

My coach yelled out "it's about to go!" Because of the gruelling conditions (32deg and 70% humidity), I think we were all hurting and no one was game enough to take the lead - until the eventual winner, Antonella Palmissano did. Her change of pace (to ~4:06 min/km!) made our lead pack string out, and I was holding on for dear life. I'd try to speed up and latch back on to the leaders, then I'd fall back off, then I'd try to catch up again, and fall off. My mind and legs were fatiguing, but the goal was to be in the top 10 so I was really trying to hold my ground and not be overtaken. In the end, the world record holder was disqualified ahead of me and so was the Brazilian woman (with 300m to go!) - so I crossed the line 6th, feeling relieved and very excited.

How important is it to have a supportive network around you?

 Support networks are the secret sauce. I remember thinking that I had to execute everything on my own to truly feel rewarded at the end. I also felt as though if people weren't coming up to offer their support, I didn't want to bother them - they were probably busy. But with maturity I've realised two things: people are there and do care, you just need to reach out and ask, and working as a team can enable you to elevate your outcomes and it probably feels even more rewarding.

Building this support network is a great first step, but I've also found that openness to feedback is the next key. There's no point having the support there if you're not going to listen and take on-board their guidance. My support network is made up of family, a few close friends, coach, sports dietician, physio and sports psychologist. Yours may start small - just think of one or two people you could lean on during a challenging time and be open to their support. 

When faced with adversity, whether that be injury or otherwise, how do you stay motivated?

I use a mindful psychological strategy called ACT Therapy: Accept, Commit, Take Action. For example, a challenge I faced at the beginning of the pandemic was the cancellation and postponement of the Olympic Games. My initial response was "this sucks, poor me, now I have to get through another 480 days of training before the Games." Importantly, I didn't judge that initial response, but made room for it by taking a few weeks off and crying as much as I needed to. Then, came the ACT.

I began by accepting that this challenge, this situation was far beyond my control. I then committed to a new goal, of making the most of each of those 480 bonus days to aim for a top 10 finish at the Olympics. Finally, I took action. I reshaped the initial challenge so that it became an opportunity for growth. I took things one day at a time so that the task didn't feel overwhelming, and I celebrated something small each day too.

Tell us about your participation in the IOC Young Leaders Programme. What is your mission?

The International Olympic Committee picked 25 Young Leaders from around the world in January 2021. We've all been challenged to create a sport-based social business to address a pressing local issue in our local community, that links to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Having grown up a sporty kid but facing my own challenges that led me to stopping as a 17 year old (and seeing how many other young women quit at this age), and then finding my way back to sport as a young adult, I've seen all of the doors that sport can open for women. We learn key life skills: confidence, teamwork, resilience and goal setting. We challenge ourselves, we look after our mental and physical health. I decided that my project would address the drop-off in women and girls' participation in physical activity, which broadly links to the SDG of gender equality.

After almost a year of research into the barriers to young women in sport, I'm in the process of creating my solution: "Play On". As this is a sporting term used by the referee when play has stopped for a moment and players are uncertain to let them know it's ok to continue, I thought it was the perfect name for my project.

In it's pilot year, Play On will take the form of a 4-week online resource which I will trial at a few schools with the year 10 girls. Health & PE or wellbeing staff can access it for free, and choose whether to do one module per term, 4 in a row, or whatever suits their timetable. Each module has a key theme, which I believe will support young women to stay physically active: female-athlete health, inclusive sporting spaces, mental health and nutrition. For each of those themes, I have ~3 women experts recording 15-20min videos translating their knowledge to the 15 year old girl audience.

From 2023 onwards, I hope to hand Play On over to a larger organisation such as Girls Sport Victoria to disseminate to a wider range of schools and sport clubs, so that all young women and girls in my state have access to the skills and knowledge to Play On!

What is your personal motto?

I love mottos and tend to rotate through them, but at the recent Olympics it was: "The well is deep". I visualise a well filled with the strength and endurance from all of the training sessions I've done in the lead-up, and remind myself that in those really testing moments, I can go back to my well and bail out buckets of that strength. You can apply this to any context.

It looks like you love to bake and cook and often post your recipes on your Instagram. What is your favourite thing to make?

My favourite thing to bake is a European sweet plaited bread called challah. I've been baking it every Friday for my family for a number of years. We have it with dinner, and then it becomes an amazing Saturday morning French toast!

After receiving a pasta machine for my birthday this year, I've loved taking the time to make handmade pasta - I think it makes such a difference to the texture. You can make the most delicious sugo simply by boiling 1kg roma tomatoes until their skin splits, peeling and blitzing them a little and then reducing them in a pot with lots of basil, a few cloves of sliced garlic, a generous glug of olive oil, a nice pinch of salt and pepper. Once you taste a homemade pasta sauce, you'll never go back to store-bought!

What are you most looking forward to in taking on the JDRF One Walk Step Challenge?

 I love seeing communities come together, especially when physical activity is the uniting force. I can't wait to see pictures of everyone in their JDRF tshirts walking in the sunshine for a great cause.

Finally, The type 1 diabetes community uses technologies like continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) to manage their blood glucose levels. You recently used a CGM earlier this year – could you tell us a little more about that? Did it open your eyes to the daily challenges people living with type 1 diabetes face?

In Jan 2021 I was part of a research study called Supernova, led by Professor Louise Bourke. A group of ~20 elite racewalkers were split into three groups: high carbohydrate, high fat, and low energy availability diets. We all wore CGMs to monitor the impact of these three diets on our blood glucose throughout the training camp. We did other physiology tests including a VO2 max treadmill test, resting metabolic rate, DEXA (bone density) scan, blood test and a 10,000m track race before and after the dietary intervention.

With all of this data, the team of researchers will be able to reflect on which of those three diets will best support efficient racewalking. Wearing the CGM and scanning it multiple times per day and tracking those numbers gave me some insight into the daily challenges of people living with T1D. So when I was asked if I'd support the JDRF One Walk Step Challenge, it was a no brainer!