Liu Hong wins at the Lugano Trophy (Giancarlo Colombo) © Copyright
Preview Rio Maior, Portugal

Challenge winners Dmytrenko and Liu take on defending champions in Rio Maior

The Rio Maior International Race Walking Grand Prix returns to the Portuguese municipality on Saturday (18) with a host of world and Olympic medallists set to compete at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting.

In both the men’s and women’s 20km events, the overall 2014 IAAF Race Walking Challenge winners will be up against the defending champions.

In the men’s event, Ukraine’s reigning challenge winner Ruslan Dmytrenko will face Brazil’s Caio Bonfim, who triumphed in Rio Maior last year, while China’s Liu Hong, the 2014 challenge leader, will line up against last year’s Rio Maior champion Vera Santos of Portugal.

South American champion Bonfim has so far this year finished third in Lugano and fourth in Dudince and Podebrady, but he has clocked times of 1:22:00 and 1:21:43, which is significantly quicker than the marks he was producing at this stage of the season last year.

Meanwhile, IAAF World Race Walking Cup winner Dmytrenko will be contesting his first race of 2015, so the Ukrainian record-holder’s current form is unknown.

World 50km race walk champion Robert Heffernan will be contesting his first 20km race of 2015. The 37-year-old from Ireland recently clocked 3:48:44 in Dudince, his fastest 50km performance outside of a major championship.

Fellow 50km specialist Matej Toth will be making his first appearance in Rio Maior since his victory here in 2012. The Slovakian recently clocked the third-fastest time in history over 50km with 3:34:38 in Dudince and last week the European silver medallist placed second over 20km in Podebrady, finishing almost a minute ahead of Bonfim.

Two Olympic medallists will also be in the field. Guatemala’s Olympic silver medallist Erick Barrondo heads to Rio Maior after finishing second in Chihuahua and third in Podebrady, while Olympic bronze medallist Wang Zhen leads a strong Chinese contingent which also includes Olympic fourth-place finisher Cai Zelin.

Wang recently won the Chinese World Championships 20km trial race. Fellow trials winner Yu Wei, who triumphed over 50km at that competition, will also be in Rio Maior.

Aside from the likes of Bonfim and Barrondo, there will be a notable presence of athletes from Central and South America. 2011 world bronze medallist Luis Fernando Lopez will be joined by Colombian compatriot Eider Arevalo, the 2012 world junior champion who last year broke Lopez’s national record with 1:19:45.

Following second-place finishes in Dudince and Chihuahua this year, Ecuadoran 50km record-holder Andres Chocho will be joined in Rio Maior by Mexico’s 2009 world bronze medallist Eder Sanchez.

Other European contenders in the field include the recently improved Bertrand Moulinet from France, whose recent 1:19:18 clocking makes him the fastest in the field this year. Joining him are Poland’s Rafal Augustyn, Ukraine’s World Championships 50km fourth-place finisher Igor Hlavan, Italian duo Giorgio Rubino and Matteo Giupponi, and home favourite Joao Vieira, whose two victories in Rio Maior came 16 years apart, the most recent being in 2013.

Liu looks to break European dominance in Rio Maior

In all but one of the past 23 editions of the International Race Walking Grand Prix in Rio Maior, the women’s 20km has been won by European athletes. The only non-European winner to date was China’s 1999 world 20km champion Liu Hongyu.

This weekend, her near-namesake Liu Hong will aim to get China back on top of the podium in the Portuguese municipality.

Liu, who has won medals at the past three World Championships, has already got her season off to a strong start after clocking 1:27:39 at China’s World Championships trials, beaten only by the Asian record-breaking performance by Lu Xiuzhi.

Liu’s consistency in 2014 – which included a second-place finish at the World Race Walking Cup – was rewarded by her overall victory in the IAAF Race Walking Challenge, and she will be looking to replicate that success this year by scoring valuable points this weekend.

But the in-form Italian Eleonora Giorgi could scupper Liu’s plans. The 25-year-old powered to victory in Dudince earlier this year, breaking the Italian record with 1:26:46, making her the fastest race walker this year of the entries in Rio Maior.

Liu will be joined by compatriot Qieyang Shenjie, the athlete who broke Liu’s Asian 20km record when taking bronze at the London 2012 Olympics. After finishing fourth at her country’s World Championships Trials and seeing her own national record broken, Qieyang will want to make amends.

In a race that doubles up as the Portuguese Championships, there will be a strong contingent from the host nation, led by defending champion Vera Santos. The two-time Rio Maior champion is now 33, but set her lifetime best of 1:28:02 less than a year ago.

Joining her are fellow Portuguese race walkers Ana Cabecinha and Ines Henriques, who have both finished in the top four in the challenge standings for the past two years. Both athletes have also made it on to the podium three times in Rio Maior.

No athlete, man or woman, has won in Rio Maior as often as Susana Feitor. The 40-year-old has triumphed eight times in her home town, the most recent victory being in 2001, and will be keen to make up for her failure to finish last year. She will also have the added incentive of qualifying for her 12th World Championships appearance later this summer.

Italy’s Elisa Rigaudo is another former Rio Maior winner in the field. The 34-year-old has finished in the top 10 at eight global championships between 2003 and 2013, during which time she earned Olympic bronze in 2008. This will be her first race since the 2013 World Championships.

The second-place finishers from the past two editions will be back in Rio Maior for another bite of the cherry. Guatemala’s Mirna Ortiz set a Central American record of 1:28:31 when finishing second here in 2013, while Erica de Sena set a Brazilian record of 1:31:22 with her second-place finish last year.

Other Europeans in the field include Spanish champion Julia Takacs and Portugal-based Lithuanian Kristina Saltanovic.

Antonio Manuel Fernandes for the IAAF