Melbourne, Australia’s Jemima Montag wants to change the world, one step at a time.
Sounds cliché I know, until you realize that the 22-year-old is one of the world’s best race walkers — she won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the 20 km walk and today, she was officially named to Australia’s Olympic team for Tokyo 2021 — and she also wants to use her platform to make real differences on ending food deserts, fighting climate change and more.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with Montag to get a sense of the steps she’s taken to get to this point and where she wants to go.
GreenSportsBlog: Jemima, I have to start off with the question that’s on every reader’s mind: How and why did you get into race walking?
Jemima Montag: I come from an athletics (track & field in U.S. jargon) background — my mom was a hurdler.
So, when we were kids, on any given Saturday, my sister and I would be seen doing the long jump, the shot put…
GSB: You really ‘put the shot’?
Jemima: Yes! As time went on, I seemed to have a natural affinity for long and slow stuff — so I gravitated to race walking. As a young girl, it felt exciting to be winning ribbons at the local track meets and this was enough to keep me training – at first.
GSB: Yeah, humans seem to like what they’re good at…
Jemima: That’s it. Now, to be clear I didn’t only race walk. 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.
GSB: And race walking…What made you good at it?
Jemima: The psychological component is super important in endurance sports. I am tough, have a strong work ethic, a strong internal drive and since ours is a solitary sport, I have the ability to push myself even after I’ve pushed hard already. Physiologically speaking, my ‘engine’, or VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake) is nice and high and I’m able to maintain a low level of blood lactate even at high speeds. The third weapon in my belt is that my body seems to be able to handle lots of training without becoming injured. Perhaps it’s thanks to all of those ballet years, or the strong bones I inherited from my grandmother. This means I can accumulate great weeks of training without interruption.
GSB: What did you think of your friends who played team sports?
Jemima: That’s an interesting question!
I started training at the Victorian Institute of Sport in 2018. I would sometimes have a pang of jealousy when I’d see the team sports players in the gym, working together and sharing in-jokes.
And it can be kind of lonely when it’s just you. But I’ve been able to re-frame this to focus on my support network (my coach, family, friends, dietician, psychologist, physio etc.) as my team. No longer am I doing this just for me, but I can share the highs, lows and learnings with these people and that’s really brought a whole new layer of meaning to sport for me.
GSB: So, how did you combine that talent and that drive to get to the world class level in race walking?
Jemima: I felt like I was progressing towards the highest echelons of my sport when I put on the Green and Gold of Australia for the first time at the World Teams Challenge in 2014 when I was 16.
In my final years of school, I felt myself hitting a plateau- physically but also psychologically. I’ve noticed that this is really common amongst young female athletes as they transition through puberty. There’s a huge drop off rate from sport at this time. I’d really like to be a part of a shift in this trend. To create an environment for young girls in sport where they can reach out to sports dieticians, psychologists and physiologists to better understand what’s going on and work WITH their bodies, rather than wishing the changes away.
Anyway, in my case, I focused on my grades when I was 17, 18. I continued to play school-level sports and captained the cross country team, but I wasn’t sure whether my desire to return to elite-level sport was there anymore.
GSB: How did you turn that around?
Jemima: Well, our family went to Japan on a skiing vacation in 2016. And my sister says, ‘Japan is awesome. And you know, the next Olympics are in Tokyo. How great would it be if you got back in form and made the Olympic team?! I’d love to come back for some sushi and stationery.’
GSB: Why didn’t your sister try and make the Olympic team?
You have to know that I wasn’t really considering making a comeback at that time. I was done.
Then my mom chirped up…’You know Jemima, if you want to wear the Green & Gold in an Olympics, this is your time. And you can do it!”
And somehow, something clicked in my brain with that familial support that said, ‘Let’s go!’
GSB: So, how did you go about jump starting things?
Jemima: First thing was that I switched coaches, going with Brent Vallance, who had already coached an Olympic gold medalist in race walking.
Brent loves metrics, which I also loved. This allowed me to track how I was doing against all manner of targets. In particular, he showed me I had the physical capability, via VO2 analysis. I already had the mental makeup, the ability to thrive in an individual sport in which I would be in my own mind for 90 minutes.
Then in 2017, he sent me an email that said ‘I think you have what it takes to make it as a global competitor. Now, you need to believe in yourself as an athlete on the world stage.’ That gave me the feeling that I belonged, as well as a sense of purpose.
GSB: How long did it take to go from “I’m done” to being ready to compete on the world stage?
Jemima: Well, 2017 was spent transitioning from the junior distances — 5 and 10 km — to the senior distance of 20 km. And the following February, it was time for the 2018 Commonwealth Games trials, which would be held on the Gold Coast.
GSB: Hometown Games…Excitement and pressure, I imagine.
Jemima: Yeah. Self-doubt crept in as training picked up. Only three would make the team and so many top-quality, older, experienced women — the peak age for race walkers is late 20s-early 30s — were in the race.
But, by the end of a month of training, my mentality had flipped, and I thought I could keep up with them. I started to think, “What If,” visualizing myself making the team.
I ended up finishing second in the trials, making the Commonwealth Games team —and a home Games at that, a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime moment!
GSB: How did you prepare for the Commonwealth Games race?
Jemima: There were only six weeks between the trials and the Games.
It would’ve been very easy to be overwhelmed but Brent and I kept the “What If” mentality going. Some of the best countries in race walking — Mexico, Russia, and Japan — aren’t in the Commonwealth Games so that made it less intimidating.
On race day, at 9 AM on a Sunday, I knew there would be lots of eyes on me. A mentor, Nicky, told me, ‘The pressure isn’t on you. You’re a young underdog. It’s on them — the veterans. And use the pressure that you do feel like a breeze pushing you forward. What IF!’
