Maria Vasco - Women 20km Winner in Metz (Paul Warburton) © Copyright
The 34-year-old resident in Santa Margarida de Montbui, founded her own club in 2006 named as the town, but when sponsors backed out she renamed it, with all due immodesty, as Club María Vasco.
In terms of the record books, she is unique in Spain for being her country’s first, and so far only, female Olympic medallist in athletics, having won bronze in the 20km walk at the Sydney 2000 Games.
“Our country wants more success, but being the first to win a medal fills me with pride and is something historic”, said Vasco, from her training camp in Zaragoza.
Spain consistent challengers
Among likely challengers to Russia for the team classifications are Spain, whose walkers have provided a large portion of the nation’s athletics medals over the last 30 years.
Vasco prides herself in particular for her consistency, including six previous appearances World Cups since 1995.
“My best World Cup was 2004,” said Vasco. “In Naumburg I got third place in a Spanish record (1:27:36) in one of my best competitions. In 2008 I was fifth and got up on the podium with our team, which had never been achieved before.”
Describing the decade of success since Sydney as having plateaued would be a harsh way to put it. Honours include fifth placing in Edmonton 2001, fifth in the 2002 European Championships in Budapest, third in the 2003 European Cup, seventh in the 2004 Olympics, fourth in Helsinki 2005, third in the 2007 World Championships, and fifth in the 2008 Olympics. Last year, at last, she won an area title in the European Cup but failed to finish in Berlin.
The frustrations were evident at Helsinki after being pipped for a medal by Susana Feitor of Portugal.
“Knowing that you haven’t given everything of what you could have done, you have your low moments. On the other hand when things go right the rewards are worth it,” Vasco summed up.
Feitor’s consoling words at the time were, "You had your medal in Sydney, I have mine today and another day you will again."
That prediction came right in Osaka two years later.
Osaka revived a career
According to Vasco, Osaka revived her career. She’d considered quitting the sport in 2006 the year in which her father died, and she was affected by injury, but early in 2007 she was encouraged by fifth place in the European Cup.
“Throughout that time I was still inspired to be the best in the world someday,” Vasco said.
“I always train to make progress. But as human beings things don’t always work out as we’d like. If you don’t get 100 per cent out of a competition it doesn’t mean you have to give up. That’s something that we need to know to carry on.”
Her family and fellow athletes were part of the reason for starting in the first place and has helped her continue.
“When I was 10 years old I watched María Cruz Díaz win the walk at the 1985 European Championship. That had an impact me as she was my neighbour, so I told my father I wanted to do that and started walking with him.”
At 19 she participated in her first World Championships. The following year, after her first senior Spanish title, she attended the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, finishing 28th. At Sydney came the breakthrough, only being surpassed there by China's Wang Liping (Gold) and Norway's Kjersti Plätzer (Silver).
Vasco’s husband is the race walker in José Antonio González.
Facing up to Russian domination
Olga Kaniskina currently dominates the event having won the last two World championships, the 2008 Olympic title and at Cheboksary in 2008.
At Beijing she led from the start. Kjersti Plätzer, at 36 years old, repeated her silver medal, while Vasco finished fifth in 1:27:25 - a national record - after dropping two positions in the last kilometre.
Motivation for 2010
Vasco’s first outing was on 13 February in Granollers, finishing second behind María José Poves, but ahead of Ireland’s Olive Loughnane as well as Feitor.
“My pre-season has been long and I wasn’t prepared for 5km, yet the response was good despite some tibial pain.”
Painful shins are all too familiar for the race walker in heavy training.
Vasco’s main targets are the Spanish Championship on 7 March in Ibiza, the World Cup and the European Championships in Barcelona in July.
“Competing in my city will be very motivating. I get up every day thinking about a medal. It’s true Olga Kaniskina is the best today, but nobody’s invincible. To be fighting with her in a competition for the gold would be amazing.”
“I think I’m at my best time of maturity as an athlete and winning a medal would mean so much to me.”
Looking further ahead, “London 2012 will be the culmination of my career. My fifth Olympics - you can’t say what might happen and, who knows, I might make history again.”
“For Mexico, we’re all going to prepare thoroughly, as it will be very hard at altitude. I will try to lead the Spanish team into a good team position.”
Tim Watt for the IAAF