Jake Montgomery – Rise of the phoenix

With a strong background in state level swimming, cross-country and athletics, rising long-course star, Jake Montgomery had a dream start to triathlon. But just when it seemed like everything was falling into place, his world came crashing down. AT’s editor, Aimee Johnsen, chats with Jake about his rise in triathlon, his preferred race distance, the World Championships, the accident that almost ended it all, his recovery and comeback, and more.

Where it all began

I understand you were a state level swimmer as a youngster (as well as cross country and athletics!) and it was your swim coach who encouraged you to give triathlon a go, did you know what triathlon was at that stage? 

I had never heard of triathlon and wasn’t sure what it consisted of. He [my swim coach] mentioned that there was a swim and run time trial to get into the squad and that they would look after me from there. Having a strong swim and run background, I jumped at the opportunity to try this out. I was fortunate enough to make the times and to gain a position in the squad. Triathlon being three sports now required me to get on a road bike. I had always ridden a BMX and a mountain bike as a youngster but [I didn’t have a road bike]. So, I was really lucky that the head coach let me borrow one of his old bikes to get me started.

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I still remember some of the first sessions on the road bike, it was completely different to what I was used to and will never forget the day I first used clipless pedals. I was taught all the basics and skills through the first couple of years, and cycling has since become my favourite part of a triathlon.

Tell us about your first triathlon experience – when/where was it, do you remember the distances and what was your first impression of triathlon? Were you hooked immediately or has your love for the sport grown over time?

My first race that stands out was the Enticer race (125m/5km/1.25km) at the Nepean Triathlon in Penrith, NSW. I was 13-years-old and really enjoyed it. I took the win in my race and still have the photo of the guy I still look up to today handing me my medal – Craig Alexander. I definitely enjoyed it at the time and spent the next few years travelling around Australia, but it wasn’t until my first long course race that I actually found my place and love for the sport. Since then my love for triathlon has grown more and more. This was the format I had been eyeing off for years, but thought it was much further down the track – I’m so happy I had made the switch when I did.

Ok, so you’re 13-years-old and have just done your first triathlon – you must have shown some great talent at that point as you went on to trial, and got selected for the Sydney Junior Triathlon Academy in the same year. That’s pretty impressive. How did that opportunity come about, was anyone working with you at this point helping with your pathway?

Those time trials I first attended was for the Academy, and this is where it all started. Mick Delamotte was the head coach of this squad, and it was one of his bikes I was able to borrow to get me started. I spent my first couple of years training under him at Sutherland, NSW but the more I trained, the more the travel piled up. I decided to start working locally with a coach based out of Wollongong, NSW, which shortened the travel time and I was able to get more contact hours with coach Mark Scott.

Your first pro tour race was in Forster, NSW where you competed in the U23 elite category at just 14 – how did
you go? 

“When I found my love for 70.3 racing, my previous goal of attending the Olympics left my mind.” – Jake Montgomery 

From memory, I had a lot of fun at this race. Forster is such a great location for a race having an ocean swim, and this was a completely different format – an Enduro. The race involved a 300m swim/8km bike/3km run x2 continuous. The field was very competitive and being one of my first draft legal races it was really tough – I still remember jumping in the water for the second time feeling absolutely wrecked and could barely swim. I did a few Enduro format races during my early years in triathlon and enjoyed these more than just the one straight out race. It’s good to see a similar format coming back with the Super League Triathlon series – it will be a very interesting few days for the athletes and will be a great race to watch for the spectators.

The next year (2009) you were getting attention from the right people in triathlon development – Triathlon NSW and the NSW Institute of Sport. You were asked to race at the 2XU National Talent Identification weekend and to attend a National Development Camp with 50 of the best U/19 athletes in the country at the end of that year. You must have known then you were heading in the right direction in this sport?

I went to the Super Sprint weekend a few times, and they have definitely been one of the hardest weekends of racing I ever had. The best juniors in Australia all attended this race weekend. The format is extremely tough with swim, bike and run time trials on the first day, three mini triathlons on the next day and one further enticer distance race on the Sunday.

I was very fortunate around this time to be introduced to Jamie Turner, Triathlon Australia High-Performance coach and it was him who took me under his wing to take my racing to the next level and introduced me to overseas competition.

Talk us through the next couple of years, juggling HSC [High School Certificate] and an aspiring triathlon career. Where were things at for you in that period? Were you balancing major competitions with your schooling or did tri take a back seat while you finished your education?

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I had completed year 12 and scored high enough marks to gain entry into university for my desired degree. There were to be some tough decisions made during my first year of study. I was enjoying uni life, but my triathlon was really picking up under the guidance of Jamie Turner. He brought about the conversation of a trip to Europe to do some racing with the Australian squad. While study was going well, there was no way I could turn this opportunity down, so I jumped at the chance.

You went overseas to race in 2013 – you raced elite ITU Continental Cups and also raced in the French Grand Prix series. Racing the elites on the world stage, was that a big step in your career?

After completing one year of university, it was time to head off to Europe for three months. As I left a little later than the rest of the squad, I had to travel alone from Sydney, Australia to a small little town in the North of Spain, Vitoria-Gasteiz.
This was a big step in itself with multiple flights across the world and arriving in a foreign country trying to get the local buses to meet with Jamie. I was a little nervous, although the travel couldn’t have gone smoother and I got there a lot easier and quicker than I first expected.

Training with the Australian squad in Vitoria was an experience I’ll never forget and enjoyed every day of it. I was very lucky to race for a French team while I was over there, Issy-Les-Moulineaux. While travelling into and out of France for each race, and the one still being my favourite race in San Sebastien, Spain, I also travelled to the UK, Italy and Hungry.

This trip provided an invaluable experience, and my future was determined – triathlon was what I wanted to pursue.

2014 – you had an injury setback that cost you six months of racing, which resulted in a cancelled European race season. It would also be your final year racing ITU. Talk us through the decision to move away from the short stuff and go long.

If it wasn’t for that stress fracture in my foot, I’m not sure where I would be today. I had already booked for Europe prior to the injury so rather than cancel it, I checked the surfboard on the plane instead of the bike and spent the next four months travelling Europe on a holiday. This gave me a lot of time to think and re-evaluate my triathlon career – wondering whether I continue racing ITU, quit or move to long course. Long course racing had always been in the back of my mind, so quitting [the sport] was out of the picture pretty quickly. ITU was good, and I gained a lot of experience from it, but my strengths didn’t help me achieve the results I was looking for. This made me turn my thoughts to long course, non-drafting triathlon.

“My goals quickly changed and [I now] have my eyes set on something bigger for me.” – Jake Montgomery 

I still remember the first race back from injury and the one that got me hooked. It was where it all started – Nepean Triathlon in Penrith, but this time I was racing the standard distance (1km/30km/10km), non-drafting. This required me to get a TT bike. I was lucky enough that one of my good mates from Wollongong lent me his bike to use in the lead-up and on race day. I instantly loved the TT bike, and after racing on it, I was sold on the non-drafting scene and was keen to train up for the long course distance.

On your blog, you list your goal was to represent Australia in the Olympics. How hard was it to let that go?

The Olympics were a goal of mine since year one – at that stage, it was the pinnacle of triathlon for me, and everything from training to racing had my sights set on that. When I found my love for 70.3 racing, my previous goal of attending the Olympics left my mind straight away and didn’t faze me one bit. As I learnt more about Ironman and what it has to offer, my goals quickly changed and [I now] have my eyes set on something bigger for me.

Moving Long

Huskisson Long Course Triathlon in February 2015 was your first crack at the longer distance, and you waked away in seventh place, which is a great effort on debut. What were your first impressions of racing long?

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Huskisson was such a great race to have my first crack at long course. I had done a lot of draft legal racing here – it was close to home, and it’s an awesome spot. The race is known for being a stacked Australian field and the year I raced was no different. I didn’t mind that as it gave me a good insight into how good the best guys are and how they race.

The race was a great experience, and this was where I found my love for the sport.

The longer distances and non-drafting format really suited me. But, while I was fine through the swim and bike, I still think that run was one of the hardest I have ever done. One thing that stood out the most was nutrition intake throughout the race.
I struggled with this a lot through my first few races as it took a lot of practice knowing what and when to take it.

After that race, though, I couldn’t have been keener to do more, and it wasn’t long until I was lining up at my next long course.

What are some of the key differences you like about racing the longer distance over ITU racing? Do you prefer it or do you think you are simply more suited to it?

The biggest is non-drafting. It allows it to be a more individual race and I am able to use my strengths to my advantage. You have to be strong all round to be a contender. I have used the bike leg to get my best results – this is where you can have the biggest impact on the race due to the duration of the leg.

Definitely both – I prefer it and am better suited to it. I prefer it a lot more to ITU, and my racing style, and strengths are a lot better suited [to long course]. I have had a lot of people say I am too young but because I wasn’t progressing in ITU, it was either quit triathlon or move to long course.

Let’s wrap up your first season for half iron-distance racing:

  • 2 x 2nd place finish (70.3 Mandurah and Western Sydney)
  • 2 x 5th place finish (70.3 Port Macquarie and Challenge Williamsburg)
  • 1 x 6th place finish (Challenge Batemans Bay)
  • 2 x 7th place finish (Huskisson Long Course and 70.3 Timberman)
  • 2 x 8th place finish (70.3 Vineman and 70.3 Raleigh)

WOW! They are some big results and big races. You must have had confidence after 2015 that you had absolutely made the right decision?

