lunes, 31 de octubre de 2011

Guatemala emerges from Pan American Games as the new Powerhouse in Race Walking

Erick Barrondo leads  Luis Fernando López and James Rendón at the XVI Pan American Games
                  Photo: EFE 
           The XVI Pan American Games were scheduled too late in the Athletic year and as consequence many of the most prominent stars in the continent were absent for the contest or far from their best shape. It especially stands for the two American track and field powerhouses, the United States and Jamaica. Anyway, these two countries athletes have been deserting massively the last editions of the Pan Am Games.  Yet, if this negative trend continues, one day it will even sound strange the likes of Don Quarrie or Carl Lewis figure in the list of past winners of the event. Notwithstanding, other nations like Cuba or Brazil keep allowing the Games the importance they deserve as the largest multi-sport manifestation in the world after the Olympic Games. Accordingly they were leading the medal ranking.  Also, The Pan Americans are an opportunity to shine for many athletes, who are rarely given the chance of competing at World Champs or Olympic level.
            Despite being held in late October and with so many of the most known area stars already in vacation, the recently finished Pan American Games have been a brilliant contest, with spectacular finals and excellent results, especially in sprints and jumps, helped by the altitude of the Mexican host city of Guadalajara. We could also watch many rising athletes making their first exploits in an international senior competition and plenty of surprises.  Maybe the most extraordinary feat, in the last category, was the awesome performance of the Guatemalan team of race walking, who won two of the three contested events and struck no less than four of the nine medals at stake.

          Being the organisers of the outing, Mexico was expected to dominate the "caminata", which has been the nation specialty ever since the great Jerzy Hausleber was recruited to help win medals at the hosted 1968 Olympic Games. However, the maestro is getting old and Mexico has failed in producing a valid relay in race walking coaching. These days national race walkers are not anymore training together as a team but every athlete works his own method with modest results, not wanting to share experiences with the other walkers in the country, now see as rivals. Daniel Bautista, Raúl González, Ernesto Canto or Carlos Mercenario achievements seem too far away in time. Mexico has not won an Olympic medal since 2000 and the sole isolated success in ten unfortunate years at World Championship level has been the bronze collected by Eder Sánchez in Berlin-2009. 
        This athlete is the only one in the country performing regularly under 1:22 at the 20 km event in the last couple of seasons, while Horacio Nava is the exclusive consistent 50 km specialist under 3:50. Yet even these two foremost race walkers in the nation have not often lived to the expectations when it mattered. Mexico has been the host country recently for the World Cup in Race Walking and the Pan American Games and these occasions have served mainly to show to their own public their current lacks. Eder Sánchez finished both races in a disappointing sixth place. On the other hand, Horacio Nava, who was competing not only in his own country but also in his own hometown of Chihuahua for last year’s World Cup, had to live the experience of being overcome by Slovak Matej Toth in the last stages of the race when he seemed the sure winner. This time around in Guadalajara, Nava did not want to fail again. He changed strategy and bade his moment in the shadow of early leaders Guatemalan Anibal Paau and Daniel Jaime Quiyuch, and Andrés Chocho from Ecuador, to unleash his decisive attack with just 10 kilometres to go and thus accomplish at last his first major victory, in 3:48:58, ahead of compatriot José Leyver Ojeda and Quiyuch (1) The last time Mexico had achieved a 1-2 at the 50 Km walk in the games was at  the 1999 edition, where Joel Sánchez and Carlos Mercenario got the double. This triumph, which saved the honour of the country, after two previous races where Guatemalan athletes beat them easily, will be a boost of confidence for the Chihuahua walker for the upcoming Olympic Games, where a medal is again the target.  Mexico still waits for a reaction in his favourite specialty in London and expectations are also held in hopefuls Ever Palma, and Yanelli Caballero in the women's field, for further championships.   

50 Km Race Walk podium in Guadalajara. From L to R: José Leyver Ojeda, Horacio Nava and Daniel Quiyuch
Photo: Federación Mexicana de Atletismo
      After all these years struggling, Mexico has lost its prominent place among the race walking powerhouses in the world and at the same time it is not anymore the overwhelming dominator in the Americas. Other nations have progressed quickly in the continent and are increasingly closing the gap.  There have always been some excellent Latino race walkers outside of Mexico: Olympic gold medallist in Atlanta and triple world champion Jefferson Pérez was born in Ecuador and Julio René Martínez, who was for three years the 20 km event record holder, belonged to Guatemala.  Yet there were isolated cases.  Now more and more race walkers in the continent are growing to world class athletes. As a prove of the current depth, no less than five male race walkers covered the 20 km distance below 1:21:15 at last South American championships, held on the track, and four of their female counterparts dipped under 1:33:20.  
