Heroes of race waking – part one, worldwide

As I mentioned in a previous article for #WalkingWednesday, race walkers come from all around the world. I also said that race walking is a sport of heroes. The greats of the sport are remembered for their heroic feats.

Yohan Diniz (France)
Now coming towards the end of his career but still competitive, Yohan Diniz is the current 50km world record holder, gaining it in 2013 in his third European championships victory. In March 2015 he also broke the 20km record. The following week he was entered in another race, enjoying his new status, until only a couple of hours before the start time he learnt that his time had been beaten earlier that day in Japan. Despite his fatigue from the week before, he decided to try to regain the record and, though he ultimately fell short, he still walked the 9th fastest time ever. (All the more impressive and endearing is that he also had time to sign an autograph for me and my dad shortly before the race.)
In my previous article about disqualification, I talked about Diniz’ cruel fate in the 2012 Olympics. (http://www.ontrackathletics.co.uk/disqualification-the-cruel-fate-of-race-walkers-who-get-it-wrong/) In Rio 2016 he wanted to make amends and led from the gun, with a sizeable lead at halfway. Suddenly, at 33km, he stopped, suffering badly. Yet when he was overtaken he resumed and kept with the new leader, only to stop again a few minutes later, and collapse. Within 30 seconds, he was up again and continuing. He again stopped multiple times but eventually he struggled to finish in 8th place, never willing to give up. In the 2017 World Championships, in a frighteningly dominant performance, he finally managed to win a global title.

Jesús Ángel García (Spain)
In an endurance event, probably the most admirable quality is longevity. Race walkers can have long careers. No one exemplifies this quite like Jesús Ángel García. He has competed in the 50km walk in seven Olympic Games (a record for any athlete), from 1992 to 2016. This year he will turn 50, and could qualify for an 8th Olympics, after finishing 3rd in this year’s Spanish championships.
What’s most impressive is that he has held his position at the top for so long. After winning the World Championships 50km in 1993, he has won three more silver medals, most recently in 2009.
There is nothing pretty about García’s technique but it demonstrates his determination – head forward and muscles straining. Nor is he an eye-catching racer but he is known to be a strong finisher. He often finds himself leading a group of less experienced race walkers who know that, no matter how far back they are at halfway, he will usually pull through and finish in the top ten.

Raúl González (Mexico)
In the 1970s and 80s the Mexicans emerged out of obscurity to become the dominant country of race walkers, revolutionising race walking with so-called ‘Mexican drills’. Raúl ‘Speedy’ González was one of the Mexican team’s greatest successes. He tried both events, first finishing 20th in the 50km at the 1972 Olympics, then finishing 5th in the 20km in 1976 when the 50km was temporarily discontinued.
However, in 1978 he made a sudden breakthrough. In April, he broke the 50km world record by almost 7 minutes. Only two months later he was able to wipe off another 4 and a half minutes, single-handedly raising the standard of 50km race walking.
In 1980 he finished 6th in the 20km but failed to finish the 50km. However, he was finally rewarded in 1984 when he became Olympic silver medallist for 20km, a narrow second to his Mexican team-mate Ernesto Canto, and 50km champion, beating the field by almost 6 minute. Thanks to the revolutionary Mexican training, González was renowned for his flawless technique as well as his exquisite moustache.

Kerry Saxby (Australia)
Women’s race walking is relatively recent and global championships have been dominated by the relentless Chinese and Russian production lines. However, Kerry Saxby (now Saxby-Junna) was at the forefront of women’s race walking during the 1980s and 90s while the event developed. At the first World Championship for women’s race walking in 1987, she led the field at halfway. Though she was overtaken, she finished second only a short distance behind. In 1989 she won the first World Indoor Championships and in 1990 won the first Commonwealth Games. In each, she won a further gold and silver.
In 1987 she also gained the world record for 10km and 53 weeks later got the 20km record, holding onto both until 1995. In 1999, twelve years after winning her first World Championship medal, she competed in the Seville World Championships and, though she initially believed she had finished in 4th place, in fact gained the bronze medal.

Robert Korzeniowski (Poland)
In the 1992 Olympics, shortly after becoming a full-time athlete, Robert Korzeniowski entered both the 20km and 50km events, only to drop out of the 20km and suffer disqualification in the 50km. In 1993 he was disqualified again, in the World Championships. He realised that he had to learn from these disappointments, working on his technique and improving his understanding of the sport, totally committing himself.
By 1996, he had become unstoppable over 50km and won the Olympic title. His earlier arrogance had been turned into fully justified confidence and supreme dominance. He also finished 8th in the 20km.

However it was in 2000 that he made history. He fought hard in the 20km race against Mexican Bernado Segura. The Mexican beat him to the line and Korzeniowski was disappointed to finish second, only to be told moments later that Segura had been disqualified by the judges and that he, Korzeniowski, was the champion. In the 50km, he won comfortably, becoming the first and only athlete to win both events.
Korzeniowski proceeded to break the world record for 50km and win again in 2004, to make it four Olympic golds as well as three World Championship titles. He was a national celebrity in Poland, becoming head of TV sport. I also learnt recently from a Polish client that he was once a part-time PE teacher. Whenever he appeared at school, the pupils knew their normal football game would have to make way for a masterclass in race walking. Robert Korzeniowski was truly a master and is undoubtedly the greatest and most dominant race walker of all time.

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