And then…I did everything I was supposed to do, just executed our plan. It was so…calm. Crossing the finish line first — it just felt right.
GSB: That sounds so…routine yet you just won a Gold Freaking Medal at your home Commonwealth Games. I mean, HOLY COW!!! Sounds life-changing.
Jemima: Did it change my life? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it gave me a sense of self-belief, that I belonged on the international stage. At the same time, life continued on as normal. My family have always been wary of keeping me down to earth and humble.
I spoke at some schools and made some other appearances, but it was back to…life. For me, that meant beginning my studies at the University of Melbourne and figuring out what I want to do professionally.
GSB: What were/are you looking to pursue?
Jemima: I’m very interested in human and environmental health. This year I’ll finish my Bachelor of Science, majoring in physiology. I’m planning to take 2021 off study to focus on the delayed Tokyo Olympic Games and then in 2022 I hope to begin a post-graduate degree in medicine with a public health focus.
GSB: I can absolutely see you going that route. Reading between the lines, even though you didn’t mention fixing our broken food systems or climate change — two topics about which you are passionate — they all are increasingly intertwined with medicine, and public health. How did you get into climate change and also trying to turn food deserts into oases?
Jemima: For my generation, at least in Australia, climate has been a focus from early grades in school.
Earth Day was always important, we had Environmental Captains. Climate change and acting to do something about it has always been a part of my life.
As far as access to healthy foods is concerned, that really became a passion in 9th grade. You see, at many Australian schools, when you’re 14 or 15, you’re sent away from home for eight or nine weeks to learn how to live independently.
In my group there were eight girls living in a little house in Clunes, a country town in rural Victoria, my home state. It was a wonderful experience: We made a budget and planned meals, learned to wash our clothes, looked after big veggie gardens and contributed to the local community.
Food really took on a whole new meaning for me. I loved going to the farmers markets, talking to growers and learning about their lives and what they cooked and ate. I could see the benefits of sourcing foods locally that are also organic.
The social connections that were strengthened at multi-generational stalls, with those wonderful, tasty, local foods as the centerpiece, reminded me of my family’s ritual Friday night dinners. Food is the connective tissue that promotes conversation, storytelling and meaning.
It occurred to me in Clunes that this kind of nourishing environment was not available in some pockets of Melbourne. And I became inspired to learn more about patterns of food security.
GSB: What did you do?
Jemima: My high school offered the International Baccalaureate curriculum and in the IB in 11th or 12th grade, everyone has to write a 4,000 word extended essay on a chosen topic.
GSB: …A thesis of sorts?
Jemima: Yeah, you could call it that.
I decided to write about Food Insecurity. Specifically, my paper asked, “Are Food Redistribution Centres Geographically Situated in Areas of Highest Disadvantage in Melbourne?” I had some insight to this already since a family friend had launched The One Box, a charity that would give away boxes of high quality food for free to those who need it.
GSB: What did your research reveal?
Jemima: I mapped Melbourne and what I found was that, the further away from the central business district (CBD) you went, the worse the food insecurity. Lower education levels, lower incomes, less access to transportation.
But the charities mainly focused their efforts in the CBD, which meant that it wasn’t reaching those in greatest need.
GSB: That’s important learning right there. What did you do on the food insecurity after high school?
Jemima: I worked with The One Box after high school until I started training for the Commonwealth Games. It was a great experience.
Our family friend believes, contrary to many food charities, that donating rescued food carries a stigma. He believed in purchasing top quality foods direct from farmers and giving this to food insecure families instead.
The One Box Story (1 min 42 secs)
GSB: I see his point, but I also think that 40 percent of food is wasted, at least in the U.S., and much of that is food that is thrown out because it doesn’t look good.
Jemima: Yes, food waste is a key issue. The One Box was also addressing food waste in terms of pre-farmgate waste. This is the produce that is grown but not accepted by supermarkets due to their very high cosmetic standards. In this way, we could also support the Aussie farmers in need, financially.
I’d love to return to The One Box in the future and take it even further. It’s one thing to offer people free boxes of fresh produce, but wouldn’t it be great if we were helping them long term, by offering cooking classes or a recipe of the week? Many ideas to work with.
GSB: Now I see the Jemima Montag picture coming into focus: You’re at the intersection of food deserts, public health, and climate, using your platform as a race walker to make a difference. How do you make that vision your reality?
Jemima: I recently took a personal branding workshop with Think Tank Social, organized by the Australian Institute for Sport. They emphasize that we have the opportunity and, yes, the responsibility to use our voices for good.
I see walking and eating well as a simple and highly effective public health intervention. I hope to be a bit of a trail blazer in this space and am currently workshopping an idea called ‘Mid-day Movement’, where an Olympian would come to your workplace / school / community group during lunch break and get people up and moving. I’d have to work healthy eating into it somehow – perhaps we will come back to nice lunch spread and everyone can take home a recipe card.
In essence, I’d like to encourage people to return to a simpler operation: let’s eat real, homemade food…let’s get moving in nature each day…for human and planetary health.
GSB: Speaking of going forward, how are you dealing with the Olympics being postponed a year?
Jemima: Well it’s been a tough year for elite athletes – some sports are really only celebrated every four years, and to now have another year to wait was heartbreaking and quite destabilizing.
However, what we do have as athletes is experience in facing adversity and overcoming challenges. We are honing these skills every day…when we get injured, if we aren’t picked for a team, whenever we fall short. We learn to build back stronger and reflect on our strengths and weaknesses.
If there was ever a time to build our resilience muscle – it is 2020.
GSB: …Amen, Jemima, AMEN!
Ed. Note: The Australian Olympic Committee announced on August 20 that Jemima Montag has qualified for Tokyo Olympics next summer.