Updated July 30 2008
Jefferson Leonardo PÉREZ, Ecuador (20km Walk)
Born 1 July 1974, Cuenca, Ecuador
Coach: Manuel Ortiz
Jefferson Pérez is one of the most important South American athletes in history and the biggest sportsman in Ecuador. In 1999, he was elected the athlete of the 20th Century as the only winner of a medal for Ecuador at the Olympic Games in any sport. Furthermore, since 1999, Pérez has achieved many more records and titles and has continued to appear on the cover of Ecuador’s main newspapers. Few athletes manage the honour of becoming Olympic champions, World champions and World record holders in their disciplines as Pérez has.
Pérez was born in Cuenca, a small city situated at 2600m above sea level. That is one reason why many good walkers and long distance runners grew up and used to train there. The authorities did not allow his mother, María Lucrecia Quezada, to call him Jersinio, so she finally chose Jefferson. Anyway she always calls him by his second name, “Nardo”. Both his mother, and his two brothers and two sisters, have a strong influence on him.
The walk discipline is like a religion in Ecuador and it has exploded in the 21st century thanks to the achievements of Pérez. He started out when he was 12 and captured all the youth and junior records and titles in South America. Furthermore, he became World Junior champion, in Seoul, in 1992.
Then a collarbone fracture forced him out of competition for some months but he returned to win the Pan American Games, in Mar del Plata, in 1995 and the Olympic title in Atlanta in 1996. At 22 he became the youngest walking champion in Olympic history. Few expected that medal. “When I said that I’m gonna prepare myself to go for the gold, people thought that I was crazy,” he remembers.
He dedicated the title to his town, his friends and his Colombian coach, Enrique Peña. When he was back in Ecuador, he accomplished a religious promise: to walk from Quito to Cuenca, 459km between the two cities through the Pan American Freeway, at an altitude of 2500 to 4800m. Pérez is a very religious person, who goes to church every Sunday. Before and after each competition, he thanks God for giving him energy to compete.
In 1997, he won his first World Cup, walking over the snow of Podebrady, and showed everybody that he had completely deserved his coronation in Atlanta. From that moment, the pressure poured upon him, and every citizen in Ecuador expected Pérez to win every event. He almost did it, being bronze medallist at the Pan American Games, in Winnipeg in 1999, silver medallist two months later at the World Championships, in Sevilla, and was fourth at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Between Sevilla and Sydney, he was operated on a spinal disk. So he spent that time, as well as the year-break after the Olympic Games, having a rest, and also qualified as Commercial Engineer and got a Master of Business Administration.
Pérez became a national hero in Ecuador. For that reason, postal authorities issued a stamp with his picture. However, finding the budget to prepare himself to compete against the best walkers of the world was always difficult. “You need discipline and self-confidence to succeed, but you also need economic resources,” he declared. “Money is not the goal, but it’s necessary.”
These problems, added to some injuries, prevented Pérez from shining for a couple of seasons. But he was back again with even more energy and was inspired by Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist who fought cancer and won the Tour de France. He admired his strength and the way he organised his work team. In 2003, Pérez won the Pan American Games, in Santo Domingo, and became not only World champion in Paris, but also 20km Walk World record holder (1:17.21), one second quicker than the mark held by Spaniard Francisco Fernández.
Although he finished fourth in Athens 2004, he promised himself that he would retain the World Championship title in Helsinki in 2005. It was really difficult for him to train in his country, because all the people and the media were focused on him, so he traveled to Arequipa, Perú, a place with similar conditions as Cuenca. It was a polemic decision because Ecuador and Perú had several territorial problems that ended in wars. Jefferson showed his pacifist point of view: “Wars between South American countries are stupid. I feel like at home in Perú. Look at us: Ecuadorians and Peruvians are the same people”.
Having completed great training sessions with his pupil and colleague Rolando Saquipay, he won another global gold medal in Finland. In 2006, he achieved one World Cup silver medal at La Coruña, but he was even happier with the second place he got with Saquipay for Ecuador in the team competition: now the country has a new star who will follow in Pérez’s steps.
