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.  



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