Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez will return to Taicang, the Chinese city where the Mexican made her global championships debut four years ago, to defend her title in the 20km at the 2018 IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships on Saturday.
Since setting a national record of 1:28:48 at the 2014 edition of this event, Gonzalez has managed to step on to the podium in all of the 20km race walking races she has contested, including earning silver medals at the 2016 Olympic Games and the 2017 World Championships in London.
Her winning mark of 1:26:17 at the last edition of the World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome two years ago has stood as the continental record ever since. The 29-year-old maintained her consistency this year and opened the season with an overwhelming victory at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting in Monterrey in February with a course record of 1:27:46, the third-fastest time of her career.
Gonzalez will once again face a tough challenge from a clutch of high-level Chinese race walkers in Taicang, including the local favourite Yang Jiayu, who powered past the Mexican in the home stretch to win the world title in London last August.
As one of the ambassadors for the event in Taicang, Yang is keen to land China’s first women’s 20km individual gold since 1999.
The 22-year-old thrives on the big stage. She cut 17 seconds off her personal best to take the victory in what was her World Championships debut last year and went on to claim the gold medal at the Chinese National Games three weeks later amid a deep field that contained 2015 world silver medallist Lu Xiuzhi and 2012 Olympic silver medallist Qieyang Shijie.
In March, Yang suffered her first defeat since last May at the National Race Walking Grand Prix, which also served as the qualification event for Taicang. Yang clocked the same time as Qieyang but had to settle for second place after a photo finish separated them. Their clocking of 1:27:36 puts them in third place on the 2018 world list but also makes them the fastest 20km entrants for Taicang.
The 27-year-old Qieyang is still in pursuit of her first major title, following her silver medals at the 2012 Olympics Games and the previous edition of this event in Rome, as well as a fourth-place finish at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu and a fifth-place finish at the 2016 Olympics.
Qieyang’s PB of 1:25:16 makes her the quickest entrant for Taicang. She is also unbeaten in 2018, having enjoyed a convincing win at the Race Walking Challenge meeting in Rio Maior last month and a 10km triumph at the Genova Frigerio Trophy in February.
In China’s defence of their team title, Yang and Qieyang will be joined by Wang Na, the eighth-place finisher at last year’s World Championships with a PB of 1:26:29, Wang Yingliu, winner at the Race Walking Challenge meeting in Taicang over the past two years, and 19-year-old championship rookie Yang Liujing.
Italian duo Antonella Palmisano and Eleonora Giorgi also have the ability to challenge for the gold medals in both the individual and team battles.
The 26-year-old Palmisano earned the bronze medal last year in London, where she set her career best of 1:26:36. She clocked 1:28:41 to finish second behind Qieyang in Rio Maior and won the Italian indoor 3000m title in February.
Giorgi, who set the national record of 1:26:17 three years ago at the European Cup, has been enjoying an unbeaten run since finishing a disappointing 14th in London last year. She has collected three victories this season, including a 1:28:49 victory in the Czech city of Podebrady last month, and will want to make up for her performance in Rome two years ago when she was disqualified just as she entered the stadium.
The field has two other sub-1:27 athletes. Brazil’s Erica De Sena, who celebrates her 33rd birthday on Thursday, set an area record of 1:26:59 en route to finishing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Games, while 2014 world U20 champion Anezka Drahotova of the Czech Republic registered the national record of 1:26:53 in 2015.
In fact, apart from the powerful hosts China and Italy, Australia and Colombia, who ranked second and third respectively in the team standings two years ago, as well as Portugal, Spain and Japan all stand a chance of a podium finish in the team contest.
Vincent Wu for the IAAF