Especially Colombia has become a force, with Luis Fernando López, the bronze medallist in Daegu and one of the most consistent walkers of the moment, but also with Gustavo Restrepo and James Rendón; outstanding young girls as South American champion Ingrid Hernández and Annabel Orjuela; and upcoming athletes as good as Eider Arévalo, the winner of the junior World Cup in Chihuahua. In Ecuador, Daegu’s 50 km finalist Andrés Chocho, Rolando Saquipay and Yadira Guamán try to be good heirs of the great Jefferson Pérez. Brazil counts with Caio Bonfim, another teen sensation, and not to be forgotten is the more veteran Moacir Zimmermann. Chile has the Araya brothers; Venezuela Milángela Rosales. The last to come to stardom have been the Guatemalan walkers but they have done it in the greatest fashion.

Rigoberto Medina and trainee Cristina López in 2005
Photo: Nubia Guido
       Cuban Coach Rigoberto Medina owns much of the merit in this meteoric rising of Erick Barrondo or Jamy Franco. (2) “Maca”, as he is popularly known, was previously working for more than four years in El Salvador, where he spotted Cristina López, a young girl who was following the typical tough ways of the poor people of her country, including illegal immigration into the USA and, back home, a 10 hours job as maquiladora, finding time in her busy days for athletic training and for raising her three years old sick daughter. (3) Medina transformed this rough diamond in a Central American champion in 2005 and also a Pan American two years afterwards, putting a halt to two decades of Mexican domination in the contest.  Besides, López won the IAAF challenge meeting of La Coruña in 1:30:08, the second best mark ever by a female American walker.
However, as Medina recognised, he made her race too much (10 times in 2007) and Cristina started having sciatic nerve recurring troubles. She could not qualify for Beijing Olympics and got pregnant again. (4) Meanwhile, Rigoberto Medina was sacked because of some arguments with the Salvadorian Athletic Federation and a few athletes. He swapped country with Mexican coach José Alvarado, sailing to Guatemala, where he has achieved huge success in just one year with his new pupils. Medina’s promising group of athletes in El Salvador has come to almost nothing, with only Emerson Hernández competing at last Pan Ams and Cristina López's Olympic dream is long forgotten. For sure "Maka"'s work and dedication are really missed.
Guatemala has found with Rigoberto Medina the team spirit Mexico had lost long time ago. Firstly they are a God devoted family. Before their workouts and competitions they always pray together and never forget to give thanks to Him after a victory.  “Maka” is like a second father for his Chapin kids and felt disappointed when some people discouraged him about training Guatemalan athletes because they were not supposedly able of working hard.  In fact, race walking in the country was neglected at the time. As an example, Jamy Franco, who had been a Pan American junior champion at age 14 in 2005, had almost withdrawn from sport three years later, because she did not get on well with coach Alvarado and his training methods. Medina rescued her and also helped become Mirna Ortiz, Daniel Jaime Quiyuch, Anibal Paau, Erick Barrondo and other youngsters the excellent athletes they are now.  Barrondo was a former 5000 runner but due to an injury he was advised to practice race walking. (5) Despite the trainee inexperience, in only one year he came from nothing to Pan American champion. After his breakthrough victory, the athlete explained the key of success his own way: “In Guatemala there is talent. We only needed a true coach with capacity to carry the work and polish up the rough diamonds”. (6)    

      The Guatemalan new generation of race walking first came to prominence in the early season, when Jamy won both the Central American Cup and Pan American Cup, and Erick finished runner-up in the second of the outings, held in Envigado, after local athlete Luis Fernando López. Then, the managers thought it would be good for the athletes to acquire experience facing some of the world bests so the team was headed to Europe, where they competed at the international meetings of Dudince, Sesto San Giovanni and Dublin. In spite of her young age, Jamy Franco did not feel intimidated by the likes of World medallists Hong Liu and Olive Loughnane, whom she challenged in Dublin until the last stages of the race to finish third in a new national record (1.32:48); while Erick Barrondo, equally outstanding, achieved a huge personal best (1:20:58) to cross the line fourth in the same meeting, after Wang Zhen, Sbaï and Rubino but beating for the first time Wang Hao and Luis López. 
