Back in 2004 the parents of top Australian race walker Nathan Deakes hit the jackpot. His father, Douglas, put in a 10 cent coin in a poker machine in a Melbourne casino and scooped a staggering $1m Australian dollars to ensure the family enjoyed unexpected riches.
Earlier this month it was the turn of son, Nathan, to hit the jackpot as he surprisingly smashing the World 50km Race Walk record* by 16 seconds in Geelong to win the Australian national title.
Nearly man’s global breakthrough
Though a multiple Commonwealth champion the record has undoubtedly elevated Deakes to a higher standing, the 29-year-old also finally shrugged off the tag as the “nearly man” on Race Walking’s world stage.
Deakes has featured as a major player on the global scene since placing seventh over 20km on his senior debut at the 1999 IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Seville and at his home Olympics in Sydney he finished sixth in the 50km and eighth in the 20km event.
At the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton he finished an agonising fourth in the shorter event and although he won bronze in the 20km event at the 2004 Athens Olympics he was heartbreakingly disqualified in the latter stages of the 50km when in contention for more honours.
But his victory at the Australian Championships in World record figures of 3:35:47 – 16 seconds quicker than the previous mark set by the great four-time Olympic champion Robert Korzeniowski of Poland - have gone some way towards making up for years of near misses for the affable Deakes.
Nathan has a sister to thank
And yet had it not been for his younger sister, Naomi, Deakes may never have pursued race walking.
“I tried walking in Little Athletics but after I was disqualified in my second race I vowed never to do it again,” explained Deakes. “I went back to running but when I was 16 I was not really enjoying it. My sister was race walking at the time so I decided to give it a go.”
Deakes has not regretted the move for one minute and quickly developed into one of Australia’s finest junior walkers, demonstrating an ability to perform on the international stage with a bronze medal in the 10,000m walk at the 1996 World Junior Championships in Sydney.
Deakes was also fortunate he came under the wing of Ron Weigel – the former World 50km Race Walk champion from East Germany. Weigel was then Australian national coach and was a huge influence on Deakes’ career right through to the 2004 Athens Olympics.
“Ron was pretty much known as the best walker in the world before the Robert Korzeniowski era and he set down a great foundation for me,” admitted Deakes of the German’s impact.
Weigel left Australia to return to his native Germany after the Athens Games and for the past 12 months Deakes has been coached by highly-rated Craig Hilliard – the man who has developed a clutch of Australia’s finest athletes including former Olympic silver medallist long-jumper Jai Taurima and two-time Commonwealth heptathlon champion Jane Flemming.
“Craig has been fantastic,” said Deakes. “He often plays the devil’s advocate and makes sure I do not do too much. He has also really helped in terms of developing the technical aspects and I think that shows in that I have been given a warning or a caution all year.”
Good but not outstanding shape
Based at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra the law and personal finance and banking student regularly clocks up a gruelling weekly training load of between 220-240km a week – and has on occasion reached a staggering maximum of 300km. The morning session will include a walk of anywhere between 15 or 45km while his training later in the day will be a recovery run.
But although he runs 60-70km a week he is not sure whether this is the norm among the top walkers.
“I really don’t know,” he said of whether running was the regular training element for the world’s elite walkers. “For me it’s good having a bit of balance rather than walking all the time.”
Whether it is right or wrong, however, what is indisputable is the blend works. His 50km World record time wiped four minutes from his personal best yet Deakes did not even believe he was in the best shape of his career when taking the record.
“I knew I was in good but not outstanding shape,” said Deakes of the period leading up to the Australian nationals. “The best shape I’ve ever been in was just before the World Championships in Helsinki but, unfortunately, I picked up an injury two weeks before the event. The main aim beforehand was to aim for a 3:38 or 3:39. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do what I did.”
Success breeds success
There is little doubt Deakes’ record-breaking display has heaped some much-needed attention on Race Walking in Australia. And he is hopeful the impact will have a positive impact on the discipline in his homeland.
“It’s always been difficult as we (race walkers) often struggle for recognition and profile. But hopefully my performance will entice a few more kids to become involved.”
Earlier this year Deakes led his country - with the help of Jared Tallent and Luke Adams – to the silver medal in the 20km race at the World Cup of Race Walking in Spain and he believes Australia is currently enjoying an embarrassment of riches in the walks.
A success he believes can be traced back to the achievements of 1991 World Cup 50km silver medallist Simon Baker and World 5000m record holder Kerry Saxby-Junna - two of the leading Australian walkers during the 1980s and 1990s.
“Success breeds success,” said Deakes. “Even as far back as the 1999 World Championships we had three top eight finishers and it has been an event Australia have been good at but it can often be overshadowed by the other events.”
Doubling in Osaka
For the future though the Aussie race walker will concentrate his efforts on the World Championships in Osaka next year before the 2006 Beijing Olympics confident in the belief his best is yet to come.
“I have been preparing more for the 50km but I will definitely do the double in Osaka,” said Deakes. “I also have the fourth fastest time ever for 20km and the aim is to do well and win a medal in both events, if not win both if things go smoothly.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF
*subject to ratification