Dane Bird-Smith got his IAAF Race Walking Challenge and Olympic campaigns off to the best possible start with a hard-fought victory in the opening leg of the challenge in the Australian city of Adelaide on Sunday morning (21).
Bird-Smith, who finished eighth in the 20km race walk at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, gained the upper hand over South Africa’s Lebogang Shange and Canada’s world bronze medallist Benjamin Thorne to eke out a narrow win at the Oceania 20km Championships in a personal best of 1:20:04.
The fast-rising Shange, 11th in Beijing, improved his own national record by more than a minute when finishing second in 1:20:06 with Thorne another two seconds back in third place.
Thorne led in a trio of Canadians, with teammates Inaki Gomez (1:20:22) and Evan Dunfee (1:20:34) following him home.
The international character of this first leg of the challenge was demonstrated by a top 10 containing two Australians, two South Africans, three Canadians and one each from Sweden, Chile and Poland.
The Adelaide race, held in warm conditions on an inner-city course along Adelaide’s Torrens River, also served as the Australian and Oceania Area Championship.
Of all the accolades he emerged with, the most precious to Bird-Smith will be automatic nomination to the Australian team for Rio.
It will be the first Olympics for Bird-Smith, who has competed at the past two World Championships, finishing 11th and eighth. He is likely to be joined in the team by second-placed Australian Rhydian Cowley, who finished ninth in 1:22:07.
Bird-Smith is coached by his father, Dave Smith, who competed at two Olympic Games, took a bronze medal at the 1985 IAAF World Indoor Games and won 12 Australian titles on road and track from 1982 to 1992.
Cowley's coach, Simon Baker, is an Olympian of three Games, his best finish being a sixth place in the 50km at the 1988 Olympics.
Perfect race, perfect pace
Sweden’s Perseus Karlstrom, who eventually finished sixth in 1:21:03, led by as much as 15 seconds early in the race before being reeled in. Bird-Smith moved to the front on the final lap and held on to a narrow margin to win in a sprint finish to regain the title he won in 2014.
“That was the perfect race, really," said Bird-Smith. "I paced it out with the guys that I needed to go with. It was about winning that Australian title today, nailing the race, and highlighting that in an Olympic year I am ready."
Bird-Smith was not concerned about missing a sub-80-minute performance so narrowly, expressing confidence that it would come soon enough.
“The game plan from here is to finish off a few more races domestically," he added. "I’ll be chasing a couple more personal bests, before heading to Europe for the World Race Walking Team Championships and challenge for a medal placing. I’ll be hitting it until we get to Rio as much as I can.”
The women’s challenge race also saw the winner emerge late, with Rachel Tallent, the younger sister of multiple World Championship and Olympic medallist Jared, always racing close to the lead but not taking control until the last lap of the 2km loop.
Third-place finisher Beki Smith led through the middle stages of the race with 2012 Olympic representative Regan Lamble, who was ultimately a DNF, on her shoulder. They were joined, in turn, by Tallent and Tanya Holliday.
Tallent took over the outright lead at the 18-kilometre mark and went on to win in a personal best time of 1:31:33, taking more than two minutes off her previous best, set last December. Holliday remained in second place through to the finish in 1:32:15 with Smith third in 1:32:49.
“That was very unexpected,” said Tallent after her first national title. “I was hoping for top-three in a pretty quick time, but to come away with the win in a time like that is even better.”
Tallent is coached by her older brother and three-time Olympic medallist Jared, with the result a fillip for her as she tries to make a name for herself independent of the family tie.
“I knew that coming in to this year I had a lot to work on after my experience at the World Championships last year (where she was 34th). I wanted to be as competitive as I could be, and knowing my older brother, I wanted to do as much as I can to not be his little sister. I am stoked to have made the team now and it’s about reassessing and improving as much as I can. I don’t want to be a spectator when I am over there,” added Tallent, who nevertheless got a huge hug by her big brother and many other family and friends after the finish.
Len Johnson for the IAAF