Daisuke Matsunaga handed himself an early birthday present when he won the Asian Race Walking Championships in Nomi City on Sunday (20) and secured a second Olympic berth for Japan at 20km.
His surprise victory in the race that forms part of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge sees the university student on the plane to Rio alongside Eiki Takahashi who won the Japanese Championships exactly a month ago.
Matsunaga was in tears in Kobe when he was disqualified with 500 metres to go, but admitted his tears were those of joy and relief this time.
“I made this race my aim,” he said. “And when I knew I had it, I was crying during the last kilometre.
"I wanted to quit walking after Kobe, but there was always the hope I could go still go to Rio."
Matsunaga will only be 21 on Thursday, but the world junior champion took the race by the scruff of the neck like a senior.
He had only compatriot Takumi Saito for company at 5km as both forged a five-second gap over the rest. By halfway, the glove-wearing Matsunaga was on his own as a rising sun appeared for the first time to warm a chilly morning around the twisting two-kilometre loop in the city on Honshu’s north west coast.
It was hardly surprising, given that his second 5km was the fastest of the race at 19:36, which provided an indirect benefit for Inaki Gomez.
The Canadian, competing as a guest, held back slightly from the initial stampede and his patience was rewarded when he passed a tiring Saito just before 15km and then gave chase to the leader.
The eventual winner was further up the road by 19 seconds, and although Matsunaga tired a notch over the final quarter (20:01), so did Gomez.
Even so, the Canadian’s second place (1:19:20) was one of five national records set in the race and also sees him likely to face the winner again in Rio.
Gomez slashed 37 seconds off Ben Thorne’s mark set only last August on his way to a surprise bronze at the IAAF World Championships. But at Nomi, Thorne was off the pace from the start and retired after dramatically slowing to 10km where he already lagged by nearly a kilometre from the leaders.
Saito dug deep and had Gomez for company up to 15km, but his early effort alongside the winner eventually told over the last 5km, and 20:31 to Gomez’s 20:09 told its own tale.
Also racing under Japan’s Olympic qualifying standard of 1:20:12 was Kai Kobayashi in fourth place. He too was just about hanging with the leaders over the first 12km and, although relatively isolated from 15km, raced strongly for 1:19:57 although not as fast as last year’s effort.
That 2015 race led to a world record for Yusuke Suzuki, but his absence here was the elephant in the room.
Expected to make up for disappointment at the World Championships, the super talent sustained a hip problem early in the year. Having missed Kobe and now Nomi, his Olympics will be like most of us: watched from the comfort of an armchair.
Isamu Fujisawa was equally frustrated. His terrific duel with Takahashi in Kobe last month netted him a 1:18:45 personal best, but it appeared to have caught up with him in Nomi.
Fujisawa was never close to the leaders, but although others might have called it a day at any time after 5km, he bravely battled to 10th place (1:20:49) behind a clutch of Indian race walkers led by Devender Singh in a fine fifth (1:20:21) that also added to his country’s reputation as a world race walking force.
Apart from Gomez, back down the field there were national records for Iran with Hamidreza Zoorvand finishing 20th. Vietnam’s Than Ngung Nguyen claimed a new mark one place back. Indonesia now has Hendro Hendo to champion, and even tiny Singapore and Edmund Sim underline race walking’s increasing appeal word wide.
In the women’s race there was a one-two for China with Na Wang prevailing over teammate Rui Liang.
The pair had Japan’s Kumiko Okada for company over the first 12km. But the home favourite, trying to repeat last year’s win, suffered from there on out.
Over the course of just 3km she dropped a massive 23 seconds to leave a battle for first and second. It was Wang who lit the afterburners to forge a decisive gap with a 21:40 split for the final 5km for which Liang had no answer.
The winner’s time, 1:28:21, sliced a hefty 1:58 chunk off her personal best. For Okada, it’s back to the drawing board in a bid to gain Olympic qualification.
“I am so disappointed, but my legs felt so heavy after 10k,” said Okada.
The USA’s Maria Michta-Coffey might equally feel a little deflated by her 1:30:49 finish for fourth place. One more second and the American of Polish descent would have broken her PB set nearly two years ago at Taicang’s IAAF World Walking Cup.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF