Updated 3 August 2012
WANG Zhen, China (20 km Race Walking)
Born: 24 August 1991 Heilongjiang
Lives: in Heilongjiang, a province in northeast China near the border with Russia
Coach: Sandro Damilano
Wang Zhen hails from Heilongjiang, a province near the border between China and Russia. “I was brought up by my mother Chen Ya Hong. She re-married another man after her husband died when I was just ten years old,” said Wang Zhen.
Wang Zhen, the only member of his family to practice sport, is considered the rising star of Chinese Race Walking. “I began walking at school competitions, where I represented the team from my Province. I was the best walker in my Province, but I did not train very hard in the early stages of my career. I walked just three or four days a week. My first coach was Liu Yunfeng, who was fifth at the IAAF World Cup in Naumburg and 25th in the 20 km at the Olympic Games in Athens.”
“I began competing at international level in 2008 and in just four years of top walking races I set the 20km Asian record with a hugely impressive 1:17:36 at the IAAF Walking Race Challenge in Taicang (China) on 30 March 2012.”
“At the start of my career in 2008 I won the 30km Chinese Junior race at the National Walking Championships in 2:08:46 (Editor’s note: Wang was in fact entered out of competition at this event). I made my debut in the 50km one year later at the 2009 Chinese National Games, at the age of 18, where I finished sixth in 3:53:00.”
In 2009, Wang placed second in the National Junior Championships 30km, in Baoji in March, then in April, took part in the national junior races held at the same time as the Chinese leg of the IAAF World Race Walking Challenge winning the 10km and placing second in the 30km.
In autumn, he competed with the seniors at the Chinese National Games, in Jinan, placing ninth at 20km and sixth in his 50km debut four days later.
In 2010, Wang Zhen made his international debut in the IAAF World Race Walking Challenge.
He scored his first Challenge point in March, at the Gran Premio Città di Lugano Memorial Albisetti, where he finished sixth in 1:22:03 in the race won by Italian Alex Schwazer, who broke Maurizio Damilano’s 18-year-old Italian record with 1:18:24. On 10 April 2010 he improved his 20km PB with 1:20:42, to finish third behind Norway’s Erik Tysse and France’s Yohan Diniz at the Grande Premio Internacional en Marcha Atletica in Rio Major, the Portuguese leg of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge. One month later, he finished seventh (later upgraded to sixth following Tysse’s suspension) at the Coppa Città di Sesto San Giovanni in 1:23:49 before making his first appearance in a major championships race, at the 2010 IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Chihuahua (Mexico) where he crossed the finish line in 20th place on a very warm day.
“The World Cup in Chihuahua was my first competition with the Chinese team and competing at high altitude caused me some problems,” recalls Wang Zhen.
However, Wang was able to bounce back from that disappointment, closing 2010 on a very high note at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge Final, which marked his major breakthrough at world level. He had scored enough points to qualify for the final, in Beijing, which was held over the 10km distance. In the Chinese capital, Zhen broke Stanislav Emelyanov’s one-year-old World Junior record of 38:28 by 44 seconds, with a sensational 37:44, which was also an Asian record. Wang Zhen and his compatriot Chu Yafei engaged a neck-to-neck battle until 8km with the chasing group about 10 seconds behind. Zhen broke away shortly before 9km and held on to win in 37:44, the second fastest time in the World All-time list. Chu Yafei, who held the previous 10km Asian record and was World Challenge leader before the Final, also broke the 38 minutes barrier with 37:57 in the best ever competition for depth of results, where the top-15 placers all set their PBs.
Three of the top four walkers were Chinese. The only non-Chinese athlete who managed to break the domination of the Asian country was Italian Giorgio Rubino, who finished third setting, his PB with 38:00, the same time clocked by fourth placer Wang Hao, World silver medallist in the 20km in Berlin.
Another interesting story which emerged from the race in Beijing was that Rubino, Wang Zhen and Wang Hao were all coached by Italian walking coach legend Sandro Damilano, the man who has been contributing to the progress of Chinese race walking race since November 2009, when he was hired by the Chinese Federation with the goal of improving the standard of race walking in China and guide Chinese walkers to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Looking after new challenges after a long relationship to the Italian Federation, Damilano agreed to participate in the Chinese Federation’s project, but at the same time he continued living in Piedmont and training Italian walking stars, Giorgio Rubino and Elisa Rigaudo.
Damilano, the older brother of former Olympic 20km race walking champion and 1987 and 1991 World champion Maurizio, has collected a total of 46 Olympic World and European medals during his outstanding coaching career. Among the athletes guided by Damilano during his 40-year-old career were his younger twin brothers, Maurizio and Giorgio, as well as 2002 World Cup winner Erika Alfridi, 1996 Olympic 10km silver medallist Elisabetta Perrone, 2008 Olympic 20km bronze medallist Elisa Rigaudo, 2008 Olympic 50km champion Alex Schwazer and 2009 World Championships 20km fourth placer Giorgio Rubino.
Damilano coached for the Italian Athletics Federation (FIDAL) from 1981 until December 2010, when he began working for the Chinese Federation. In 2001 Sandro and Maurizio Damilano contributed significantly to the creation of the Race Walking Training Centre in Saluzzo, a small town near their native village Scarnafigi in the northern Italian region of Piedmont.
The ideal training conditions and the technical exchange of different walking schools have contributed to make Saluzzo one of the most respected race walking centres in the world. Other international stars such as Ecuador’s three-time 20km World champion and 1996 Olympic champion Jefferson Perez and former 50km World champion Nathan Deakes from Australia also used the very good facilities of the Saluzzo Training School.