The same brave attitude, free from inhibition and not fearing anybody, was adopted by the Chapines at the two most important events of the season: the World championships and the Pan American games. Jamy and Erick where largely seen leading their respective races in Daegu, along with Russian and Chinese stars. Eventually, the girl from Santa Rosa would finish 19th, as the best American in the race, and her male compatriot 10th. Not bad for these twenty year-old absolute beginners.
In Guadalajara, to the Guatemalan team were added 50 km specialists Daniel Quiyuch and Aníbal Paau, and Mirna Ortiz, who had failed to qualify for Daegu, but two weeks afterwards had booked her ticket for London at the Polish champs in great fashion, after improving Jamy’s recent national record by 18 seconds. Guatemala, had only won one gold medal in the whole history of the Pan Americans in track and field and it happened as far as 1955 when Doroteo Flores achieved it at the marathon. Now in the inaugural day of the sport they struck two gold medals and a silver in the same specialty. Only once the same country had triumphed previously in both 20 km race walking events: Mexico in Winnipeg in the year 1999, thanks to Graciela Mendoza and Bernardo Segura, with the addition then of Joel Sánchez, gold at the 50 km.  Jamy Amarilis Franco and Mirna Sucely Ortiz pace was too much to handle since the very beginning for Colombians and Mexicans so they went on their own since early in the race. Jamy proved to be the strongest of the duo and left her compatriot mid-race to fly to a new PB (1:32:38), improving Graciela Mendoza’s championship record by nearly two minutes. Mirna could hold Ingrid Hernández, to get the double. Erick Barrondo’s victory was much more difficult but eventually he did not show any trouble in getting rid of the Colombian pair of James Rendón (silver) and Luis Fernando López (bronze), increasing plainly his rhythm in the last 5 kilometres. The penultimate day Daniel Jaime Quiyuch, culminate the groundbreaking Guatemalan performance in the Games by  adding the fourth medal in race walking for the country, getting also the goal of qualifying for London Olympics.
The Guatemalan race walkers has not ceased of raising the audience eyebrows during the whole season but, now that the athletic year comes to an end, it can be risen the question of how far can they improve in the future. Rigoberto Medina should be wise enough to not to demand this time around too much to his young trainees for the upcoming challenges but to build them up with patience for Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, which might be their time. Anyway, the athletes themselves expect to give a great impression as soon as the next major competition, the World Cup, held next year in Saransk, the Mecca of race walking. The girls expect even to fight for the team championship and get to qualify Mayra Pérez for London and thus go to the Games with a full trio. So far only two women had represented the country in the Olympics at the race walking event: Teresita Collado in Sidney 2000 and Jamy Franco’s mother Evelyn Núñez in Beijing 2008.
Evelyn, already retired, has been Jamy’s inspiration in sport ever since she was a child and in case she can win a medal in London she will be glad of dedicating to her the achievement as she did in the Pan Americans. (7) Evelyn Núñez was in contention for the silver at the previous edition in Rio, but she was eventually disqualified, so the daughter won the title she could not. Mum had promised Jamy, when she started in race walking, a two-ball ice cream in case she could win at the Pan American Games. The new heroine of race walking can remember it and she will go claim her prize because she is grateful to her mother and still young enough.  



viernes, 26 de agosto de 2011

Sandro Damilano versus Viktor Chegin

Valeriy Borchin leads Hao Wang in Berlin World Championships
Photo. Andy Lyons/ Getty Images Europe
        You do not usually see that kind of thing in sport. Two man an a woman coming not just from the same nation, but from the same town, same sports centre and trained by the same coach, Viktor Chegin, won all possible gold medals in an athletic discipline at last World Championships in Berlin. Indeed all the main players in this eloquent victory 3-0 against the rest of the world are used to the highest place of the podium. Valeriy Borchin is the current Olympic champion, Olga Kaniskina has won every major title since 2007 and finally Sergey Kirdyapkin had had some disappointing years but was author of another outstanding triumph in the 50 kilometre race walk event at Worlds, back in 2005. (1) Russia had always been a powerhouse in the event but never in such overwhelming fashion. Especially it stands for the women: At last European Championships in Barcelona, Kaniskina led her compatriots Anisya Kirdyapkina and Vera Sokolova, to a more than remarkable clean sweep of the medals at last European championships.  But what are the reasons of such extraordinary success? Is it likely to happen again at next Worlds in Daegu?
