13 APR 2010 General News

Jerzy Hausleber, the architect of Mexico’s Race Walking tradition – IAAF Race Walking Cup

Jerzy Hausleber (c) flanked by a slew of medallists: from left, Miguel Rodriguez, Jerzy's wife, Ernesto Canto, Raul Gonzalez, and Daniel Bautista (Andrew Hausleber)Jerzy Hausleber (c) flanked by a slew of medallists: from left, Miguel Rodriguez, Jerzy's wife, Ernesto Canto, Raul Gonzalez, and Daniel Bautista (Andrew Hausleber) © Copyright

Rarely can it be said one man is responsible for an entire country’s worldwide success in athletics – and a success that he started from scratch.

History has many examples of coaches rekindling a long-held tradition, perhaps, or a country fetching up a bunch of talented athletes for no particular reason other than coincidence.

But an ex-boxer in a foreign country preaching a discipline barely heard of before?

And what is even more remarkable about Jerzy Hausleber is that as a Pole, he went to a country about as far removed from his own in culture and ideas – and still produced a hotbed of Mexican Olympic, World, and IAAF Walking Cup champions for 40 years.

To grasp the enormity of the Hausleber phenomenon, imagine if you will, a Norwegian going to Brazil to teach cricket and still producing the World Cup winners for the best part of two decades.

Hausleber is now 78, and an icon in the country that granted him naturalisation in 1984.

No doubt, he will get the same warm reception he gets everywhere in his adopted country when he attends the 24th IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Chihuahua on the weekend of 15/16 May.

Recovering from heart and knee problems, he now limits his activities to coaching coaches, making motivational speeches, and initiating various endurance athletic disciplines that have acolytes soaking up every word.

But it wasn’t the case in 1966.

Recruited for Olympic project...

Mexico had been awarded the 19th summer Olympics set for two years hence, and noted the hosts always came up with a gold medal somewhere along the line.

But the chances of Mexico producing a sprinter or a field-eventer in athletics were about as remote as Usain Bolt attempting a World record in a sombrero.

However, Mexico City is 7000 feet above sea level, so the endurance events were an obvious target for those used to thin oxygen.

And race walking was seen as a sport without an obvious dominant force. The previous four Olympic champions in the two events had come from Russia, Great Britain and Italy. Before that, even a New Zealander won the 50k event.

Hausleber was brought in as one of a batch of seven foreign coaches by Mexico’s Olympic head, General José de Jesús Clark Flores, who expected the mercenaries to make a decent fist of producing Mexican medals on home ground.

But walking had none of the machismo of say, boxing - and the Pole started with just six athletes after he arrived on May 30, 1966 (Hausleber remembers the exact day).

...and reaps immediate rewards

Fortunately for Hausleber and Mexico, one of them was army sergeant Jose Pedraza.

There was nothing promising about Pedraza’s winning time in the Central American Championships in his first go at the sport. His 51:32mins for the 10k is around the pace a decent club walker was recording on training nights even then.

But Hausleber’s destiny and that of Mexican race walking was sealed in one 300 metre sprint in the Olympic final on a warm October night two years later.

Vladimir Golubnichiy and Nikolai Smaga entered the Ciudad Universitaria stadium in first and second – but the instant Pedraza appeared right behind, it was clear he was travelling much faster than the two Russians.

Pedraza tore past Smaga as if he was standing still, and cheered on by the ‘Me-hee-co, Me-hee-co’ chants down the home straight, came within two yards of winning gold.

The Mexican had every reason to beat himself up for timing his charge too late – he clearly had loads left in the tank.

Pedraza only the start of the Mexican dynasty

But it was just the boost Hausleber needed to create a dynasty of champions that requires one-and-a-half pages of A4 paper in very tiny print just to list.

Daniel Bautista, Raul Gonzales, Carlos Mercenario and Bernardo Segura to name but a few, all owe their hero status to the coach.

“At the beginning it was not easy,” Hausleber said. “But bit-by-bit after the Pedraza medal, there were more and more young athletes interested in walking.

“Mexico also offered me the chance to keep working there, and walking became popular enough to become almost a national sport.”

Three Olympic golds, two IAAF World Championship golds, and 12 IAAF World Walking Cup firsts just for starters – not to mention silvers and bronzes enough to fill a jeweller’s window as well as Pan and Central American dominance for the best part of four decades.

But almost at the time Hausleber called it a day in 2004 on his full-time coaching, the medals mostly stopped for Mexico.

Eder Sanchez is the one home-grown walker likely to get to the podium in Chihuahua after winning both the 2009 IAAF Walks Challenge and a bronze in the IAAF World Championships last August.

But the country’s ‘father of walking’, according to his own CV, refuses to criticise the coaching set-up he left – or why there are not more obvious prospects besides Sanchez.

Hausleber said: “Because of professional ethics, I have never liked predicting the future for others or speaking about other trainers.

“My role is strictly as a speaker or a coordinator in the Ministry of Sport in Mexico.

“I am not comfortable in discussing why there appears to be a bit of a lull in walking triumphs in the country.”

For all that, there’s a hint that Hausleber is unhappy with the level of commitment shown by the modern-day Mexican athlete.

The tough Pole raised in sight of the Gdansk shipworks emailed his answer for what’s needed to produce another Mexican wave of champions.

He said: “In Mexico as in many other countries, many factors affect this type of situation.

“One of the most important is that ONE MUST HAVE MORE PASSION AND SELF DISCIPLINE and work in a scientific and technical professional way as a trainer and athlete.”

The capital letters were added by a man still clearly passionate about his beloved sport in the country’s he’s called home for 44 years.

Paul Warburton for the IAAF