Liu Hong’s name means ‘rainbow’ in Chinese; quite fitting for someone who, like the lyrics of the famous song “Somewhere over the rainbow” suggests, has found that the dreams you dare to dream really do come true.
“I would say race walking that chose me rather than the other way round,” said the 28-year-old, who has steadily progressed over the past 12 years to become a world record-holder.
“When I was a little girl I was naughty, but I usually did well in school sports meetings,” she said.
Born in a rural area in China’s Jiangxi Province, at the age of 15 Liu met with Sun Li’an, who is now coach of Olympic 20km race walk champion Chen Ding. Sun was impressed by Liu’s talent and helped her to relocate to Shenzhen where he began to coach Liu.
“At first I just thought it would be a great opportunity to go to the big city and see the world outside, and it would help to ease the economic burden from my family,” said Liu, who comes from a modest background. “Being a champion or even breaking the world record was beyond my expectation back then.”
Liu won the world junior title and Asian Games gold medal in 2006, but she first emerged on the senior stage in 2008 when she finished fourth at the Beijing Olympic Games.
Coming from a country that obtained 51 Olympic gold medals in Beijing and possessed sport idols like Liu Xiang and Yao Ming, it was difficult for a fourth-placed race walker to become a superstar. But Liu kept working hard outside of the spotlight.
She won numerous national and Asian titles and quickly established herself as the best race walker in the continent, finishing third at the 2009 IAAF World Championships, first at the 2010 Asian Games and second at the 2011 World Championships.
Her progress continued in 2012 and she improved the Asian record to 1:25:46 when winning the Taicang leg of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge. But at the Olympic Games later that year, Liu once again finished just outside the medals in fourth place, beaten by her younger compatriot Qieyang Shenjie, who broke Liu’s Asian record to take the bronze medal.
Liu suffered another setback in 2013 at the quadrennial Chinese National Games, the most important national-level competition in China.
Having set the pace for most of the race, Liu was caught in the final few meters by teenager Lu Xiuzhi, and had to settle for the silver medal.
“I was very frustrated, but this is sport,” said Liu. “I knew it was pointless to rue over the defeat. What I needed to do was to keep working and strive for the next victory.”
And that is exactly what she did. The sour taste of defeat gave Liu the motivation to go faster and in 2014 she began to focus on the world record.
“A good result depends on not only your own ability, but also some external conditions including the weather, the course and your opponents,” said Liu. “I had planned to break the mark in several previous competitions but in Spain the conditions were just right.”
Last month at the Spanish leg of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge in La Coruna, Liu triumphed in 1:24:38 to beat the previous world record of 1:25:02 set by Russia’s Elena Lashmanova at the 2012 Olympics.
Liu attributed her success to her current coach Sandro Damilano of Italy, who has been guiding Liu since 2010.
“I am just an executor on the course; my coach and every one of the team tried their best to help me achieve the goal,” said Liu. “In his coaching career of more than 40 years, Damilano has trained a number of the world’s top race walkers. He analyses the development of race walking in different parts of the world and pays close attention to other athletes’ progress. And he is willing to listen to suggestions from others.
I feel lucky to train with him,” she added. “He really helps me a lot.”
With the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 less than a month away, Liu believes her record-breaking feat in Spain has not disturbed her preparation and she is on course to realise her other life-long ambition of winning a global title.
“After a few days of rest, I did not feel any degradation in my form,” she said. “Instead, I was more eager to train and compete. I think it was a good signal.
“The World Championships will be the most important competition for me this year,” she added. “I want to race at my best level in Beijing.”
And perhaps, after five successive top-four finishes and three medals at global championships, Liu will finally be rewarded with a long-awaited gold medal.
Vincent Wu for the IAAF