For Community and Country: Jemima Montag takes the long walk to Sapporo

emima Montag celebrates at the Commonwealth Games
Jemima Montag celebrates at the Commonwealth Games. Credit: Victorian Institute of Sport

The streets of Sapporo are the location for this year’s 20km Racewalk at the Tokyo 2020 for Olympic race walker Jemima Montag.

It’s a long way from the running track at Caulfield Park or Little Athletics at Duncan MacKinnon Reserve.

Montag, a 23-year-old Brighton native from a rich sporting family, will add her name to the lineage of Jewish Australian Olympians at the Tokyo 2020 Games. Montag joins an already strong Jewish-Australian Olympic stable, with canoe slalom gold medallist Jess Fox and sprinter Steve Solomon already in Tokyo.

Having already pulled on the green and gold at multiple world championships and Maccabiah Games – The Jewish Olympic games – and at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, the Olympic stage hits different.

Such is the fly-in, fly-out nature of these games, Olympic race walker Jemima Montag only departed for Japan last Friday with the remainder of the Australian track and field team.

The 23-year-old admitted she doesn’t quite know how to feel ahead of her first Olympic Games appearance.

“I don’t really know what to expect, this is my first games so I feel nervous excited,” Montag said

“I think everyone is just riding a wave. They know plans will change a million times, multiple times a day. They will be in and out of masks, lines, and waiting. It’s going to be different to anything they’ve ever experienced before but the athletes are pretty resilient. They’ll be ready to just roll with it.”

There is all the excitement that is part of Montag’s first Olympic experience, it is however tinged with an element of sadness knowing that her friends and family and those closest to her won’t be trackside cheering her on.

“I think that’s the only really sad part to me (not having family and friends in Toyko) because I’ve never been before so I don’t really know what to expect but I was of course hoping that the family could be there,” She said.

“Mum was probably the one I really wanted on that sideline, she’s played a huge role ever since signing me up for little athletics at the age of eight. But this is the way it is.”

It was almost written in the stars that Montag would get to this stage.

Parents Ray and Amanda met at the 1989 Maccabiah Games in Israel. Ray was on the cricket team while Amanda was competing in the heptathlon. They hit it off on the flight home.

With sport in their genes, Jemima along with her sisters Piper and Andie were enrolled in Maccabi Little Athletics at the age of eight. So began the early mornings at Duncan MacKinnon reserve in Murrumbeena and the shuttling to and from all the other sports that the Montag girls would participate in, a road that would eventually take her to the Olympic racewalking event.

Not just on the sporting fields but spilling over into other areas developing multiple talents and skills.

“My parents encouraged us to be generalists, so I played basketball and tennis. I danced ballet, played the piano, violin, and trumpet. Only the piano stuck.

“There was probably a different sport on every night of the week and that probably continued on to the end of school. I really didn’t drop anything and specialise til after year 12. And I really enjoyed that generalist background.”

Family has been fundamental for Jemima all the way through her career, having competed on the same teams as her sisters growing up, the thought of doing it together for their country was always a dream within striking distance. She had planned to come to these Olympic Games back at the 2013 Maccabiah Games opening ceremony with sister Piper, foreshadowing what could be further down the line.

“I do remember talking to my middle sister Piper about wanting to be on this Tokyo Olympic team together, and I remember walking into the 2013 opening ceremony of the Maccabiah games together and we did sort of, not promise each other but like ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could walk into the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 games?’

“Of course now there won’t be athletes at the opening ceremony and Piper has chosen a different path, she’s going to be an amazing Doctor. So things change but we definitely had that little dream growing up of putting on the green and gold, there was always just something about it that was really exciting.”

Had it not been for younger sister Andie, Olympic race walker Jemima Montag might not have returned to the sport after a break in 2015. As all the stresses and changes that emerge with being a teen became prevalent, the battles within became the next hurdles for Montag to overcome.

“About halfway through year 11 or the beginning of year 12, my self-esteem and confidence in sport completely dropped away, and I just thought, ‘I don’t really believe in myself to ever be able to make a senior Australian team and maybe I should just focus on school and whatever uni will bring instead and have a good time in this life.’

“And that seemed like a great idea, and I sort of stuck to it for year 12, I focused on the outcome of year 12 and having a nice time.

“The story that everyone likes to hear is that at the end of that schooling journey, my family and I were actually in Tokyo. We were skiing nearby but spent some time in the city of Tokyo itself, and at this time, the Rio Olympics had just passed a few months before.

“My younger sister was saying “oh hey, I hear the next Olympics are actually here in Tokyo, and I’ve loved it here. The food’s great, the people are lovely. How about you do us a favour and make the team and give us an excuse for the family to come back for another holiday”.