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Now that I think of it, it was a little risky and hopeful, going to race in the US so early in my long course career. After spending three months over there, I couldn’t be happier with my trip and results in all the races. It was this trip that confirmed I had made the right decision and made me so much more confident heading into my races back in Australia, and it showed.

Ironman 70.3 Mandurah was a breakthrough race for me – I still remember it very well. Coming out of the water with a substantial gap, I went all out on the bike and didn’t think once about waiting or looking back. Coming off the bike with an even bigger lead, unfortunately, I was run down in the last three kilometres but was still blown away to get my first podium and 70.3. I took the exact same tactic into 70.3 Western Sydney but again, I was run down in the last kilometre to finish second. That one was too close, and I won’t let that happen again.

You start 2016 off on a big high, earning your maiden Ironman 70.3 title in Geelong, but then get hit by a garbage truck a month later while riding home from the beach. You wrote ‘there was nowhere to go except under his wheels’… that must have been so scary? You hurt your ankle and hip badly – so bad that it cold have been over?

That was the best day [winning Ironman 70.3 Geelong] in my sporting career – I had finally got those two seconds off my back and put together the perfect race to hold onto the win. Those next few weeks were hectic, filled with emails and interest. I couldn’t have been in a better place, and this looked to be the start of a great year.

Unfortunately, I still remember going under those rear wheels and the pain, at the time it felt like my leg had snapped in half. I was taken to the hospital, scanned and had completely ruptured two ligaments in my ankle along with a heap of bone bruising. After seeing the doc, running was a possibility but not certain as the ligaments may have never healed properly to take the impact of running.

I started hydrotherapy using JT5 Aquabuoys and was very lucky to make such a good recovery – I found myself headed back to the US two months later.

You recover and head overseas to the US for 70.3 Boulder and 70.3 Vineman – a 10th and seventh place respectively, which qualifies you for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, at home in Mooloolaba, your first crack at the 70.3 World Championship.  Can you tell us about your prep leading into the race, how excited you were and what you genuinely thought you could achieve on race day?

While I had a few hiccups in those races, I was just happy to be back out there racing after my accident. I had completed the best two months of training I have ever done, and the fitness was at an all time high leading into 70.3 worlds.

“I tell myself I am very lucky I have no memory of the crash, the hospital or the first week at home.” – Jake Montgomery 

To be honest, those three weeks prior to worlds was so bad I didn’t even decide to race until the Friday before. I suffered a little niggle in my knee that prevented me from swimming, riding and running, so I wasn’t doing any training and was still too sore to even think about racing. I was never able to diagnose it, but after a few sessions with the local acupuncturist, it miraculously came good on Thursday morning. I got two sessions in, no problem, so I packed the gear on Friday and headed up to worlds first thing Saturday morning. Although the prep was a little shaky, I was still carrying confidence heading into the race. I had high expectations of myself prior to my knee injury so I was still aiming for a top 10 finish on the day.

The Accident

The accident you don’t remember… What do you know now about the crash that nearly ended it all?

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I tell myself I am very lucky I have no memory of the crash, the hospital or the first week at home. I think that if I did, I might have never ridden a bike again.

The police rang dad to explain the accident – it was my last ride before the race [the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Mooloolaba] just to make sure the bike was ready – 30minutes was all I had planned. It happened at 20minutes according to my Garmin when the speed drops from 40km/h to zero. It happened out the front of a fruit shop where a driver travelling the opposite way had turned into the shop driveway causing a head on collision – I collided with the bonnet/windscreen of the car. The car impact was all on my right side, which is where all my fractures and muscle tears were, but it was me going over the top of the car and landing straight onto the left side of my head that had caused the real damage. I suffered brain bleeding and swelling in three different spots, which left me pretty messed up for the next month.

What did your doctors and surgeons tell you about your recovery – how long would it be, would you ever race again, was there long term concerns for you as a person, not just as an athlete?

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It wasn’t until I heard from them that I realised how serious it was and I wasn’t out of the clear yet.

Racing again was a very slim chance with the doctors – the head injuries were so serious they were actually surprised I was still able to talk to them properly. The doctors stressed to me that with brain injuries the side effects could last for years or might not even get better.

Fracture and tear-wise that was just the standard six weeks but they went into more detail about the brain injuries and told me it would take at least three to four months before I could attempt my first run. The neurologist stressed to me the importance of keeping a low intensity for months, as there was a high risk of seizures. All this really scared me, and I went through a bit of a rough patch.

You wrote in your blog that being told you couldn’t run for four months left you in a “state of depression and considering life” – that must have been some very dark times for you? What helped get you through it all?

