Spain’s Francisco Fernández the European 20km Race Walking champion may have come second to Ecuador’s Jefferson Perez in Paris so losing his hold on the World best time for the 20km Race walk but there is still no doubt his last two seasons have been awesome.
In 2002 Fernández smashed the then-World Best Performance with an astonishing 1:17:22 clocking in Turku, and followed that up with gold at the European Championships in Munich, while this summer his World silver medal in Paris contributed to his second place finish in the overall standings in the IAAF Race Walking Challenge behind Polish legend Robert Korzeniowski.
It was not by chance that Fernández got involved in Race Walking, as he was born in the same village as his coach Manuel Alcalde, who was an Olympic walker (9th placer) at Los Angeles’ 84 Games. “We were born in the same village, Guadix, and I soon got in touch with this discipline; it’s something quite logical and now the kids would like to be like me” says proudly Fernández.
Fernández accomplished his first success just two years after starting in athletics: the European Junior silver medal in Nyiregyhaza (Hungary) over 10kms (41:02.34) way back in 1995, “the Spanish Federation gave me financial help (a scholarship) for my medal and I realised then that I could earn my living doing athletics”.
Fernández’s next feats didn’t take a long time to come as he snatched gold at the 1996 Sydney World Junior Championships, still in the 10kms event (40:38.25), prior to his runner-up place at the inaugural European U23 Championships in Turku (Finland) where he first tackled the 20kms (1h21:59) discipline for the first time at a major event.
One year later he achieved his opening senior medal by taking bronze at the 1998 Europeans in Budapest. By then, Fernández was already a 1:20:31 specialist and everyone expected an outstanding performance from him at the 1999 IAAF World Championships in Seville.
However, performing on home-soil at such a major event was too much for the young Fernández. “I had a lot pressure competing in Spain; media, supporters... everyone wanted to see me on the podium but I was still 22 by that time, was unable to handle pressure and finally came 15th”.
The next major stop in his career was the 2000 Sydney Olympics where he finished a fine 7th. Many people saw that as a disappointing performance but Fernández strongly disagrees.
“Sydney’s was not ‘my Olympics’ but Robert Korzeniowski’s and Bernardo Segura’s. They were much more experienced than me and it was their turn, not mine which will come in Athens, hopefully”. In 2000 he lowered the Spanish record to a world-class time of 1h18:56.
At the 2001 Edmonton World Championships, Fernández could not make up for his previous setbacks and dropped out at 15km.
“Prior to the Worlds my coach was diagnosed with a tumour and it really affected me so much. As a result my build up for the Worlds was far from perfect and above all my mind was not at its peak. During the race all these elements came together and I exploded”.
That was easily the most critical moment in his athletics career so far but Fernández never surrendered.
Fernández’s luck change dramatically in 2002. By then his coach was quite recovered from his illness and he had accomplished an intense winter and spring in terms of training...and results!
Advised by Poland’s double Olympic champion Robert Korzeniowski the Spaniard travelled to Turku (Finland) on 28 April to compete there at an international walking race; the Pole himself also took part but couldn’t live with Fernnández’s pace beyond the 8th kilometre point.
“Robert said to me then, ‘this is not my pace, go ahead’, so I had to walk for 12 kilometres alone.”
But even without the Pole’s challenge Fernández clocked a new World best performance of 1:17:22 cutting the previous mark by no less than 24 seconds and leaving runner-up Korzeniowski 2:18 behind. His 5-km splits speak for themselves: 19:28 -19:06 (38:34 halfway), 19:13 - 19:35. “At 15km I realised that the record was mine as I only had to average 4 minutes per kilometre in the remaining 5 kilometres”.
Having succeeded so early in the season Fernández also proved his ability to peak again five months later when he became European 20km champion beating the mighty Russian squad which had accomplished a clean sweep one year earlier at the 2001 Edmonton Worlds.
“I felt I was the strongest and just set my own pace”. In addition to his gold medal Fernández recorded the fastest ever time (1:18:37) in a championships race and romped home 1:19 clear of Russia’s Vladimir Andreyev; in fact, the only person to put his victory in serious danger was a careless official who walked off the pavement without looking and collided with him.
2003 also superb
Fernández re-confirmed his world class status in 2003. Second overall in the IAAF Race Walking Challenge, he made up for the disappointments in Seville and Edmonton by taking the silver behind Atlanta Olympic champion Ecuador’s Jefferson Pérez.
“My tactic was similar to Munich and I established a comfortable lead of some 30 seconds over the chasing group but when I was told that the gap didn’t extend anymore I was not quite so sure about winning”.
Fernández’s fears were justified with Pérez surging to the front at 17km and pulling away to take the World title in a World best of 1:17:21 and slice one second off Fernández’s previous mark; the Spaniard came second in his second all time best of 1:18:00 with Edmonton champion Russia’s Roman Rasskazov a close third.
“I’m quite satisfied with the silver medal I got in Paris as it’s my first podium at that level; records are to be broken, the only shame for me is that I was an excellent pacemaker for Pérez; obviously that was not my intention but it happened in the end”.
Athens and beyond – skiing providing an endurance base
“I’ve already won medals at European and World levels so the only thing lacking is an Olympic podium which I hope to accomplish next summer in Athens”.
But Fernández’s build-up for the Games will contain new features as “my plan is to compete fewer times than in these previuos seasons and to train harder instead.”
“I’ll be in the World Race Walking Cup in Naumburg (Germany, 1-2 May) plus probably another 20km event; the rest of competitions will be over shorter distances, especially 10kms.”
As part of my training sessions, I’m currently doing cross-country skiing, it’s excellent endurance work”.
Asked about his plans beyond the Olympics, Fernández confirms, “I’ll possibly tackle the 50km. event”. Will you double (20 & 50km) at a major championships? “I don’t think so; to be able to do that you should be the best by far in both events and that’s quite difficult nowadays, I prefer to be focused on one event”.
Maybe for that reason Fernández doesn’t hesitate when asked who is the greatest ever walker, “Robert Korzeniowski, for his double Olympic titles in Sydney and the 50km World Best Performances he set in Munich and Paris”.