Reigning Race Walking Challenge women’s titleholder Romania’s Claudia Stef starts her defence at the 2007 IAAF Race Walking Challenge, which opens this weekend in Naucalpan, state of Mexico, 10-11 March.
In the two men’s competitions, with Ecuador’s 1996 Olympic and 2003 and 2005 World champion Jefferson Perez’ absent, Mexican are expected to take centre stage in the men’s 20km and 50km.
WOMEN – 20km
The winner of the Mexican leg and the overall standings last year, Stef hopes to prevail again in Mexico’s high altitude, a race which also includes many other fine athletes including Australia’s Olympic medallist Jane Saville, Norway’s Kjertsti Platzer and China’s Xiaoling Song, Portugal’s Susana Feitor, and Belarus’ Elena Ginko.
Apart from her win in Mexico, the 29-year-old Romanian finished second in Rio Maior and Sesto S. Giovanni. Her consistency paid off as she improved from third in 2005 to first in the series’ overall standings, ahead of 2005 winner and 2006 World Cup champion Ryta Turava of Belarus. In 2004, Stef finished second behind Italy’s Elisa Rigaudo.
In two of the major races of the year, Stef was fifth at the European Championships in Gothenburg and 11th at the World Cup in La Coruña.
One of her main rivals in Mexico this time will be Australian Jane Saville. The 2004 Athens Olympic bronze medallist finished third overall in the 2006 IAAF Race Walking Challenge and hopes to be near or better than her 2005 form, when she finished second to Germany's Melanie Seeger in Tijuana.
"After Mexico I will return to Australia for one week before travelling to Shenzhen, China, for the second round of the IAAF Challenge”, Saville recently confirmed.
Four other 1:28-hour women should not be ignored: Ginko, Plätzer, Feitor and Xiaoling -
Ginko, eighth at the 2004 Olympics, was fifth in Mexico last year, whereas the 19-year old Chinese shows a personal best of 1:28:23 from 2006. At 35 and mother of two, Plätzer is looking forward to a comeback having missed all the IAAF events in 2006 due to injury. She did, however, return in the latter part of the season to take fourth place in the European Championships in Gothenburg, and went on to walk her fastest 20km time in six years in October. Feitor, the 2005 Helsinki World Championships medallist, was second in the 2005 Challenge, and another international entrant is Ludmila Rogunova of Russia.
Mexico is hopeful about the return of 2000 Sydney Olympic fifth place finisher Guadalupe Sánchez and the Area record holder Graciela Mendoza. Two weeks before turning 44, Mendoza, the 1993 World Cup silver medallist was clear to the Mexican press. “I am not quitting”.
20km - With defending champion Jefferson Perez out, Mexicans hope to shine on home soil, but they surely expect hard-fought duels with their Chinese counterparts.
Twenty-year old Eder Sánchez was only seven seconds behind the Ecuadorian star in 2006 and currently carries the host country’s best chances to please the local crowd with a home victory.
Sanchez, eighth at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, who is seen as the brightest Mexican race walking talent, avoided adding pressure to himself -
“I don’t have the level of ‘Paquillo’ Fernández or Jefferson Pérez as they have much more experience than me. You reach the world elite in the 28-33 year old range and I am only 20. I will get to the London Olympics with the perfect age, but if I can succeed in Beijing, it is of course even better” said Sánchez.
“I am in good shape after a fruitful high altitude training camp at Otomi. I have gained endurance and strength”, added Sánchez, who is trained by his father and former race walker Victor Sanchez.
According to the meet organizers, Sánchez will be joined by his countrymen and Olympic medallists Noé Hernández (silver in Sydney 2000) and Bernardo Segura (bonze in Atlanta’96), 1997 world champion Daniel Garcia and 2000 world junior gold medallist Cristian Berdeja.
The Chinese are yet to decide which distance they will contest. The Asian giant’s top bets are 17-year old Guangjun Liu (PB’s of 1:21:13 and 3:51:46) and Pengfei Fang (1:19:08 in 2005), Defu Zhang (1:23:51 and 3:54:59) and Ronglong Zhang (1:21:01 and 4:13:24).
50km - Zepeda and Nava vs. Matyukhin and Garcia
On Sunday, Helsinki sixth place finisher Omar Zepeda and youngster Horacio Nava, seventh at the World Cup in La Coruña, will take on Spain’s 1993 world champion Jesús García of Spain and Russia’s Nikolay Matyukhin at 50km.
García, 37, has been a consistent contestant in the Mexican leg, an event he won here in 2003 and placed second in 2004, 2005 and third in 2006. He will be joined by Mexicans Omar Zepeda, who finished second last year and third in 2005, and Nava, finalized his training in his hometown state of Chihuahua, in northern Mexico.
“I would love to compete and win a medal at the Pan Am Games. It is my pending goal after being disqualified just 700m to the finish when I was third in Santo Domingo 2003,” commented Zepeda.
Nikolay Matyukhin, a 3:43:46 50km man, is also a top candidate for the podium, while Belarus’ Andrei Stepanchuk (1:22:36 and 3:54:31) is also on the starting list.
Last year’s winner was China’s Gadasu Alatan in a time of 3:57:53, followed by Omar Zepeda (3:58.25) and García Bragado (3:58:35). Nava was fourth in 3:59:57.
Javier Clavelo Robinson for the IAAF