           There are two towns in Russia, which own a high performance centre, oriented to race walking: one is Cheboksary in the republic of Chuvashia.  The other is Saransk, the capital of Mordovia.  Chegin, who every champion cited above credit as the key for his progression, comes from the last one. Once he retired from competition, the future guru of the discipline devoted himself to coaching. It did not pass too much time Viktor got his first world champion: teen Irina Stankina, who crowned herself in Goteborg, back in 1995. (2) The Mordovia government felt proud of this achievement and decided to invest in building the best performance centre in the world in their hometown of Saransk, naming Chegin head coach, with the mission of producing a dozen more Stankinas. This was the beginning of the rise of race walking in Mordovia. Currently, the annual budget is around 2 million dollars. The centre, set in an ideal environment, surrounded by a forest, dispose of the most complete equipment: weight room, sauna, swimming pool, massage room, hostel, cafeteria and restaurant.  A whole team of expert doctors, physiotherapist and coaches is engaged in granting the work reach the standards of perfection.
            At the same time, Nikolai Merkushkin, the head of the Republic of Mordovia has bestowed special interest in promoting culture and mass practice of sport in his jurisdiction, with two succesive official programs of development (3) Many sport facilities have been built (2425 by 2006), with special emphasis in the rural areas (1643 of them), so even in the most remote places of the region it is possible to access high quality sport. As a result about 20% of the population is now involved in sport, while in the rest of Russia the average is just 9%.  Boxers, tennis players, gymnasts, wrestlers, athletes, have been bound from here to Olympic glory as Alexey Mishin or Yuriy Borzakovskiy. Yet race walking stands as the most popular sport in Mordovia and their stars are highly admired by the population and recognized by the authorities. Olga Kaniskina for example has been offered an apartment and two cars for her triumphs. (4) Athletes are awarded the highest honors and Viktor Chegin, as the main responsible of success, had been named Cavalier of the order of Glory of Mordovian Republic and a statue is going to be erected to his living memory. Race walking is taught in every school and there are affiliates of the Saransk Olympic centre in every district, where talents are spotted and invited for a stage with Chegin and his assistants. Around 50 people from 12 to 35 year old gather in the hostel, living, studying and training, trying to prove their abilities. The best among them will be engaged.  
          Saransk walking school little by little increased its relevance in and out of the country.  Four years after Stankina, German Skurygin won again the World championship in Sevilla but was later disqualified because of doping.  It was the first of a serie of similar scandals, which would follow in successive years, always in the men´s side: Borchin, Voyevodin, Burayev, Morozov, Kanaykin… all had been caught in drugs and this is something which tarnish somewhat the awesome success of Mordovian walkers.  Another Saransk-born, Roman Rasskazov, was the first man in obtaining a valid victory in the contest for Chegin's team, heading a Russian swept of the 20 km walk medals at the 2001 edition in Edmonton. Also Aleksey Voyevodin would win the World Cup in 2002 and 2004 at the long 50 km discipline and Dennis Nizhegorodov would follow up with another two successive victories.  These two athletes won the firsts Olympic medals, among Chegin apprentices, at Athens 2004. The great Korzeniowski said goodbye in style and behind him Nizhegorodov won the silver, fainting after crossing the finish line, and Voyevodin the bronze. (5) Notwithstanding, by then still Chuvashian athletes like Yelena Nikolaieva or Olimpiada Ivanova were dominant among Russian walkers, and Korzeniowski, Jefferson Pérez, Paquillo Fernández or the Mexicans were often too much to handle for the upcoming Mordovians. Four years afterwards in Beijing the hard work and commitment of many people for two decades had reaped the fruits: Borchin and Kaniskina destroyed the field and became the first Saransk performance walking centre members on the top of an Olympic podium.  Interestingly, the precedent season, for Osaka Worlds, there were already seven Mordovian representatives among 11 Russian walkers. This year for Daegu the full team belongs to Saransk

Anisya Kirdyapkina, Olga Kaniskina and Vera Sokolova celebrate their medals at the European Champs
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Europe 
             Saransk school is now performing at its very best and their standards seem unattainable for the rest of the countries. However another classic powerhouse in race walking, China, has found a way out of a big crisis of results during a whole decade. After a promising couple of seasons, they have reasons to feel optimistic and feel ready to challenge the fancied Russian stars.
            The Asian nation can be proud of remarkable performances in major championships ever since they joined the athletic family in the eighties. It is true especially among the women.  China was a new country in track and field and they needed to close the gap between them and other well established powerhouses in the sport. However, race walking was a newly introduced discipline in the female category and everybody else had recently started from zero too.  Cleverly, Eastern Asian efforts were focused in these new events which offered the best chances and as a result they  topped the third World Cup, held in Bergen in 1983, with Xu Yongjiu.
            By the next edition they were already the best team in the world.  Junior Hong Yan was the winner ahead of Guan Ping. That athlete was at the time the precocious world record holder of that young 10 km event, where outstanding teens abounded. Indeed the first European championship gold medallist was sixteen-year-old Spaniard Mari Cruz Díaz.  Both Yan and Ping were representing China the first time the World Championships in athletics held a female walking race, in 1987 in Rome. Ping was famously disqualified, when she sprinted entering the stadium to win the race and Yan Hong was only bronze, but they paved the way for all the new generations to come.  Wang Yan, Gao Hongmiao, Liu Hongyu and also two men, Li Zewen and Zhao Yongsheng, would win again the World Cup title for China in the nineties. Besides, the first time the World championships were held at the 20 km distance, in 1999 in Sevilla, Liu Hongyu and Wang Yan would achieve an historic 1-2 for their country. Chinese women have also won two Olympic Games: Chen Yueling struck gold and her compatriot Li Chunxiu bronze in the female walkers debut at the Olympics in Barcelona 92, and Wang Liping would obtain the second title at the controversial race of the 2000 edition of the Games in Sidney.  Since then a long drought. Almost a decade with no significative triumph.  

Zhen Wang edges Chu Yafei at the 2011 Memorial Albisetti
Photo: Diego Sampaolo
          Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean lack of talent.  2005 was an illustrative year to understand what was going on.  Chinese walkers were massively represented in the yearly lists: no less than 22 men reached the top-50 in the 20 km event and 21 the 50 km.  Equally 21 women achieved this feat. Among them, 8 men dipped under 1:19 at the shorter distance and 9 under 3:45 at the longer, headed for the still existing Area records of Hongjun Zhu (1:17:41) and Chaohong Yu (3:36:06); while 10 women walked the 20 km event under 1:29. It stands clearly as the best year ever in male category and for the female’s, only can be compared with the 2001 season. And what this gifted generation did at Helsinki World Championships? A fifth position by 50 km specialist Zhao Chenglian and a best placement of ninth in the other two races. Things improved plainly at the World Cup, held in La Coruña the following year: Yuchen Han won the bronze at the 20 km and He Dan, junior Liu Hong and Zhao again were among the eight best. However, every member of the team failed badly at Osaka Worlds, where the main achievement was a poor 7th place by Chao Sun at the 50 km.
Now the legend was Chinese walkers were unable to replicate their awesome performances at home in international competitions held abroad. But, as we said, in the two precedent decades it was not really like this. If you look for the individual athletes during those weak years, you can discover many cases of highly inconsistency and incapacity to maintain a long term career. Wrong management brought to general failure and many burn-out cases.  Zhu Hongjun finished sixth at Athens Olympic Games at 21 and then went on to a sensational timing of 1:17 the following season, but by 2006 he had already dropped to 1:23.  Han Yucheng clocked 1:18:31 and 3:36:20 in 2005 and had an astounding following year winning the Asian Games and medalling at the World Cup but it was the only one: he finished 40th at Athens Olympic Games, dropped in Helsinki, placed 29th in Osaka and 22d the same year at Cheboksary World Cup.  Zhao Chenglian followed up his 2005 and 2006 excellent seasons with a DQ in Osaka and a 21st place in Beijing and has been unable to conclude a race in the last two years.  Li Gaobo, who as young as 15 years old had walked to an incredible Area Junior record and World Youth best of 1:18:07, back in 2005, obtained a so-so 13th position in Osaka and had been annoyed by recurring injuries, which sidelined him for the Olympic Games and Berlin World championships. Now he is trying to make a comeback in the 50 km distance but did not qualify for Daegu.
