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Feature03 Apr 2024

After pondering retirement, double world champion Perez powers ahead to Paris


Maria Perez in action in the 35km race walk at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23 (© Getty Images)

Double world champion Maria Perez was at the peak of her powers – but says she almost quit race walking.

Such was the frustration of a disastrous 2022 when disqualified in two major championships, she was about to call it a day.

That loss to Spain’s rich athletics history was averted, but Perez admits it was touch and go.

Rewind to 2022, and breaking the winning tape was furthest from her mind at the end of that August.

A broken heart was nearer the truth after disqualification at the European Championships in Munich and an unwelcome elimination from the World Championships a month earlier.

“I spent a month and a half in the United States preparing for the World and European Championships,” she said.

“When you invest so much effort and everything goes like this, it is logical to be disappointed. That's why I stopped race walking. Race walking, which had given me everything, also took it all away at once.

“I thought about leaving it, I'm not going to deny it. I didn't want to know anything about race walking. Some weeks I didn't train at all.”

But bit by bit Perez dipped her toe back into the water with a couple of sessions a week. What really gave her a second wind was advice on her technique from Jose Marin and Beatriz Pascual.

Marin, the 1982 European champion and 1983 world silver medallist, and double Olympian Pascual got Perez to focus on her arms and foot placement.

“There began a plan to change my way of race walking that in the end has worked,” she told El Mundo newspaper. “I changed my arm swing and feet position, but I had to start from scratch.

“When you have been race walking one way all your life, doing it differently is very difficult, but I managed it.”

She did so with aplomb.

Two glorious World Championship wins at 20km and 35km in Budapest last August to go with fourth place in the 20km at the Olympic Games in 2021 has cemented Perez’s place alongside Spanish greats.

Before that, she set a 35km world record of 2:37:15 by 29 seconds at the European Race Walking Team Championships in Podebrady in April 2023 with a near eight-minute advantage over second place. Teammate Raquel González was close to two laps in arrears on the one-kilometre park loop.

It was a short time but a big difference from 2022’s Annus horribilis. Even then, those ill winds blew the native of Orce, Granada, some good.

Perez took time off to celebrate her marriage more than a year after the original ceremony.

Perez explained: “Six months before the Tokyo Olympics, my wife, Noe Morillas, had to have surgery for cancer, so we decided to get married quickly. It was the pandemic and we almost couldn't celebrate, so (in September 2022) we did. Thank God, she is very well now. With everything, I have learned to value life more.”

Sound technical advice and a happy union spurred the 27-year-old to another double celebration in Budapest.

First, the 20km gold was secured in 1:26:51 and four days later, the 35km in 2:38:40. She was so comfortable in the 20km, Perez literally strolled the last 10 steps. Never mind flag raised, she could have done it with an ice cream in her hand.

Maria Perez leads the 20km race walk at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23

Maria Perez leads the 20km race walk at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23 (© Getty Images)

Even so, there was a doubt she would start the 35km. A niggling hamstring gave cause for concern, although there was precious little sign of that four days later as she took a second national flag of celebration a lap too early in the longer race.

By 34km, she was more than two minutes ahead of second-placed Kimberley Garcia was the Peruvian was doggedly trying to defend her crown.

Another Spanish flag was produced for the real last lap, and high-fiving it all the way to the finish understandably produced Perez’s slowest kilometre in a race that was essentially done and dusted 10km earlier.

“I had a problem with my hamstring after the 20km and I was still considering whether to start at the 35km but I managed to get through,” Perez said modestly.

But now there are plans for the Olympics in Paris and a quest for coveted gold in the one major championship she is yet to win.

Like Alvaro Martin, the other Spanish double race walks champion in Budapest, Perez has had to adapt her training to ensure she’s as competitive as possible for the new marathon mixed race walk relay event.

“In Paris, It will be only 20km and the team relay, that’s why my focus is shifting from long endurance training to shorter and faster,” she said.

“I sincerely would have liked someone to beat my 35km world record. It would be sad to keep it (the record) just because it is no longer contested. It would also give more credibility to the distance. In the 35km, some women are faster than some men – and that is interesting.”

Maria Perez after winning the 35km race walk at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23

Maria Perez after winning the 35km race walk at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23 (© Getty Images)

Before the Olympics, though, Perez will be competing at the World Athletics Race Walking Team Championships in Antalya, where she hopes to secure Spain’s place in the marathon mixed race walk relay for the Paris Games.

Japan intends to have a say in the men’s medals in Paris, and maybe the women too.

Nanako Fujii, who set a PB of 1:27:59 in February, said: “Top race walkers such as Perez will probably focus not only on the individual race but in the team relay event also. She has also shown that it is possible to race walk in these thick-soled carbon plated so-called super shoes.”

Japan’s national race walking coach believes long or short events, shoes of any type, Perez will be hard to beat.

“We have witnessed double champions emerge in the women's category for two years in a row: Garcia and Perez,” said Fumio Imamura.

“With the longer distance becoming shorter, these feats show the race walking family that there are new opportunities and possibilities for female race walkers.”

Perez, who wants to train as a physiotherapist when she retires, cannot yet say what her Olympic ambitions will be beyond this year’s Games in Paris.

“I live with uncertainty because after the Paris Games no one knows what will happen,” she said.

“If everything goes well, I will be able to enjoy my second Games. I would love to retire at the 2028 Los Angeles Games, but we'll see what happens.

“I am more concerned about the young people who come after me. In Spain there is a lot of race walking talent and we have to fight for them.”

Paul Warburton for World Athletics