That first two months I was in all sorts. Going from two to three sessions every day, surfing and being pain-free to sitting on the couch all day, making lunch being the most I could do, left me wondering. I must admit I was in a deep state of depression there for a few weeks and had some pretty bad thoughts on life and whether it was still worth it. It happened at the worst time, and the doctors weren’t confident in my recovery.

Family, friends, sponsors and my love for the sport were not going to stop me. I can’t thank everyone enough for their support and messages throughout this time. I really appreciated every one of them – it made me more determined to make a full return. I listened to my body and took things slowly. Once I started back doing small things like walking and easy spins on the trainer that’s all I needed to bring my head back in the game and tell myself there is still hope.

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The Comeback

At what point did you decide you would have a crack at getting back to racing? What did your parents say? And the doctors?

I got my first couple of weeks running done just before Christmas and made the call very early in the New Year to sign up for a local sprint distance. Both my parents were super keen to see me back out there, but in the back of their minds, they were still worried about the risks. They have watched me every day through this recovery and were confident about me racing – we were all just concerned about the possible unknowns.

The doctors had told me to be very cautious at all times as it can take the slightest thing to trigger a seizure but I got the all clear to progress intensity and duration after that first run.

Talk us through this journey, how hard has it been to be back training. Has your body and mind been 100% on the ride with you or have there been some setbacks that made you question the comeback?

Everyone and everything has proved to me that this comeback was the right decision. It has gone a lot smoother than expected. I knew it was going to take a while to get the body back up to speed but to see how close I am to my usual numbers after such a long break, I’m a little surprised.

I am enjoying every session more than ever when I’m out there training, and when it gets hard, all I have to do is tell myself that I may have never been able to do this again and how lucky I am to still be breathing air.

Ironman 70.3 Geelong 2017 – the big comeback. How was that whole experience, before, during and now
on reflection?

I couldn’t have asked for a better race to come back to. Some people had said it’s too early, but I knew the body was ready. The week leading into it was probably the most stressful time of my life – it felt like I had never done a triathlon before and I had to remember every little thing in the lead-up, for travel and to be race ready that would normally be a force of habit. It wasn’t until I woke up race morning that the stress disappeared and the excitement kicked in. Nerves didn’t seem to exist for this race, something that is normally me before every race – I was just so keen to get back racing.

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The race was the toughest conditions I’ve raced in – coming from a very hot and humid Queensland to chilly, wet and windy Geelong conditions was a bit of a shock to the body.

I was a little off the initial race start pace in the swim but found my rhythm not too long after and found myself swimming comfortably in second. I felt great on the bike initially and was mixing it up at the front with Amberger and Appleton. On the way back into town I started to struggle a bit with the headwind and lost sight of the guys. My legs were hurting, but once I went through town to head out for the second lap, I had bridged back up, but that didn’t last long. My legs popped around 90minutes, and I was wondering if I was going to get to that finish line. The lack of kilometres on the bike really kicked in and found myself creeping for the last 25kilometres. I got onto the run, and it was a whole different game. Those muscles I cooked in the bike weren’t affecting my run at all, and I felt great. I was running really strong. I had Wilson and Viennot pass me around half way but was just so happy to have good legs on the run. That last kilometre when I knew I had secured fifth was such a great feeling, and that smile I had coming down the finish chute, I’ll never forget.

Ticking that one off really meant a lot. That felt like the end of the recovery phase, and now my journey begins. Finishing Geelong made me keener than ever for the year ahead and my next race.

“That last kilometre when I knew I had secured fifth was such a great feeling, and that smile I had coming down the finish chute, I’ll never forget.” – Jake Montgomery 

You have some super supportive parents, friends and sponsors – you must be very grateful for all they do for you?

Without them all, I’d hate to think where I would be today if I did make it. My parents were there every minute for me – I was very lucky to catch up with my mates early on and to receive messages from the sponsors just checking in, which meant a lot. I was even fortunate enough to have signed with some new companies that have been long time favourites of mine, and couldn’t be more excited to have had partnered with them at this time.

Having Glenn from Korupt Vision take an interest in me early on really motivated me to pursue this recovery the best I could and make it worthwhile for the both of us. Him being there for a lot of my training through the early stages was great – I think he spurred me on a lot to go that little bit further and progress as quick as I could.

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What’s next for Jake Montgomery? 

The goal now is to get back to the States. Boulder, CO has become like a second home to me – I absolutely love it there. The people are great, the lifestyle is awesome, and the training is incredible. I’ve made a few friends over there, and can’t wait to get back and catch up with them. I’m looking forward to following another summer. I have a few races planned while I am over there, with the ultimate goal being to qualify for the 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga. Having already missed half the qualifying period it’s going to be hard, but I am confident with the amount of racing I have planned that I will be able to pick up enough points. All going well and I have a good block of training in Boulder, I should be back to my usual self by then and ready to mix it up with the world’s best.

 

Images: Korupt Vision

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aimee Johnsen

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