He was a forlorn figure at the last IAAF World Championships – but Denis Nizhegorodov let it be known he was back with a vengeance at the 9th European Cup of Race Walking in Olhão, Portugal on Saturday (21).
The Russian World record holder has been in the wars for the last two years after becoming a DNF in Berlin two years ago.
A double muscle rupture in his leg delayed Nizhegorodov’s return to the podium – but there was only walker willing to follow his blistering promenade on the Algarve.
Marco De Luca mounted a brave challenge up to 30 kilometers, and once the Italian wilted in the heat it was a coast for Nizhegorodov to the finish.
It gave him back-to-back wins in the Cup, and the chance to put all his injury woes behind him.
He said: “I couldn’t put any pressure on my legs for a long time, but slowly I’ve got back to fitness, and finished a low key 50k race in Russia behind today’s second place as a way of preparing for this one."
The second place in question was Igor Yerohkin, who bided his team deep inside a large group before making tracks on De Luca in the last 20k.
The second Russian passed the slowing Italian, and that was that as far as the podium was concerned.
De Luca said: “I had the confidence to go with Nizhegorodov – and I wanted a medal and a PB, but one out of two was still very good.”
The group containing Chris Linke (Germany), Artur Brzozowski (Poland) and Colin Griffin (Ireland) were part of Yerohkin’s original group, with the first two claiming fourth and fifth while Italian Jean-Jacques Nkouloukidi debuted at the distance and walked a perfectly judged race for sixth.
Needless to say, the team podium put Russia on top with De Luca and Nkouloukidi cementing Italy’s silver followed by a solid Polish performance for third.
The fly in the Russian junior ointment came from the country next door.
Ukraine takes men's junior title, Russia cruises to women's
Ukraine became the newest major gold medallist in a walk when Ihor Lyashchenko hammered out a last 3k to get the better of Germany’s IAAF World Youth champion Hagen Pohle – and just as good, the winner’s team took team gold thanks to Oleksandr Verbytskyi in fourth.
In between, early leader Dementiy Cheparev (Russia) tailed off from the front two at 8k, but still had enough for third and team silver even though pre-race favourite Pavel Parshin suffered a relative off day to finish fifth in a sprint with Spain’s Alvaro Martin.
If the junior men’s was in doubt until the second half of the race – the junior women’s 10k was over by the second half of lap one.
Yelena Lashmanova got the better of Russian team-mate Svetlana Yasilyeva to reverse the one-two finish at the Russian Winter Championships in February.
The first two even had time for a word on the PA system before Kate Veale crossed for third two minutes later – but what a race for the Irish 17-year-old.
Red haired and fair skinned, she made light of the blistering conditions to not only claim bronze – but a PB as well – one of the very few on a difficult day.
But fourth was three minutes further back to underline the huge gap between medallists and the mass.
Russia has got used to hearing its own anthem at major walks – and there was still two more to come in the early evening.
Moving up the ranks, Emelyanov takes win over 20Km
Stanislav Emelyanov’s future as a senior is assured after this 20k win in Olhão – to follow up his fabulous victories as an IAAF junior and youth.
The Russian proved that gold in last year’s European Championships was just the start of something big – and when he got to 18k, he left the chasers for dead.
When Spaniard Ben Sanchez suddenly clutched his hamstring like he had been shot with 500 metres left, he allowed IAAF World Walking Cup winner Matej Toth to take silver at the shorter distance and leave the bronze to surprise package Jakub Jalonek from Poland.
Jalonek has a modest 1:22:17 PB, but the protégé of former IAAF World champion Ilya Markov was always up with the leaders – and deserved a reward for his courage.
A group of 12 took a while to get whittled down – but it was the complete opposite for the last race of the day – even if it did produce Russia’s fourth win out of five.
World record holder Vera Sokolova was never in trouble from halfway when she forged a gap over team-mate Anisya Kirdyapkina.
But although the winner was assured, second and third switched back and forth like a tennis match.
IAAF World Walking Cup winner from 2010, Maria Vasco, was caught by Olive Loughnane, and when the IAAF World champion silver medallist was disqualified on the last lap, a revived Kirdyapkina was back in second place.
From way back, Elisa Rigaudo came on like a train and with eight-month old daughter Elena in mind, took third as well as an IAAF World Championships qualifying time for her pains.
The new kids on the walking block were clearly Ukraine.
Not only did they pick up double gold in the junior men’s race, they also won team bronze in the senior women’s 20k.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF