21 NOV 2012 Feature Madrid, Spain

López, Spain’s latest Race Walk ace

Miguel Angel Lopez at the 2010 IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Chihuahua (Getty Images)Miguel Angel Lopez at the 2010 IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Chihuahua (Getty Images) © Copyright

21 November 2012 – Madrid, Spain - Spain’s Miguel Ángel López made a major breakthrough in his promising athletics career last summer when he finished a creditable fifth in the 20Km Race Walk at the London Olympics. Looking back now on his performance, the 24-year-old believes it was a significant milestone in his still young career.

“That result marks a turning point in my career,” he said. “I worked really hard to manage that fifth place, there are a lot of training hours behind that success, it was really tough to get it.”

Three-year path from European U-23 gold to Olympic top-five

López has progressed steadily over his recent campaigns. After capturing the European U-23 title in Kaunas with a 1:22:23 time back in 2009, he made his debut at a major championships on the occasion of the European Championships in Barcelona the following year. That appearance didn’t go quite as well as López had hoped.

“I finished 14th there (1:24:28). I was looking forward to competing in front of my home crowd but it just was not my day and I even finished the race injured, having to undergo surgery one month later.”

That bitter memory turned into a reasonably decent performance at the Daegu World Championships in 2011. “I walked too conservatively in the early stages leaving so much to do for the second half and I finally was unable to go further than 17th in 1:23:41. Anyway, my level of fitness in Daegu was clearly worse than London’s, concludes the Spaniard.

Second half is strongest point

Taking a closer look to the London competition the Spanish rising star reflects, “I preferred to walk comfortably in the middle of the leading pack rather than staying at the forefront to save as much energy as possible thinking of the second half of the race -which used to be decisive - and move to the front if possible.”

Asked whether his conservative tactics might leave too much to do for the latter stages of the event López admits, “It’s true that the closer to the lead you walk, the closer the medal will be for you, but there are often disqualifications and athletes having fainting fits.”

One of those in London starred Russia’s reigning World champion Valery Borchin who, still in contention for a medal inside the closing kilometre, fell to the side fences. At first it looked as though he had lost consciousness. “Honestly, I didn’t realise during the race but when I watch those images on television they shocked me a lot,” said López, who succeeded Borchin as European U-23 champion in 2009 and shares a birthday (3 July) with the Beijing Olympic champion.

On a curious statistical note, the four walkers who beat the Spaniard at the Olympics, the Chinese trio of Chen Ding (gold), Wang Zhen (bronze) and Cai Zelin (fourth) plus Guatemala’s Erick Barrondo (silver) are at least three years younger than López, but that’s a circumstance which doesn’t seem to worry him. “OK, they are young and talented; therefore they have a lot of room for improvement, but I’m confident of being at their level in the coming years as you don’t reach your peak at this 20Km event until you are 27 or 28. I really think the most important thing is to keep on being competitive whatever your age is.”

Making a piece of history in London

No less than six athletes broke the 1:20 barrier to make London’s the highest-quality 20Km walk in Olympic history. In addition, a new Olympic record of 1:18:46 was set to better Polish legend Robert Korzeniowski’s previous mark.

“The world standard for the event has sharply risen over the last couple of years and those figures are the best example,” López said. “Globalisation has finally arrived in athletics and new countries – and new athletes as a result - have emerged in recent years to make success even harder. On a given day, there are a large group of walkers capable of winning gold. As for the London competition, both the weather conditions and the circuit in London led to the quick clockings.”

Even being part of the world crème, López firmly believes it won’t be an easy task to maintain his current status as Spain’s number one specialist in a marquee event in a nation like his.

“Historically, the event’s standards in my country have been quite high - actually the 20km Race Walk provided Spain’s first ever Olympic gold medal in athletics back in Barcelona 1992 in the guise of Daniel Plaza. There are a new crop of youngsters pushing hard behind me and one of them (Álvaro Martín) even made the Olympic team after finishing fifth at the Barcelona World Juniors.”

Coached by José Antonio Carrillo, the Llano de Brujas-born rising star López has been a long-time training mate of the 2005 World 20Km bronze medallist Juan Manuel Molina, now retired and President of the Murcia autonomous region Federation. “Alongside my family, both have played a key role in my career, I'm especially grateful to them,” López acknowledges.

Aiming for Moscow podium

After his brilliant appearance in London one can imagine that López’s next target should be to make the podium at the World Championships in Moscow next August, something he confirms.

“The most important thing for me is to improve and grow as an athlete but it’s also true that my next challenge is to grab a medal there. I forecast a similar development to London’s - that’s a moderate pace over the opening half of the event and a lot of attacks and a fierce fight for the podium berths from then onwards. I consider the Russian walkers are the hot favourites since they will be performing on home soil and that’s always an advantage.”

On which walking school impresses him most, the Chinese or Russian, he answers politely. “Both. The Chinese school has generated so many top walkers in recent seasons while the Russian team has a well-gained respect because of the large number of medals taken by its athletes at the major events. In addition, the current World records for the 20 & 50Km Race Walks belong to Russian specialists.”

López: Perfect technique does exists

López’s technique has always been one of his strongest points to such an extent that he has not been disqualified a single time throughout his entire athletics career! Even at the top level López finished his respective events at the 2010 Barcelona Europeans, 2011 Daegu Worlds and 2012 London Olympics without receiving a single warning.

“I barely have problems at that respect. Despite that, I’m very focused on that kind of work everyday. I prefer not to relax at all in that sense. When I was a child I used to pay attention on the best walkers in terms of technique to make amends in mine.” When asked who has the most impeccable technique, his reply is adamant: “Ecuadorian Jefferson Pérez had an excellent technique.”

1:18 within his capabilities

The 1.81m-tall Spaniard entered the Olympics with a personal best of 1:20:59, a mark he lowered by a massive margin in London where he clocked 1:19:49, a surprising time for him but only relatively as he explains.

“I had set my previous career best in La Coruña two months before the Olympics but I knew I had a faster clocking in my legs according to my latest trainings. Anyway, the 1:20:00 barrier was not a piece of cake and what really mattered most in London was the place. Time became secondary. Thinking of the coming years, any improvement will be welcomed. I’m fully aware that’s an increasingly complicated goal but I would like to perform below 1:19 some day.”

Top stars closer than ever!

Not everything at the London Olympics was about stiff competition as López fondly recalls.

“I had the chance of taking a picture with Spain’s basketball star Pau Gasol, I also saw America’s swimming legend Michael Phelps very closely and I had the privilege of witnessing the eagerly-awaited 100m clash between Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake.”

López also proudly remembers: “Thanks to my top-eight berth in London, I received a praise and recognition letter from His Majesty the King Juan Carlos.”

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF