Andreas Erm (GER) strides towards World 50km bronze in Paris (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Under Weigel’s wing, Erm is on target for more success

Ronald Weigel arrived just in time for Germany’s World Championship 50km race walking bronze medallist Andreas Erm.

Head coach - from Australia to Germany 

It was in 2002 when Erm’s father Siegfried had to step back from coaching his son for health reasons. He had successfully guided Andreas into world class level race walking.

Over the years that the young German’s talent had been developed by his father, Weigel had watched the progress of his countryman from the other side of the world.

In 1997, Weigel had taken the opportunity to become Australia’s national coach for race walking, having ended an outstanding career a year earlier in which he had won three Olympic medals, become the 1983 World 50km champion, and had twice established the fastest times ever for that distance.

Though successful as Australia’s race walking coach, Weigel in September 2002 decided it was time to come home. Since then the 44 year-old has been Germany’s national coach for race walking.

Matters moved fast, as within another month he also took over as personal coach of Erm, and last summer was able to celebrate as Erm finished third in the 50km event at the World Championships in Paris.

First 20km for two years

The IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Naumburg this weekend (1- 2 May) will be the biggest event for Andreas Erm in between the World Championships in Paris last year and the Olympic Games in Athens in August. Making the same decision as the world’s number one walker Robert Korzeniowski of Poland, Erm has elected to contest the 20k event.

However, though the World Cup will be on home soil Erm does not want expectations to rise too high.

“For me this is not the most important test for the Olympics. It would be nice to beat the national qualifying time for the Olympics of 1:21:00. But it is difficult to say what is possible for me.”

It will be the first time for nearly two years that Andreas Erm has race walked 20km, and so the first time he has set out under Weigel’s supervision. Erm’s best time of 1:18:42 is nearly four years old and has stood as national record since then.

Faster than the coach, and more to come

Meanwhile the athlete from Berlin who starts for Sport-Club Potsdam holds the 50km record as well, and in the process of winning a medal in Paris last August Erm beat the German record of his coach. It was back in 1986 when Ronald Weigel clocked 3:38:17 in Potsdam which had stood as a world best for three years. In winning the World bronze medal in Paris Erm covered the distance in 3:37:46, and Weigel is convinced that there is more to come from his 28 year-old athlete.

“Already now Andreas should be able to achieve a result around 3:35 hours in a perfect race”, Ronald Weigel says. This would be about one minute faster than Robert Korzeniowski’s world record for the distance (3:36:03). But of course Weigel stresses that one cannot expect such a time of Erm in a big championship. “Going for a world record would be interesting, but you have to find a quiet year for such an attempt.” Clearly this is the wrong year for this. “But looking towards the Olympics you have to reach a level at which it would be possible to race walk 3:36 for 50 k. Otherwise I believe that there is no chance for a medal,”confirmed Weigel.

Both distances in Athens?

“I don’t think too much yet about what could be possible for me in Athens. I simply hope to stay healthy and go there possibly in an even better form than last year,” said a cautious Andreas Erm says. If everything is fine he might even try something special and tackle both distances at the Olympics. “I intended to try this since a couple of others have done so in the past. The timetable would allow to double, because the 20 k event will be on the 21st of August with the 50km to follow six days later. But we will decide this on short notice.”

Career beginnings

It was at about the age of ten when Andreas Erm started doing athletics. “I was not bad at running but in the end I lacked the ability of sprinting”, Erm recalled. So he tried walking which went well. “And I had fun doing it.”  He remembers being very ambitious already as a youngster. He qualified for the sports’ school of TSC Berlin and thus profited from the GDR’s sports system for youngsters.

But when things changed after the wall came down (he was 13 in 1989) and care was no longer as intensive, he changed clubs and went for his local club Fortuna Marzahn. It is a small club in an outer eastern district of Berlin, dominated by towering houses with thousands of flats built by the former GDR government. It is not a place you would go to when visiting Berlin but nonetheless Erm still trains there regularly. He has meanwhile moved into the centre of Berlin.

European Junior champion but some bad luck too

At the age of 19 (1995) Andreas Erm became European Junior Champion at 10,000 m walking. But there were difficult years to come when he had no luck. Being just 21 years he finished 15th at the 20km event of the 1997 World Championships in Athens – only later on to learn of his disqualification.

Though finishing fourth a year later at the European Championships in Budapest he was again unlucky in the next year, as during the 20km final of the World Championships he was pushed and fell right onto a refreshment table. The rhythm was lost, nothing worked out and he dropped out.

First 50km

“Despite all this I gained some experience”, Erm had said before the Olympics 2000, where he then showed his best performance on senior level during the period his father coached him. Andreas Erm finished 5th at the 20k event and said at that time: “At present I can not imagine doing a 50k walk.” However, two years later he did just that, clocking 3:45:28.

“I wanted to prove that I can do it and I intended to do both walks at the 2002 European Championships in Munich.” But in the end he did none. Being injured he had to pull out of the German team. It was the second year in a row that injury had struck an unlucky blow to his championships hopes because in 2001 he had not finished the 20km event at the World Championships due to injury.

Like father, like Weigel

Then came the change of coach. “They (his father and Weigel) are different characters”, Erm confirms but he stresses that the changes in training that took place were not really planned. “They were necessary to avoid new injuries. So we did less speed-work and therefore slightly increased the mileage. Ronald has a very sensitive touch when he is working with me. He did the right things at the right time. But saying this I have to add that it was very similar with my father. There really is not much difference. This time in Paris I simply was lucky as well.”

Weigel also speaks very openly about how it became possible to win the bronze medal for Andreas: “Clearly it is the work of his father Siegfried in the past that laid the foundation of this medal. He had developed the potential of Andreas successfully for many years.”

Mexican High Altitude base

Though he has a sensitive approach, Weigel is a coach who favours hard training, especially when it comes to high altitude. Never before has Andreas Erm trained in such high surroundings. It is just two weeks ago that they returned from a training camp in Toluca (Mexico). Weigel knew the place from former times as an athlete.

“You live 2500 metres above sea level and you can train in regions up to 3800 metres. It is really hard to train there – but that is what is needed if you want to be successful,” Weigel explains and adds: “If your training camp is like a paradise you will not be able to go through hell in competition. It does not help to train in the shade under palm trees when you will have heat and dust in the Olympic final.”

Erm was doing 200 kilometres on average per week in Toluca. Being a soldier and a member of the elite sports division of the Bundeswehr at Potsdam he has very good conditions for life as a full time athlete. Five days a week he does two training sessions each, on the remaining two days there will be one session each. “On these two days it is often running not walking.” 

Passing on his knowledge

“If you work with world class athletes like Andreas you have to have a certain feeling. You must know what is needed at which time and you have to find a personal touch”, Weigel stresses. “When I had finished my career I had thought of opening an antiques’ business. But then I decided that this could wait until some time in the future. First I wanted to pass on my knowledge to the athletes and work as a coach.”

Saville’s loss was Erm’s gain

When Weigel was a national coach in Australia Kerry Saxby won a bronze medal at the World championships in Seville 1999 and Nathan Deakes progressed into world-class becoming double Commonwealth Games Champion in 2002.

The biggest blow had come two years earlier. Jane Saville was so close to winning the Olympic gold medal when she was disqualified just before entering the Olympic Stadium in Sydney. Had Saville won gold that day Weigel might still be in Australia today. He himself is not sure what would have happened. At least in this case Andreas Erm was lucky.