In his first year as an U20 athlete, China’s Zhang Yao has already set his eyes on winning all the big titles in the age group.
Earlier this year, the world U18 champion cut 25 seconds off his personal best to win the U20 men’s 10km title in 40:07 at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Taicang 2018.
Now he is focused on winning a third global gold medal at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018.
“The event in Taicang was my first international race at the U20 level,” he said after his victory in the U20 men’s race. “My goal was to win both of the individual and team gold medals and I am very glad to achieve that.
“It was not my first global victory,” he added. “The world U18 title last year proved my ability as a youth athlete. The title in Taicang, meanwhile, showed that I have made a successful transition to the next age group. I am still at the top of the world; that is important to me.”
After taking two global age-group titles in successive years, Zhang knows he will start as one of the favourites for the 10,000m race walk in Tampere, but he doesn’t mind the extra pressure.
“Many athletes will see me as their target and will try to beat me,” he said. “But I simply see it as an extra responsibility to give it my all and fight for the top honours for my country.”
Zhang was born in the city of Wuhai in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, which has a strong tradition in race walking. The area has produced the likes of world 20km race walk champion Yang Jiayu and 2010 World Race Walking Cup 20km silver medallist Chu Yafei.
Having shown a keen interest in basketball as a youngster, Zhang’s athletic ability was identified by his school’s race walking coach when he was in fifth grade. He later began to train as part of the Inner Mongolia regional team at the age of 13, under the guidance of coach Alatan Gadasu, who finished 10th in the 50km race walk at the 2004 Olympic Games.
“At first my parents did not want me to train in race walking because they believed the event was too arduous,” said Zhang. “But after my victories in a series of small competitions, they changed their mind.
“It’s quite lucky I chose race walking instead of basketball,” he adds. “Back then I was more than 1.5m tall, which is quite tall for a primary school student, but now I am just 1.7m, which is obviously not ideal for basketball.”
Zhang seldom plays basketball now, but he still follows the NBA and is a fan of Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry. His biggest sporting idol, though, is Olympic 20km race walk champion Wang Zhen.
“He has good technique,” says Zhang. “Sometimes I try to learn from his technique in order to improve mine.”
Zhang is hesitant to adopt Wang’s racing tactics, though. Instead of building up a big lead from the start as Wang often does, Zhang prefers to follow his opponents during the first half of a race before making a break in the closing stages, a tactic he used to great effect in Taicang.
One of Zhang’s long-term goals is to break Wang’s Chinese 20km race walk record of 1:17:36.
“I started to train for the 20km last winter and my best time is about 1:24,” he says. “I want to break Wang’s record as a way of paying respect to my idol, but I still have a long way to go.
“My ultimate goal is to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games, like Wang did in 2016,” he adds. “It doesn’t have to be in Tokyo in 2020; maybe the 2024 Olympics will be the right occasion.”
Vincent Wu for the IAAF