Sesto San Giovanni, ItalyThe seasonal debut of reigning 20 Km Olympic champion Ivano Brugnetti highlights the Italian leg of the IAAF Walking Challenge in Sesto San Giovanni, near Milan on Monday 1 May.
The popular Italian walking event will celebrate the 49th edition for the men's race and the 27th for the women's. Both races will start and finish in the Pino Dordoni Stadium, which was named after the legendary Italian walker who won the Olympic gold medal in the 50 Km in Helsinki in 1952 and the first three editions of the Coppa Città di Sesto from 1957 to 1959.
First appearance for Brugnetti after a difficult winter
Local favourite Brugnetti, who won the world 50 Km title in Seville 1999 and the Olympic 20 Km gold in Athens 2004, will compete for the first time in 2006 after a difficult winter which followed his unlucky World Championships campaign last summer. The Italian walker, who was born in Bresso near Milan but trains in Sesto San Giovanni, dropped out during the 20 km World Championships race in a chilly Helsinki due to stomach problems.
"After Helsinki I thought over the possibility to retire from sport,” said Brugnetti at the pre-event press conference in Sesto San Giovanni. “I missed three months of training. I was mentally tired after many years of hard training and competitions."
"Thanks to the support of my coach Antonio La Torre I returned to serious training only in January. After two training stints in Sicily and Tirrenia, Sesto represents my return to competitions after Helsinki. I am not in my best form and I don't expect too much from next Monday's race but I am still confident for this summer's European Championships in Gothenburg. But I am looking forward to competing again and I want to do my best in front of my family and friends. I competed so many times in the Coppa di Sesto race but I have never won it. After Sesto and the World Cup in La Coruna I will train at altitude in Sestriere in preparation for the European Championships."
Brugnetti's training partner Alessandro Gandellini, who is a former winner in the Coppa Città di Sesto in 1998 and 2004, is also bouncing back from a difficult 2005 season.
"I underwent a hernia operation last year. My problems have not been solved yet because I have recently suffered from a pain in my back and bursitis. Monday's race is just a test to see if I can be competive for the World Cup in La Coruna," Gandellini said.
Twenty-one year-old Alex Schwazer, a sensational World 50 Km bronze medallist in Helsinki with a national record of 3:41:54, features in the starting-list of the popular Italian race although he is now suffering from a virus after his return from a training stint at altitude in Cusco, Peru, with his training partner Elisa Rigaudo.
Schwazer, who lives in Calice, a small village near Vipiteno in the German-speaking Italian region of Alto Adige, kicked off his 2006 season with a solid sixth place showing in the Portuguese leg of the IAAF Walking Challenge in Rio Major in 1:21:38, smashing his previous personal best by three minutes, an impressive result for a 50 Km specialist.
Results in the Coppa Città di Sesto will be crucial for some Italian walkers who are looking for a berth in the national team for the IAAF World Cup in La Coruna (13-14 May). After the Sesto San Giovanni race the Italian federation technical director Nicola Silvaggi will officially announce the Italian team for La Coruna.
Spain's Juan Manuel Molina, World bronze medallist in the 20 km in Helsinki, will pose the most serious challenge to the Italians on Monday afternoon. Also representing Spain is former 50 Km World champion Jesus Angel Garcia Bragado, the victor in Stuttgart in 1993.
A strong Mexican squad led by Eder Sanchez, eighth in the 20 Km in Helsinki and runner-up in the inaugural leg of the IAAF Walking Challenge in Tlalnepantla de Baz, Mexico, also made the trip to Italy in preparation for La Coruna. Sanchez will be joined on the trip to Italy by a group of compatriots that include Erick Guevara (fifth in the 20 Km in Tlalnepantla), Gabriel Ortiz, Juan Toscano and Fabiola Godinez, who will contest the 20 Km women race.
Also in the line-up is Tunisia's Hatem Ghoula, who finished fifth at the World Championships in Helsinki in the 20 Km, Joao Vieira from Portugal and Erick Tysse from Norway, brother of former Olympic silver medallist Kjersti Tysse Plätzer.
Turava looking to defend
Reigning World silver medallist Rita Turava from Belarus, who recently won the national championships in 1:26:11, an outstanding national record which stands in second place in the world seasonal list, is looking for her second consecutive win in the 20 Km women race in Sesto San Giovanni.
Turava will face strong opposition from 2005 World bronze medallist Susana Feitor from Portugal and 2004 Olympic bronze medallist Jane Saville, who recently won her second consecutive Commonwealth gold medal in Melbourne and finished third in Rio Major.
Claudia Stef from Romania, winner in Tlalnepantla and second in Rio Major, is currently leading the overall standings of the IAAF Walking Challenge ahead of Melanie Seeger from Germany, who won in Rio Major. Stef and Seeger will battle again for top honours in Sesto San Giovanni. Norica Cimpean from Romania, fourth in Rio Major, may also be a factor in the fight for podium on Monday.
Former IAAF Walking Challenge champion Elisa Rigaudo, sixth at the Olympic Games in Athens and seventh at the World Championships in Helsinki, will carry the Italian hopes. Rigaudo, who is coached by Italian walking "guru" Sandro Damilano, competed once in the 2006 IAAF Challenge finishing ninth in Rio Major but she was not in good shape. Rigaudo, a former European under-23 champion in Amsterdam 2001, said after a competitive test during the Italian Indoor Championships this winter that she increased her training mileage during the winter to be in top form this summer at the European Championships.
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF