Two years ago, Olympic gold medallist Ivano Brugnetti of Italy alluded to the idea that Francisco Javier Fernandez didn’t have what it takes at the sharp end of a race.
The Spaniard didn’t need a sprint in La Coruña.
By the time Brugnetti crossed the line, Fernandez had already given his first interview after blazing a trail in the 22nd IAAF World Race Walking Cup. Ever since the Spaniard was adopted by Olympic great Robert Korzeniowski as his coach, Fernandez has repeatedly been told by his mentor, ‘he’s not only going to beat Brugnetti, but everyone else as well.’
The Italian finished a lowly 15th in the Spanish port, but once the initial charge had been stalled, there was only going to be one winner.
China’s Yucheng Han shot away from the gun like it startled him. The Chinese hurtled through the first kilometre in a time which would have brought him home inside 76 minutes!
Once he settled down a minute later Han was reeled in by double Commonwealth gold medallist Nathan Deakes and home favourite Fernandez. However, the trio were still comfortably inside a World record by the end of the first 2km.
When they reached 3km in 11:42, the pace had become a more manageable tilt at Jefferson Perez’s World record at the 2003 Paris World Championships.
As they moved into lap three Fernandez edged ahead of Deakes, who in turn had 10 metres on Han. Behind the frame places, a group of 12 ominously included Perez clearly biding his time.
Another circuit saw only Fernandez and Deakes interested in a sub 78-minutes time, and even then the Spaniard had eight seconds over the Aussie.
At 5k the team race was a much tighter affair with Russia ahead by 13 points, but a largely new Mexican trio six ahead of China.
By 10km Fernandez was still averaging 3:53 minutes for each super-fast kilometre, but the group behind Deakes was inching closer. Perez, had been joined by Tunisian champion Hatem Ghoula, Han, Colombian Luis Fernando Lopez – on a pace two minutes inside his PB - and two Russians.
A lap later and Deakes had been swallowed up and Ghoula – a veteran of four World Cups – was making a bid for silver with a 3:50 kilometre. The team race had also undergone a drastic change. China were a mere point ahead of Russia, and to excited cheers from supporters around the waterside course, Spain had moved into bronze medal position.
By 14km Fernandez had not only laid down the foundations for a popular win, he had cemented the cornerstone.
The chasing group of four had dropped Lopez and recovered Han, but were still 58 seconds down on the leader and losing ground. Spain had also moved up a step on the podium to silver.
A World record was beyond even Fernandez when he recorded the slowest kilometre of his race at 17k. 4:02 was still good enough to keep up an unassailable first, but the race for second was wide open with Perez and Han neck-and-neck.
“I am very happy with home crowd victory," Fernandez said. "It meant everything – I discussed this with Robert (Korzeniowski) and the idea was to start fast. The idea went to plan. I was in very good shape."
"“I was surprised Jefferson Perez didn’t make an effort to catch me after 10k," the Spaniard added, "and that gave me heart.”
The team competition was even more dynamic, with Spain taking the lead for the first time.
From nowhere Australia moved into second thanks to Deakes’ perseverance and good grouping from teammates Jared Tallent and Luke Adams who were in 14th and 18th position.
It wasn’t quite a case of throwing down the gauntlet, but when Perez through away his cap away going into the last kilometre, it meant much the same as he quickly opened up a five-metre gap on the Han to claim silver.
“Right now all I want to do is rest," said Perez. "I’m very disappointed. I have the utmost respect for Fernandez. At the moment he is the most prepared walker in the world, and the best coach. There was no excuse. I did all I could, but I was unable to push my body the way I normally do. My heart and my head didn’t give me what I had in the past. Today I saw the future Olympic champion. What happened today puts everything about my future back into question.”
The sprint of the day saw Ghoula summon up his last ounce of energy to pass a tiring Deakes in the final 50 metres for a season’s best time.
Fernandez collected two golds, but Spain’s team win was a mere four points over Australia. Second place was only decided on count-back with Russia also finishing on 37 points in closest team finish for 11 years.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF