Naumburgyear history of the IAAF World Race Walking Cup two 10 kilometres races for Junior men and women respectively were included in the competition programme.
The officials’ decision to extend the race walking programme to the under-19 athletes proved to be an excellent chance for last year’s World Youth champion and pre-race favourite Vera Sokolova of Russia to confirm she represents the future of the discipline.
Indeed, the 16-year-old diminutive gold medallist of the 5000m walk in Sherbrooke, Canada, in 2003 was a superb winner of today’s event as she clocked 45:29 for an undisputed win. So easy was her win that she made the 10-kilometre race walk look like pure formality.
Hardly marked by the effort, Sokolova crossed the finish line almost one minute ahead of compatriot Anna Bragina (46.15) who secured not only and one-two double for Russia but also the Team gold medal for her country.
Nan Zhang of China was third with a time of 47.18 taking advantage of a late disqualification of Svetlana Vasilyeva whose third warning in the latter part of the last lap prevented a clean sweep of medals for Russia.
Already halfway through the first of four 2.5-kilometre laps, Sokolova was setting the pace and leading a group of five athletes: three Russians and two Chinese. The Russian trio of Sokolova, Bragina and Vasilyeva with the Chinese duo of Zhang and Xiaoyan Liu walked shoulder to shoulder through the first lap (11.18) and 15 minutes into the race.
Eventual bronze medal winner Zhang was the first of the leading group of red vests to fade and she quickly lost touch with Sokolova and company. Meanwhile, Bragina – who would go on to win silver – was clearly having problems keeping up with the pace as well and soon only Sokolova, Vasilyeva and Liu remained in the leading group.
18 minutes into the race Sokolova decided to toughen the pace even more and it was soon clear that no-one would be able to keep up with her. In an attempt to remain in contact, Liu’s technique faltered and she was showed her first warning.
At the halfway point which Sokolova reached in 22.20 being already securely in the lead, the battle for the remaining honours was still very intense as Liu in second and Vasilyeva in third were still walking shoulder to shoulder.
But none of these two athletes was to eventually step on the podium as Liu was the first one – 26 minutes into the race – to be presented with her third warning today and was thus disqualified from the race.
Going into the last lap, Sokolova was 40 seconds clear of Vasilyeva with a seemingly-recovered-from-pain Bragina another 12 seconds behind. A complete different expression on her face, Bragina caught up and distanced Vasilyeva 35 minutes into the race and was not to be denied of silver.
While Sokolova was lapping the last walkers, Vasilyeva was presented her third warning of the day leaving bronze to Zhang and Germany’s Maja Landmann made a superb second-half of the race improving from her 14th position at mid-race to an excellent fourth in 48.39.
Greece’s Despina Zapounidou was a surprising fifth in 49.00 with Agnieszka Dygacz of Poland sixth in 49.15 both athletes contributing to their respective country’s team medals (only two athletes scoring). Behind the dominant Russia (3 points), Poland was second with 16 points and Greece was third with 22 points.
After the race Sokolova said: “I am very happy to have won the World Cup after last year’s win in the World Youth Championships.”
“This was just a normal race for me like it always is. I didn’t really put any extra effort in today’s competition. I was confident I was going to win today so I decided to take the lead right from the start. I don’t think it was a huge risk, it was just my tactics. I knew I could win it and I just hoped I would be able to come out and win it.”
Sokolova was brought to track and field six years ago when her PE teacher at school suggested she tried the race walk. A very talented young girl, Sokolova has since improved year after year and now an 11th grade student she trains four hours a day (“two hours in the morning and then two hours in the afternoon”) six times a week for an average 20 kilometres per day.
“With this win, I have now secured my selection for the World Junior Championships in Grosseto. I want to go there and perform well in Italy.”
Grosseto won’t be Sokolova’s first appearance at a World Junior Championships as she was ninth in Kingston 2002 10,000m walk on the track.
“After I finish this school year I want to dedicate myself to race walking. I train with Yelena Nikolayeva who is my idol. We share the same coach. I know today I haven’t set a personal best but what mattered was to win the race.”