“In the environment of the Race Walking Training Centre of Saluzzo I have found the ideal conditions to train and continue my improvement, also thanks to the excellent facilities. I would never leave Saluzzo. The weather is ideal for training. I have a very good relationship with my training partners, especially with Giorgio Rubino. We have become very good friends,” said Wang Zhen.
Wang Zhen trains in Saluzzo with Liu Hong and Wang Hao, Berlin World Championships medallists, and Si Tianfeng, 2010 World Cup fourth placer in Chihuahua in the 50km. “We have been based in Saluzzo since last December and will remain there until the World Cup in Saransk,” said Wang some days before the 2012 World Cup. “After the World Cup we will spend a period of training in Livigno to prepare for the Olympic Games in London.”
Wang Zhen has produced the most surprising breakthrough since he trains in Saluzzo.
“Wang Zhen was not among the best walkers at the National Games in Jinan in 2009 but I spotted his talent and I have believed in his potential. He often suffers from problems in his tibia. In Chihuahua he did not perform well, but it was his first competition for the Chinese National team,” said Sandro Damilano.
Wang Zhen’s improvement was shown by his impressive 1:18:37 clocking in the 20km race at the Memorial Albisetti in Lugano on 20 March 2011. In the Swiss town, the Chinese walker led from the beginning of the race together with Chu Yafei. At 8km he and Chu Yafei broke away from the rest of the field and walked side by side until the closing stages of the race, which was decided by a final sprint. Zhen Wang prevailed by just one second and come close to the course record set in 2010 by Alex Schwazer.
Wang further improved his PB by seven seconds to 1:18:30 in Taicang on 22 April 2011. For the second time in one month, Wang Zhen beat Chu Yafei, who finished runner-up in 1:18:45. In the Taicang race, China claimed a podium sweep as 18-year-old Chen Ding also finished third in a new PB of 1:18:52.
Wang continued his 2011 season with a win at the Dublin International GP of Race Walking on 26 June in 1:19:46 ahead of Hassanine Sebei from Tunisia and his training partner Giorgio Rubino.
At the World Championships, in Daegu, Wang Zhen was entered with the fastest time in the world, set in Taicang, but had to settle for fourth place in the 20km in 1:20:54. “It was my first appearance at the World Championships, but I would have expected a better result, as I entered the competition as the fastest man in the field,” recalls Wang Zhen.
In the Korean city, Wang Zhen was the only Chinese in the top eight, as his compatriots Chu Yafei and Wang Hao, winner of the IAAF World Cup in Chihuahua in 2010, finished 11th and 13th respectively.
Wang Zhen was only seven seconds behind Russian World champion Valeriy Borchin, in second place at 15km, but the gap increased to 20 seconds at 16km and two kilometres later, he faded and was overtaken by Russian Vladimir Kanaykin and Luis Fernando Lopez from Colombia.
The young Chinese walker capped his breakthrough season with a second place at the 2011 IAAF Race Walking Challenge Final, in La Coruña, over the 10 km distance in 38:49, seven seconds behind Berlin and Daegu World champion Valeriy Borchin.
His winter training bore fruit in his first 2012 races. At the end of January, he took part in the Italian Winter Race Walking Trophy, in Latina, where he finished second over the 35km distance in 2:31:29 behind Alex Schwazer’s outstanding 2:28:10.
One month later, he won the 10km race at the Trofeo Ugo Frigerio in Genova in 38:35, setting the fastest time in the world in 2012 over the distance and beating his training partners Si Tianfeng and Li Jianbo.
On 30 March, Wang Zhen broke the Asian record in the 20km with 1:17:36 in the Chinese leg of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge, in Taicang, lowering the previous Asian record held by Zhu Hongjun (1:17:41 in Cixi in 2005). He scored his second consecutive win in Taicang and improved his lifetime best by 54 seconds. China claimed a podium sweep, with 19-year-old Chen Ding second in 1:17:40, 1:12 sec. off his previous PB of 1:18:52 and Cai Zelin, third in 1:18:47, also a huge improvement on his previous PB.
“The 2012 World Cup in Saransk will be an important test, but I am training to peak my form for the Olympic Games in London, hoping to stay injury-free,” said Wang Zhen shortly before traveling to Russia.
In the Russian mecca of race walking, Wang Zhen defeated all the home-country favourites. After moving to the lead half way through the race, Wang placed a second attack in the final stages of the competition, knowing from the DQ board that Andrey Krivov, who was elbow to elbow with him, already had two warnings and could not take any further risks.
“I did not expect to win, as Russians were on home soil,” the talented 20-year old said at the medallists’ press conference. “At 16km, I thought there was a chance, and it was only at the end I realised I was in the lead by a distance.”
At the Olympic Games, Wang will again challenge the Russian armada, led by Valeriy Borchin, the reigning Olympic and back-to-back World champion, who competed in Saransk while still under heavy training, as his focus was on London in August.
10km: 37:44 (2010)
20km: 1:17:36 (2012)
50km: 3:53:00 (2009)
10km/20km/50km: 2008: 40:03/1:28:01/-; 2009: 40:15/1:22:10/3:53:00; 2010: 37:44 AR, WJR/1:20:42/-; 2011: 38:50/1:18:30; 2012: 38:36/1:17:36 AR
2008 1st National Youth Championships (Xintai) (10 km) 40:03
2009 9th Chinese National Games (Jinan) (20 km) 1:22:10
2009 6th Chinese National Games (Jinan) (50 km) 3:53:00
2010 20th World Race Walking Cup (Chihuahua) (20 km) 1:26:49
2010 1st Walking Challenge Final (Bejing) (10 km) 37:44
2011 4th World Championships (Daegu) (20 km) 1:20:54
2011 2nd World Race Walking Challenge Final (La Coruña) (10 km) 38:49
2011 1st World Race Walking Cup (Saransk) (20 km) 1:19:13
Prepared by Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2012