Officially, the fastest competitor for this Sunday's IAAF World Race Walking Cup 50km (11 May) is Italy's Alex Schwazer, not that the double World Championship bronze medal winner is approaching this event expecting to secure a podium place.
“I am sure that the Russians will dominate the race” he said, before departing for Cheboksary.
Schwazer also makes the hosts strong favourites for the team race in front of a likely massive home crowd of supporters.
“For the team competition they could even be placed with all their athletes in the top five places if everyone in their team does a good job.”
His reluctance to predict he will be among them isn’t due to modesty - but the lessons of a short, yet up-and-down, career to date. One that has taught him that victory over 50km is not just about being in the best condition but also playing a waiting game - needing to be timed to perfection.
The 23-year-old stands out from the usual hard-bitten and wiry 50km race walkers - such as Robert Korzeniowski or Jesús Ángel García - in that Schwazer gained his first World Championship medal at the distance at the tender age of just 20.
He also stands out as a tall, blond poster boy for Italian athletics - explained by his origins in the village of Vipiteno, 30km from the Austrian border in the German-speaking region of Alto Adige, also known as Su¨dtyrol.
However, his introduction to the beat of race walking through his profession in the Carabinieri follows a well trodden route.
“I started seriously with race walking at the end of 2003. At this time I did many sports but the Carabinieri gave me the possibility to become professional so I started my career there. The Carabinieri and also the other military groups in Italy are very important for the sport in general and so I'm very happy to be a part of that.”
Schwazer's international race walking debut came in the 2004 IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Naumburg, Germany, after qualifying with 4:00:51 for second in the Italian 50km championships as a junior.
“I was 19 years old, was at school and had no experience, so the DNF was normal”, he recalled.
Unnoticed internationally prior to Helsinki
Schwazer's medal breakthrough came the following year. In May, he improved to a 3:49:42 for sixth in the European Cup. Then, in August in Helsinki, keeping to his coach Sandro Damilano's instructions to ‘listen to his body’, he won a surprise World
Championship bronze medal in an Italian national record 3:41:54.
“Well, I think my shape in Helsinki was very good. I had no problems in my preparation and before the race I was very relaxed. I said to myself 'let's see how good old men are against the young boy!' ”
“Sandro (Damilano) told me to remember to walk even-paced, below 155bpm on my heart rate monitor, but in the race I was laughing as it was reading only 92-93bpm”, he said after the race.
Sandro Damilano, is the brother and former coach of 1980 Olympic 20km champion and double World Champion Maurizio Damilano. He has also guided Elisa Rigaudo to her
During the Helsinki 50km, with Russians clear in first and second, Trond Nymark thought a medal was in the bag even when Schwazer came up from way back to contest third in the final 10km. “I didn't even recognise the Italian when he caught me but he was too strong in the last 5km,” confessed the experienced Norwegian afterwards.
The IAAF translator at the medal press conference was also surprised, then charmed, by her compatriot's cosmopolitan nature as his first response to an Italian reporter's question was to ask her, in perfect English, “What language would you like me to answer in?”
Tactical mistake in Osaka
Illness picked up when altitude training in South America curtailed his preparations for the 2006 season and Alex failed to finish the European Championships in Gothenburg.
The following (2007) season began with more record breaking but ended a
disappointment. Just two months after Nathan Deakes set his World record 3:35:47, Schwazer walked a solo 3:36:04 in the Italian National Championships - the third best on record and just a second slower than Robert Korzeniowski's best at his peak age of 35.
With that under his belt, in the heat of Osaka, given a chance to prove himself against Deakes and Gothenburg winner Yohann Diniz, Schwazer chose a similar approach to the one that served him so well in Helsinki.
What it did was return the same result.
“Everybody understood that I was the one who could win any 50km. In Osaka my condition was the same as when I walked 3:36 but tactically I did a horrible race.” He said looking back.
Despite a fearsome finishing pace (his final one kilometre was reported as 4:08), Schwaz-er won the bronze again - ending just 16 seconds behind Diniz, and 46 seconds behind the winner Deakes.
The tactical mistake was in waiting too long before increasing his pace, which he did after the thirtieth kilometre with a gap not even Alex could chase down.
So far this year Alex has concentrated on holding back his early season performances.
“This year my only goal is the Olympics! The Italian Championships were a good training walk and also at Cheboksary I will not be in perfect shape.”
Schwazer took the Italian title again in March in an “easy” 3:54:10, and just last week cruised to sixth place over 20km in the IAAF Race Walking Challenge at Sesto San Giovanni - behind even that old hand at 50km Jesús Ángel García.
“I don't know if Sesto was only training for him or a real competition. I only trained there and I had a lactate reading 1.4 at the finish.”
A great coach and a great man with a big heart
On his breakthrough in 2005 in Helsinki, starved successes on the track to report, the Ital-ian press concentrated on Alex's scientific training methods. Alex’s resting heart rate of 29 was compared favourably with that great hero of Italian endurance Fausto Coppi but the reality is that such conditioning is pretty much required for any top race walker.
With more emozioni than physiology, Alex paid tribute to his coach.
“Sandro (Damilano) was and is really important for me. He is a great coach and a great man with a big heart.”
“There are secrets. I control my heart rate during training and competition to see how hard I work but there are many other athletes who do the same.”
“50km is a long distance and there are periods where you have to work hard; long training sessions, interval training but also easy training for recovery. The same as the other ath-letes do.”
Schwazer and Damilano will decide about their Olympic goals, and future racing plans after the World Cup.
“The Olympics are too important, so as to the World record I think we will try it to break it in the next few years but about my goals in China I can say only said one thing - it's time to win! Physically I can do it and I think now also mentally. I have more experience and I know that if I am in good shape everything is possible.”
Tim Watt for the IAAF
Italian team for Cheboksary:
20 Km Senior
Ivano BRUGNETTI (G.A. Fiamme Gialle)
Lorenzo CIVALLERO (C.S. Carabinieri Sez. Atletica)
Fortunato D'ONOFRIO (ASD Bruni Pubbl. Atl. Vomano)
Jean Jacques NKOULOUKIDI (G.A. Fiamme Gialle)
Daniele PARIS (C.S. Aeronautica Militare)
Diego CAFAGNA (C.S. Carabinieri Sez. Atletica)
Marco DE LUCA (G.A. Fiamme Gialle)
Matteo GIUPPONI (C.S. Carabinieri Sez. Atletica/Atl. Bergamo 1959 Creberg)
Dario PRIVITERA (C.S. Aeronautica Militare)
Alex SCHWAZER (C.S. Carabinieri Sez. Atletica)
10 Km Junior
Vito DI BARI (CUS Bari)
Federico TONTODONATI (CUS Torino)
Riccardo MACCHIA (A.S.D. Falco Azzurro-Carichieti)
20 Km Senior
Federica FERRARO (Universale Alba Docilia)
Rossella GIORDANO (G.S. Fiamme Azzurre)
Gisella ORSINI (C.S. Forestale)
Elisa RIGAUDO (G.A. Fiamme Gialle)
Valentina TRAPLETTI (C.S. Esercito)
10 Km Junior
Eleonora Anna GIORGI (Atl. Lecco-Colombo Costruz.)
Mara MISURACA (Alto Lazio A.S.D.)
Antonella PALMISANO (A.S.D. Atletica Don Milani)