Year 2007 was wonderful for Jefferson. He proved that, being 33, he was still the best walker in the world. In July, he won his third gold medal in the Pan American Games, in Rio de Janeiro, and achieved his fourth consecutive podium in the same competition. But the great hit would arrive in Osaka, where he reached his third World title. On 29 September, Vladimir Kanaykin, from Russia, achieved a 1:17:16 mark in Saransk, five seconds below Pérez’s PB, and became the new World record owner.
Now, since he knows he will not carry on competing for much longer, he is focused on winning another Olympic gold medal in Beijing 2008. His training has been giving him great results as he was fifth at the IAAF World Race Walking Challenge first and second legs. At the time, his main goal was to help his friend Saquipay to reach the qualifying standard for the Olympics, which he finally did in Rio Maior. During the fourth leg that took place in Sesto San Giovanni, Pérez surpassed Ivano Brugnetti, the local idol, and won the race, showing that he was in great shape looking forward to Beijing.
But what will he do when he retires from competition? At 34 he has not many more championships to come. Nowadays he leads a Foundation called Jefferson Pérez that offers health, education and nourishment to poor children.
Some people say he will be a political leader. Cuenca citizens love him since he always thinks about the poor of his country. “I’m made of flesh and bones, I’m like you,” he says. “I think it’s possible to defeat 500 years of inferiority feelings. If I could do it, you can do it as well.” Nobody knows about his future, but everybody is sure that Jefferson Pérez is a living legend in Ecuador.
“You don’t have the right to give up,” he says.
5000m Walk: 19:49.54i (1990)
10,000m Walk: 39:50.73 (1993)
10km Walk: 38:24 (2002)
20km Walk: 1:17.21 (2003)
35km Walk: 2:38.04 (2004)
50km Walk: 3:53.04 (2004)
20km Walk: 1992: 1:25.50.5; 1993: 1:24.03; 1994: 1:23.27; 1995: 1:22.52.8; 1996: 1:20.07; 1997: 1:18.24; 1998: 1:19.19; 1999: 1:20.46; 2000: 1:20.18; 2001: 1:22.20; 2002: 1:19.08; 2003: 1:17.21 (WR); 2004: 1:18.42; 2005: 1:18.35; 2006: 1:19.08; 2007: 1:21.14; 2008: 1:20.31.
1992 3rd Ibero American Championships (Sevilla) 1:25.50.5
dnf Olympic Games (Barcelona)
1993 1st South American Championships (Lima) 1:24.31
1995 1st Pan American Games (Mar del Plata) 1:22.52.8
1996 1st Olympic Games (Atlanta) 1:20.07
1997 1st World Race Walking Cup (Podebrady) 1:18.24
1998 3rd Goodwill Games (Uniondale) 1:29.18
1st Odesur Games (Cuenca) 1:23.11
1999 3rd Pan American Games (Winnipeg) 1:20.46
2nd World Championships (Sevilla) 1:26.19
2000 4th Olympic Games (Sydney) 1:20.18
2001 8th World Championships (Edmonton) 1:22.20
2002 1st Ibero American Championships (Guatemala) 1:23.51.0
1st World Race Walking Cup (Torino) 1:21.26
2003 1st Pan American Games (Santo Domingo) 1:23.06
1st World Championships (Paris) 1:17.21
2004 1st World Race Walking Cup (Naumburg) 1:18.42
4th Olympic Games (Athens) 1:20.38
2005 1st South American Championships (Cali) 1:22.54.4
1st World Championships (Helsinki) 1:18.35
2006 2nd World Race Walking Cup (La Coruña) 1:19.08
2007 1st Pan American Games (Rio de Janeiro) 1:22.08
1st World Championships (Osaka) 1:22.20
2008 1st IAAF Race Walking Chall. (Sesto San Giovanni) 1:20:31
1990 3rd World Junior Championships (Plovdiv) 40:08.23
1992 1st World Junior Championships (Seoul) 40:42.66
Prepared by Víctor Pochat for the IAAF “Focus on Athletes” project. © IAAF 2008