It seems hard to imagine but at the last IAAF World Race Walking Cup two years ago in Naumburg, Germany, the Irish team placed higher in the men’s 20km team competition than the Mexicans. Irish race walking appeared to be progressing steadily but since Gillian O’Sullivan’s 8th placing in the women’s 20km at Naumburg no Irish walker has finished a major championship.
But, with Colin Griffin's victory at the Podebradska Chuze 20km, Podebrady, Czech Republic, on 8 April and the prospect of returns from injury and illness, Irish race walking is now showing signs that it may return to the success it previously enjoyed.
Costin back from car crash
The comeback of a member of the Irish Naumburg 20km team at La Coruña will be bring special cheer for Irish athletics and should inspire all in sport that the pain and disappointment of serious injury can be overcome.
The return to international competition of Jamie Costin is a testament to hard work, patience and unshakeable determination. It comes twenty months after the Irish 50km record holder - and the first Irishman to break four hours for the distance - was seriously injured in a road traffic accident just days before the start to the Athens Olympics.
"The accident happened in Port Heli, 160km from Athens, where Robert Korzeniowski and I were preparing for the Games. I was actually driving Robert’s hire car. After dropping him off, a truck collided with the car head-on. It happened just a minute later, 300m down the road" recounted the 28-year-old West Waterford walker, grateful that his friend and eventual four-time Olympic Champion wasn't injured too.
Jamie was incapacitated in a full body cast for three months and was recommended surgery that would have ended his athletic career.
"I wasn’t even able to sit for three months. I felt lucky to even move but I was determined to return. It was just a case of taking small steps along the way to recovery."
After returning this year at the Irish Indoor championships, in February Costin stormed through to finish second to Griffin at the Manx Grand Prix, on the Isle of Man, UK, in a World Cup qualifying time.
"Training’s been going grand - since the Isle of Man it’s been progressing nicely. I was training at altitude in Ifrane in Morocco for four weeks with Francisco Fernandez and the Spanish 50km walker Jorge Silva."
Costin spoke from Ireland where he’s working part time as a retail rep. for his sponsor Puma, before heading to Spala in Poland for final preparations for the World Cup. "I’m particularly grateful to Puma in taking a risk in supporting me, when it wasn't clear I could make it back. But I believe a tough time is now over. I’m delighted to be back and am looking forward to competing."
"From the start I had very intensive rehabilitation as my back was broken in two places - my L5 vertebrae literally exploded and my L1 vertebrae had a compression fracture. It was a slow process, bit by bit, from being able to stand up, then to use a zimmer frame, to being able to walk with crutches."
I took a chance
"I decided to go altitude training in March 2005, walking up to 50 to 60km a week, but was in a lot of pain so I was advised to take another six months off. Then I began working for the Irish Cycling Federation in Dublin. I still wasn’t able to exercise on my feet but cycled to get some fitness back."
At that point doctors recommended surgery to insert a titanium rod to join four vertebrae to stabilise Jamie's back, but this would have made his dream of returning to international race walking impossible. "I took a chance, did a lot of strengthening work and my back has now healed well."
"At that time I was really worried I would never return but I have worked hard with physios in Ireland and Poland - I started going to Spala 5 years ago after getting in contact with Robert Korzeniowski.”
Costin's 1:28:55 for 20km in February was achieved after just 10 weeks training but he is cautious about building up his hopes too quickly.
"In November 2003 I had a stress fracture and with 10 weeks training I got to 1:23:08 at the World Cup in Naumburg and 39:09 for 10km. But this year I know I won’t be able to match that rate of progress after more than a year out."
Back to a good group
"The Irish walkers had a fantastic 2002/2003 - with Rob Heffernan 8th in the Munich European Championships in 2002, Gillian O’Sullivan fourth at that meet, and second in the Paris World Championships, and Olive Loughnane 12th in Paris. But since Gillian’s 8th place in Naumburg none of us have finished a major!"
"But it’s great to see another generation of walkers coming through with Ann Loughnane progressing well and Colin Griffin win in Podebrady in an IAAF B standard a great breakthrough.” Griffin won ahead of a quality field in a personal best 1:24:18, overcoming some technique problems in recent events.
"Rob Hefferenan should be back soon after a hernia operation, Gillian has been ill but I hear is back training, and after Olive has her baby, we could be back where we were with a good group."
Spanish squad stronger than ever
That's for the future though, but, after being back among them in training, for La Coruña Costin points to the strength of the host team. “Having trained with Paquillo (Francisco Javier Fernandez), I think that the Spanish have their strongest team ever, especially for the men's 20km."
Costin knows it will take several more months of hard work to return to his best, but is “simply delighted” to be back among them.
Tim Watt for the IAAF