Among the girls, He Dang clocked 2:28 in 2005 and 2006, winning the Asian Championships and finishing a creditable 4th at La Coruña World Cup, but since then has not done better than 2:31 and has not gain any other selection for the national team.  Jiang Jing started her career with a bronze medal at the 2004 World Cup, still being a junior. In following years she won almost every outing she competed in at home but performed disappointingly in every major international contest. Now still 25 she has dropped her standards to 1:39 in 2010 and 1:49 this year. On the other hand Jiang Qiuyan, who won two consecutive editions of the Universiade, had not many opportunities in the national team and anyway retired after Beijing Olympics.  
Because of the weak performance in Osaka, China’s officials dropped some of the established stars and included some new names in the roster for the Olympic Games, where they were going to be the host country.  Unheralded youngsters Chu Yafei and Wang Hao (born in 1988 and 89 respectively), were selected for the male team and Yang Mingxia (born in 1990), joined 2006 World Junior champion Liu Hong for the female’s. This risky decision paid off: the general team impression was quite better than in previous major contests and Wang Hao and Liu Hong achieved remarkable fourth places. The following year these athletes improved further. Wang won the silver in Berlin, challenging Olympic champion Borchin and Liu grabbed the bronze in another excellent performance. For the 2010 World Cup, Chinese walkers were even more impressive. Some of the Russian stars were absent in Chihuahua but it does not detract in any way their awesome collective demonstration. In a truly challenging contest, held in high altitude and under extreme heat, China won three out of five team titles (both senior medal races and 10 km junior women) and climbed also to the podium in the other two.  Individually, Wang Hao and Chu Yafei achieved an impressive 1-2 at the 20 km event.  Then it was revealed behind that quality improvement in Berlin and Chihuahua were stages at Saluzzo training centre, where they had had the opportunity to work with Sandro Damilano. The legendary Italian Coach was offered a contract to take charge of Chinese walkers which he eventually accepted.

Giorgio Rubino and Elisa Rigaudo, current Sandro Damilano's trainees
Sandro Damilano(6) has been a coach in race walking for nearly 40 years, ever since he started training younger twin Brothers Giorgio and Maurizio, who went on to win the 1980 Olympic Games title at the 20 km distance, in Moscow.  Maurizio had one of the most successful careers in the long history of Italian victories in the speciality, also winning two successive World titles, at home turf in Rome in 1987 and Tokyo in 1991.  His brother Sandro, besides being a coach for the family, had a fruitful collaboration with the Italian Athletics Federation (FIDAL) since 1981 until December of last year, when they decided to split up, following Damilano’s engagement with the Chinese federation.  During this period he was Italian race walking head coach between 1990 and 2000.  Even Chegin falls short of Sandro’s impressive curriculum:  Elisa Rigaudo won at last World Cup in Olhao the 50th historic major medal, among walkers trained by Damilano, all over four decades. Throughout his career he has been the personal coach of an outstanding list of sensational athletes, as his brothers, Arturo di Mezza, Lorenzo Civallero, Erica Alfridi, Elisabetta Perrone, Rossella Giordano and more recently Elisa Rigaudo, Giorgio Rubino and Alex Schwazer.  With the latter he obtained his second Olympic gold, this time at the longer distance, in Beijing. Precisely, the problematic relationship with his pupil Schwazer after the Olympic year, and his breaking up with him was one of the main reasons for him to accept the Chinese offer. Despite his awesome trajectory, Damilano had also known such sort of disappointments, being perhaps the most remembered when her trainee Elisabetta Perrone was disqualified at Sidney Olympics, when she was to win the gold medal.   
  Maurizio and Sandro Damilano contributed significantly to the creation of the Race Walking Training Centre of Saluzzo in 2001, close to their hometown of Scarnafigi in the Piedmont Region, in order to continue with the rich Italian walking tradition, giving an opportunity of guidance and training to the country new hopes.(7) The centre is set in an historic building, with single and double rooms, which provide accommodation for up to 12 people, and is flawlessly equipped with the necessary facilities, specially a stunning gym. The environment is perfect for walking practise, with numerous roads for training and nearby mountains.  Saluzzo’s centre is also thought to help improve the discipline, with the discussion of new methods, by sharing common experiences in frequent Congress and meetings held for this purpose. Maurizio, the director of the walking centre, organise all these technical issues in Saluzzo, while his brother Sandro carries out the coaching.
            An important difference between Saransk and Saluzzo is the Mordovian High Performance Centre is exclusively oriented to local athletes, while the Piedmont one is also open to foreign guests.  Both 2007 World champions Jefferson Pérez and Nathan Deakes prepared in Saluzzo for their race in Osaka, and this year, besides the Chinese team, Japanese and Irish walkers as Colin Griffin have disposed of the centre facilities and Sandro Damilano’s guidance. The master of coaches also points out how positive can be for national athletes this exchange among different walking schools. He believes current Italian athletes will benefit of the arrival of Chinese athletes in the same way his brother Maurizio used to do in his long stages in Mexico, in contact with local walkers. Giorgio Rubino corroborates this statement, saying his training alongside the strong Chinese team in Saluzzo was decisive for his brilliant performances in 2009. (8)  China was also recognisant with Sandro Damilano’s efficient work with his athletes and tried to stamp in an official contract, what started as a spontaneous approach. Besides, despite leading the medal ranking in their host Games, the Asian powerhouse realised no track and field golden, silver or bronze had been obtained. Having London Olympics as ultimate goal, the Chinese federations offered Damilano to go to stay in Asia to become head coach of the national team of race walking, but Sandro was also attached to his Italian pupils and the centre of Saluzzo. In the end, the Italian veteran chose something in the middle. 
    Attired by the big economical incentives and looking for new challenges he agreed to participate in the Chinese project but at the same time he wanted to keep living in the North of Italy. Accordingly, he took just six athletes, who would be trained personally by him in long stages in Saluzzo.  On the other hand, in spite of resigning with the FIDAL, he would keep Giorgio Rubino, Elisa Rigaudo and hopeful Federico Tontodonati with him, to be coached alongside the six Asian athletes. He also committed to travel to China to be with athletes and officials in key moments of the athletic season. (9) The chosen ones were mainly some young athletes, which because not totally formed are able of further improvement. Yet it happens the current best athletes in the country are quite young so the decision was easy. Berlin medallists Wang Hao and Liu Hong were picked and so was Si Tianfeng, fourth at Chihuahua World Cup, the only veteran in the group. World junior medallists Li Yanfei (2008) and Cai Zelin (2010) joined them. Finally, the most surprising pick was Wang Zhen, who was not considered in his home country much more than average but Damilano has a smart eye to spot talent and his new protégée improved so much in his first year with him, he produced a major upset beating the field at the 2010 IAAF walking challenge final, in a new world junior record clocking. On paper only six athletes have been named but the matter of the fact is a lot more have travelled to Saluzzo in the last three seasons to take advantage of Damilano lessons: Mingxia Yang, Li Li, Gao Ni or Tong Lingling, among the girls; and Chu Yafei, Xu Faguang, Yu Wei, Chen Ding or Li Tianlei, among the boys. 

Stanislav Emelyanov, the ultimate Viktor Chegin's discovery
Photo: Getty images
In Damilano opinion, Chinese athletes are excellent physically but usually lack a fine technique. This is a strong point of the Scarnafigi native and everyone of his adopted Eastern team acknowledge it is the huge improvement with Damilano in this aspect which have propelled him to his excellent results. This is also a speciality of Viktor Chegin, who is believed to be able of giving advice and correcting the technique, without even need to look at the runner as he trains (10) Amazingly, Chegin had also been contacted by the Chinese team several times but rejected the offers.  He remembers that humoristically, saying something like “no good deeds go unpunished” (11)   
Chinese athlete performances this year have been more than remarkable so far.  Wang Zhen leads the season lists with 1:18:30 and has won impressively every one of his outings at the 20 km distance, followed by Chu Yafei and revelation of the year Ding Chen. Si Tianfeng is also ranked in first position in the longer distance this year, after his stunning 3.38:48 at Taicang IAAF challenge meeting. Eventually, Asian Games double champion Liu Hong has equalled her 1:27:17 PB and has proved one of the most solid athletes in the circuit, winning in Lugano, Taicang and Dublin. An atmosphere of euphoria is perceptible now among Chinese audience and press but, wisely, Damilano remembers it is not important to improve their timings but maintaining consistency, something we have seen was not able to do the precedent generation.  For this it is necessary to work also at psychological level. (12)  
        Russian and Chinese walkers have not really faced each other since Berlin World Championship and it is hard to say if the Damilano trainees have reached a quality level enough to beat Chegin’s astounding squad.  Zhen and Chu have been unbeatable this year and they will be joined in Daegu by 2009 world silver medallist Wang Hao, injured during the season but recovered in time for the Worlds.  However, Olympic champion Borchin and new kid in town Stanislav Emelyanov are in the race and also are the returned Kanaykin and Morozov. Borchin has not shown any sign of weakness ever since he became Olympic champion and Emelyanov has had a gigantic progression in the last seasons. (13). He has won all possible titles in age categories (World Youth, World Junior and European Junior) and in his 2010 senior debut continued the same way, beating the field at Winter and Summer Russian championships and then at the overall European contest.  This year has obtained a new Area title at Olhao European Cup and has lost only to Borchin.
The 50 km event is not an exclusive Saransk-Saluzzo duel like the 20 km and it can be anybody’s race.  Diniz, Toth, García Bragado, Nymark, Nava, everyone in Polish and Australian teams, all can be in the mix for the victory. Also should be Si Tianfeng, after his stunning clocking in Taicang and world record holder and double Olympic medallist Dennis Nizhegorodov.  Kirdyapkin is an irregular performer but if he has his day should be a fearsome opponent too. Xu Faguang and Li Jianbo in the Chinese side and Bakulin and Yerokhin in the Russian’s are all of them solid runners but do not seem contenders for the gold medal.
Olga Kaniskina remains unchallenged in the 20 km event since 2007 and targets a record third World Championship victory. She has been beaten only once at the distance in the last four seasons, when she finished fourth in unknown circumstances at the Russian winter last year, in a race won by Anisya Kirdyapkina. Yet she bounced back in the summer, with an out-of-sight display of power, for Barcelona Europeans, when Russia won all three medals.  Kirdyapkina and Vera Sokolova have won in consistency but do not seem match enough for Olga.  Sokolova says she can not even follow her in training and judging by Kaniskina's two showings this season at Rio Maior and Sesto San Giovanni she seems as unbreakable as ever.
Chuvashia-born Sokolova is the one with the biggest progression of the trio. (14) An outstanding runner as a teen, Vera was left on her own as her main coach was engaged for other duties.  Then she lived some difficult years and even stopped training.  Former world and Olympic champion Elena Nikolaieva asked Viktor Chegin as personal favour to take her and it was the first time a race walker came from Chuvashia powerhouse to Saransk. From then on she started to recover her lost fitness and this year she is in impeccable form.  She improved the official world record (Olympiada Ivanova and Kaniskina have better no-homologated marks) and won the European Cup in Olhao.  In Daegu we will see how close she is now to Kaniskina.  Not to be discounted is the fourth member of the team, former world junior champion and winner this year at the European U-23, Tatyana Mineyeva, and for the future, be ready for the arrival of newly minted World junior record holder Yelena Lashmanova. Liu Hong seems the only one who has the capacity to beat the awesome Russians but if she did it would really be a major upset.  Surprisingly, Li Yanfei, fifth last year at the World Cup and runner-up at the Asiad has not been selected. I personally ignore whether she is injured. The other two places in the team will be filled by young hope Gao Ni and Shenjie Qieyang, who has clocked 1:28:04, but whose two other races of the year were really far from it.  Also Spain and Portugal will come with strong squads. The latter nation will line up Susana Feitor, who is going to the Worlds for the 11th time, a record of appearances in the championships in any event.
In the deep of his heart, Sandro Damilano would like Giorgio Rubino and Elisa Rigaudo to win. Rubino was brought by his former coach Patrizio Parcesepe to the fifth place in Osaka World Championships but was plagued by injuries in the Olympic year.  In 2009 he moved to Saluzzo with Damilano, who relaunched his career, giving him his confidence back, an improved technique and now he is working with him in the gym to make him acquire a superior strength to not fade anymore in the last stages of the races. After winning the 2009 European Cup in an extraordinary Italian clean sweep of the medals, he narrowly missed the bronze in Berlin. Maybe this time he is going to be luckier.  Elisa Rigaudo left orphan national female race walking when she took her maternity leave in 2010.  No Italian women finished the race at Barcelona Championships, something unbelievable for a country who had counted with the likes of Ileana Salvador, Elisabetta Perrone, Erica Alfridi or World and European champion Annarita Sidoti.  Antonella Palmisano, the junior race winner at Chihuahua’s World Cup is coming strong but, for the moment, Rigaudo would like to add a World Championship medal to the bronze she won in Beijing.                           

Hong Liu expects to challenge the best at the upcoming Daegu World Championships