Maybe it was just a flippant comment from a little sister wanting a holiday, but it was one of the catalysts that helped mum Amanda remind her that she was in rarefied company.

“[Mum] helped me see that this opportunity isn’t afforded to very many, to represent Australia in this world scale, and, if you’ve got the opportunity, if you have bio-mechanics, the talent, the time and the resources and access to people, grab it. Because it’s amazing and it will only be around for this small window of time. Then you’ll be too injured or too old, once it passes.”

Montag’s experience and her brief hiatus from the sport is a time in her short career to date which she is using as an educational and motivational tool. Not just for her as she prepares to racewalk for her country, but to many young adolescent girls who are going through the same challenges as she went through.

Through her own research and her work with Blue Earth – an organization that’s designed to work with the physical education system in schools to enhance what they’re already receiving through PE and introduce an element of mindfulness.

Montag is passionate about sharing her experiences and helping other young women navigate the early parts of their careers.

“Through the latter years of high school, sport started to feel hard.

“I’m diving into this area at the moment, young women in sport. Why participation rates do begin to decline and sport can feel like not such a welcoming area for us.

“We can feel lost in our own bodies when everything starts to change and we don’t quite know how to navigate that space, especially when those bodily changes overlaps with sport and it impacts on your sporting performance and it can be quite confusing, how to work around that.

“I just felt at the time I didn’t quite have the knowledge and skills to understand what was going on and why sport was starting to feel harder and harder because I wasn’t the tiny little girl anymore, and I had to learn to embrace and play to the strength of this new women’s body which I was growing into which of course should and has to happen.

“No doubt it came with confusion and struggle to the point where I just thought, well, going out in a small singlet and shorts or whatever we have to compete in is only making me feel anxious and nervous and I’m not really enjoying this much at all.

“But I think in hindsight, I didn’t really understand how to reach out to other people and learn to help with my body rather than against it. “

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Post-school was a time where Montag felt she was comfortable heading back to the track with a renewed purpose and something extra to cling to. Finding the comfort in re-investing energy into the one sport she has done consistently since the age of eight.

Switching coaches to Brett Vallance, a race walker at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in his own right, and an old coach of Jemima proved to be the perfect tonic in re-energising Montag and instilling the confidence that she could make these big national teams and compete.

Teams like the 2018 Commonwealth Games in her home country.

The experience of previous World Championship and Maccabiah teams have been paramount in Olympic race walker Jemima Montag handling the moment and settling into the enormity of being a part of a national team at a worldwide event.

“I try and learn from the good and the bad that happens at these major championships. I’m a prolific diary keeper, sort of all through the year but especially when I go away, travelling and or on, trips for competition, really trying to write down all my thoughts about what goes well and what doesn’t, and what I can learn for next time.

“There’s a lot of little things I’ve had to learn along the way, from Maccabiah, from Comm Games, from World Champs, and I think the culmination of those lessons are going to put me in the best possible position for these Olympics”

All the note-keeping, all the challenges with taking a break and coming back, all leading toward Montag’s crowning moment of her career thus far: a Gold Medal on home soil in the Commonwealth Games.

Jemima Montag and her Gold Medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Image: olympics.com.au

As her feet were pounding down on the streets of Surfers Paradise, crossing the tape in first position was a moment that Montag had waited her whole life for. To do it in her home country, just made a surreal moment that extra special.

“Hitting the tape with a roaring crowd and even if they didn’t know who you were, they were just so so excited to see a little Aussie in the green and gold,  that was really exciting.”

A proud Melburnian and a proud Jew, Olympic race walker Jemima Montag will feel the support of not only the other Jews on the Olympic team and around Australia, but she’ll also have not only the entire nation right behind her side cheering her on.

“The support from the Jewish community has always been really special, I guess it’s exciting to represent them in a way and give them something to get excited about back home.

“I’m feeling particularly connected to Judaism and my history and community and I think well hope to carry the strength of what our community has been through in our recent history, I’ll carry that resilience and strength with me on race day.”

While friends and family and teammates, unfortunately, won’t be by her side cheering Montag on, on the streets of Sapporro. But, they will certainly be together when they gather to cheer her onto victory.

“My good friends down at Maccabi Athletics club who have been with me this whole time have organized the local cinema to broadcast my race, so hopefully, a lot of family and friends can get down there and watch, so that will feel special knowing that they’re all gathered and watching and celebrating together.”

Olympic race walker Jemima Montag will represent Australia in The Women’s 20km Racewalk begins at 7am AEST on Friday, August 6th.

For all your Tokyo 2020 coverage, be sure to visit The Inner Sanctum’s Olympic hub and the Olympics Central.

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