Francisco Fernandez wins in Rio Maior (loc) © Copyright
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Fernandez - Responsive to the master's ideas

Francisco Javier Fernandez is ready to take his place as the world’s number one 20k race walker – and the man making the claim should know.

There are few who doubt the credentials of Robert Korzenowski, who won an incredible four Olympic golds before retiring after the last of them in 2004. The Pole received a flood of money-spinning offers to coach walkers when he threw away his racing shoes, but refused all overtures except two, and Korzeniowski reckons money had nothing to do with agreeing to look after the Spaniard known as ‘Paquillo’.

“It was an emotional thing, and I just couldn’t deny Francisco,” is why the three-time World 50km champion-turned-coach finally agreed to look after Fernandez.

The emotions involved were a plea from the Spaniard following the death from brain cancer of Fernandez’s life-long coach Manuel Alcalde in April 2004.

Later that year when Fernandez popped the question, Alcalde’s wife was also there, but it took another six months before Korzeniowski finally said yes.

In between, he did his homework as thoroughly as any preparation that saw him top podium after podium in a 20-year career.

“I needed to know how responsive Paquillo was to my ideas; how much the Spanish federation would take to an outsider being involved with one of their top walkers, and in the end I agreed to a one-year experimental period,”
explained Korzeniowski.

Since when the Pole has extended the arrangement up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when he believes 29-year-old Fernandez will finally shrug off the label of the ‘nearly man.’

Despite a PB of 1:17:22 set in Turku in 2002, then the world’s fastest ever (Road events didn’t become official as World records until 1 January 2004) it is an agonising second behind the World best by Jefferson Perez in Paris during the 2003 World Championships which became the first official World record for 20km at the start of 2004.

It’s been mostly the awesome Ecuadorean that’s forced Fernandez to make do with three major silvers, although Ivano Brugnetti of Italy broke the sequence when the Italian forged ahead to win gold at the 2004 Olympics.

Now, Korzeniowski reckons Fernandez can forget about settling for second best. The Pole has improved the technique of the Spaniard and made it ‘less dynamic and more economical’ as well as refocusing Paquillo’s training to peak only at major races.

Korzeniowski explained: “If you are a musician and you hear a wrong note, you know which one should have been struck. It was the same with Francisco.”

The Polish champion was delighted to see his man break the tape at the IAAF Race Walking World Challenge in Rio Maior, Portugal on April 3 in a nippy 1:20:36.

He did even better at the weekend with a 1:18:33 clocking at the latest IAAF Challenge in Yangzhou, China, where he followed Chinese junior sensation Li Gaobo and Russia’s Ilya Markov home for third place.

It was all the more pleasing for Korzeniowski, because the Russian is the other major athlete the ex-champion coaches, and despite their fine efforts in China, the race was not a peak in either man’s season.

“The plan is for Francisco to win the 20km gold in Beijing in 2008 and for Ilya to win the 50km,” is the ultimate goal from their coach. These two men are respectively the 2002 and 1998 European champions at 20km.

Yes, but can Fernandez finally get the better of Perez and the other major pretenders to the global throne?

“Of course he can,” claims Korzeniowski. “He has the conditioning and the right preparation, and I believe he has the confidence - although that’s something that’s difficult to coach, and Paquillo still has to do it for himself once the gun goes.”

Paul Warburton for the IAAF