In the short history of the annual IAAF Race Walking Challenge no woman can match Romania's Claudia Stef in terms of consistency.
In its six years she had been ranked five times in the top six (the last five), and four times in the first three positions. Her best placing was in 2006 when Stef took the overall title.
Speaking while on a training visit to Portugal, the 30-year-old Romanian spoke proudly of her achievements:
“In the last few years I have been ranked in the first three positions four times. I’ve had luck. I supposed I’ve been very well prepared for the Challenge but I’ve also done well in World and European Championships in the last five years - I was sixth in Osaka, eighth in Helsinki, fifth in Paris and I was fifth in the 2006 European Championship. I’ve consistently shown I’m in the world top eight in major competitions and have had very good results which I hope to maintain.”
A record of racing, and importantly finishing, in the Challenge
In the early stages of 2008 Challenge, after - for her - a lowly sixth placing in 2007 and suffering from a knee injury, Stef wasn’t optimistic. However, her determination shone through to bring her third place in the 2008 Challenge.
“I was a bit lucky, I have to say, with the way it worked out”.
Her best time of the year of 1:30:55 recorded for at Kraków Challenge race ranked Stef at just 43rd best in the world on time (her fastest ever is 1:27:41 set in 2004), but her perse-verance and consistency paid off with third position in the series. From starting off with 12th place in Rio Maior, Stef scored third position in Sesto San Giovanni, ITA, 21st place in Chekoksary, RUS, third in Krakow and seventh at La Coruna, ESP before her sixth placing in the final.
Walking began as a sad story but now a way of life
According to Stef, how she came into race walking also arose from a sad story.
“I took part in athletics from 11 years old, my main event being the Triple Jump but I did many other events, except I didn’t like long distance runs. But after I got some back prob-lems my doctor told me to give up or I’d become paralysed. I was upset and began to fall apart as I loved sports.”
“Then in 1995 (at 17) my best girlfriend did some race walking so I wanted to and when I asked my doctor he said ‘You - I don’t believe it!’ as he knew what I thought about endur-ance running but he said ‘OK, try walking, no problem’.”
“Within five months I was national champion and the next season was third in the World Juniors - all within a year of starting.”
Understanding family support
For training and competition, Stef frequency travels alone but has the support of a hus-band understanding of the athletes’ lifestyle.
“I married Sebastian in 1999. He is president of our athletics club (CSM Craiova) and his father, Horia Stef, is my coach.”
“It’s difficult for my husband to come with me but he supports me very strongly all the time. He understands athletes and understands me. It’s also difficult to be a wife and an athlete - but I’m trying hard and I think I handle it well.”
Four Challenge races again for Stef in 2009
As for her travels this year, Stef plans to race in the Challenge in Rio Maior (POR - 4 April), Sesto San Giovanni (ITA - 1 May) and then compete for Romania in the European Cup Race Walking, in Metz, France on 24 May. “The Krakow race (POL - 30 May) is only a week after that so if I decide not to race that competition I may race in La Coruna (ESP - 20 June).”
“My focus is on the World Championships. I was very upset not to be at Beijing - I know if I was there I would have done well. So all my races this year leading will be training for
There may be little time for family life as Stef will also be training in Spain or Italy next month, and at altitude in June leading up to the Romanian 20km Championship in Bucharest on 25 July ahead of the IAAF World Championship 20km in Berlin on 16 August.
“Training has gone well until now. Not very very fast but some big volumes. In Romania it’s very cold so I’m training in Portugal. I’ll be walking more and more each week - this week it will be 170km and next week 180km.”
“Back home it’s very hard to cope with training outside twice a day in temperatures of -13C to -15C - and I have a bad history of injuries.”
It’s a lifestyle that Stef loves, summing it up by saying, “given the chance of starting over again. I would be a race walker”.
“Athletics is my life”
Although outwardly Stef shows only determination when racing, inside Stef feels she puts in a lot of emotional energy, rewarded through pride in her achievements.
“Athletics is my life. I’m not able to imagine my life without it”, said Stef. “It’s given me a lot. I’ve seen so many things, met so many people and been to so many countries. Sure train-ing is difficult and every day you get up at 7:30 or 8am with the same sort of schedule but I enjoy it and am grateful for what athletics has given me.”
As for the years ahead, Stef has some plans sketched out but hopes to continue in athlet-ics as long as she can.
“I intend to take a year out to have a baby next year, but after that I’m not sure, it depends on how much power I have. After Rio Maior last year I made sure I finished as I needed to complete four races in the challenge but 12th was very disappointing. I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m not good anymore’ and felt terrible. But I came back. I may have been a bit lucky in the end but I was better prepared than some.”
“As long as I feel good and perform well, I will continue.”
Tim Watt for the IAAF