Mexico’s Race Walkers begin a new season with an intensive calendar of competitions and one major goal which is to stay on the Olympic medal podium in Athens as they have done in the last three Games.
After a successful three-week high altitude training camp in Ixtapan de la Sal, in the central state of Toluca, the national team members are currently tuning up for the first event of the 2004 IAAF Race Walking Challenge, to be held in the northern city of Tijuana, 20-21 March. The Tijuana race will determine the Mexican squad for the 21st IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Naumburg, Germany, 1-2 May.
Considering such a busy schedule in the first semester of the year, the National Race Walking Commission unified the training programme under the experienced coaching Miguel Angel Sánchez with a plan to help the athletes peak at the right moment.
National squad members
The national team includes 1996 Olympic 20km bronze medallist Bernardo Segura, Sydney 20km runner-up Noe Hernandez, who also finished fourth in the Paris World Championships. Also included is Alejandro Lopez, who took third place at the 2002 IAAF World Cup in Turin and won the 1999 World University Games.
Other 20km specialists are 2000 World Junior 10,000m Race Walk champion Christian Berdeja, Eric Guevara, Jesus Sanchez, Claudio Vargas, Oscar Eduardo Ramirez, Jose Elias Olivares, Horacio Nava and Gabriel Ortiz.
Two World Championships bronze medallists Edgar Hernández (2001) and Miguel Angel Rodriguez (1997) are the stars of the national 50km squad, together with Juan Toscazo, Saul Mendez, Rogelio Sanchez, Felipe Nava, David Lopez, Humberto Alfaro y Jesus Martinez.
Victoria Lopez, who claimed the Pan American title in Santo Domingo, heads the elite women's 20km group, and is joined by Rosario Sanchez, Mary Ibanez, Aura Morales, Graciela Mendoza, Sandra Evaristo, Francisca Martínez, Estela Hernández and Abigail Sanchez.
“I train to become the best race walker in the world and only an injury will jeopardise my plans", Noe Hernandez told the Mexican sports paper Esto. He usually walks in the morning and works on technique in the afternoon.
Carlos Mercenario, 50km silver medallist at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, is currently presiding over the National Race Walking Commission, as vice-president of the Mexican Athletics Federation.
Organising a leg of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge has also been a great boost for local athletes, who had the opportunity to compete with some of the world's best last year which included Ecuador's Jefferson Perez, Poland's Robert Korzeniowski, Spain's Francisco Fernandez and Ireland's Gillian O"Sullivan.
History and tradition
Race walking was introduced in Mexico in the mid 1960's, after the 20km discipline was accepted in the Olympic programme in the 1956 Games in Melbourne – the 50km Race walk had been a part of the Games since 1932.
As the country was going to host the Olympic Games in 1968, some foreign coaches were hired to help local athletes, with Poland’s Jerzy Hausleber helping to develop race walking in 1966, something which eventually led to his title as "the father of race walking in Mexico".
The first national competition was organised in San Luis Potosi in 1965 and it was won by Eladio Campos. Other pioneers were Pablo Colin, Jose Oliveros, Pascual Ramirez and sergeant Jose Pedraza, who claimed the nation's first international title when winning the 10k walk at the 1966 Central American and Caribbean Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He went on to clinch the silver medal at the Olympic Games, in front of a frenzied local crowd on a historic October 14, 1968 in Mexico City.
Most successful national Olympic sport
Steadily Mexico has established itself as one of the world's leading Race Walking countries, with a pedigree that includes nine Olympic medals since 1968 that makes it the third most successful country in history, behind Russia and Germany. Those nine medals also place Race Walking as the most successful discipline for Mexico in the history of the Olympic Games, together with diving.
Plus, Mexico can also count five World Championships, 23 World Cup medals, three world junior titles and several other Central American and Pan American crowns.
Since Daniel Bautista's gold in Montreal 1976, Mexico has only been absent from the Olympic podium twice (Moscow 1980 and Seoul 1988), and names like Ernesto Canto, Raul Gonzalez, Daniel Garcia, Carlos Mercenario, Bernardo Segura and Noe Hernandez have maintained their winning tradition.
In the record books, Mexican race walkers have improved the 20km and 50km standards 15 times, both on track and road. Two of them, Domingo Colin and Raul Gonzalez, became the first men to break the 1h20 and 3h50 barriers for the sorter and longer distances, respectively. Bernardo Segura still holds the World 20,000m record with 1:17.25.6 (1994).
In the women's field, Maria Guadalupe Sanchez's fifth place in Sydney and Graciela Mendoza's silver medal in the 1993 World Cup have been the most notable achievements. Still trying to equal men's results, the women continue to dominate the continental scene.
While 400m star Ana Guevara seems to be Mexico's best bet for a medal in the Athens Games, Race Walkers will no doubt try to convert their tradition, quality and hard work into another memorable position in Olympic glory.