Feature28 Jan 2013

Sandra Arenas is a walking talent


Sandra Arenas of Colombia wins the junior race in Saransk (© Getty Images)

“My name is Lorena. At least, that’s what people close to me call me,” said the young emerging star of South American race walking, or Sandra Lorena Arenas Campuzano to give her full name.

At the age of just 18, and listed as Sandra in almost all results and start sheets, the Colombian was the first South American finisher in the 20km Race Walk at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Her fantastic summer also saw her get a gold medal in the junior race at the 2012 IAAF World Race Walking Cup and then bronze at the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships.

“My beginnings in athletics go back to 2009. One day, at church, I was invited to take part in a race. I used to attend mass and I was an acolyte at the church. The priest, a man called Jonathan García, saw me at the race. When my family moved to Medellín, he encouraged me to go to the track and to look for a coach. He insisted he saw potential in me,” explained Arenas, detailing about how she started in the sport.

“I was reluctant because I didn’t have a particular taste for running or for sports in general. As he persisted, I began training for long distance events, but that only lasted three months; until the day I joined up with the only race walker on the team and started training with him. That was the day I became a walker,” added the women who hails from the town of Bello in the north west of the Colombia.

“My first coach was Juan Camilo Calderón; he was very important in my technical development, which is crucial for a walker. If you make technical mistakes you will pay with disqualification. I began competing at local events. My first achievement was the youth title at my local Antioquia provincial championships in 2009.”

“In 2010, I trained with the Cuban specialist Rigoberto Medina (the coach of Guatemala’s 2012 Olympic games 20km Walk silver medallist Erick Barrondo) in Medellín but his working methods were extremely tough for me, during that time I didn’t evolve and my results were poor.

“I bounced back. I switched coaches, first with Víctor Zapata for six months, and then I went to train with Libardo Hoyos.

Family values

“I didn’t win major titles in 2010 but, perhaps, that enabled me to make a bigger impact in 2011, where my first important international achievement was a title at the Pan-American Junior Championships in Florida.

 “My family has obviously been very important in my career. Every time I feel like giving up in a race, I think of them; it always keeps me going."

"Otherwise, the great champion Jefferson Pérez represents a very good example for all South American walkers. I had a chance to speak at length with him at the South American Road Championships in Salinas, Ecuador, last February.

“In Colombia, there is great inspiration from Luis Fernando López (the 2011 IAAF World Championship 20km Walk bronze medallist) and Eider Arévalo, who is my age and has been very successful at the junior international level,” explains Arenas.

Undoubtedly 2012 was an extraordinary year for Lorena Arenas, regardless of where she drew her inspiration from.

Lorena’s first road outing of the year was on home territory at the National Cup in Bogotá, where she clocked 48:33 over10km on 18 February. This was followed by a triumph at the South American Championships in Ecuador on 17 March, where she won the junior women's 10km event in 45:17, new South American junior record.

Saransk supremacy

Her excellent performance there was a great prelude for the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Saransk, Russia, less than two months later on 12 May.

“I began the race thinking about winning but I remember being bothered by a card. At that point I didn’t want to take chances, so I lost a bit of ground with the leaders. The halfway was passed in 23:24, with Russia's Nadezhda Leontyeva in first place.

“On the final lap, I charged strongly, as I was fourth, trying to catch the bronze, which was Alejandra Ortega, from México. Once I caught Ortega, we couldn’t decide who would go first after the two Russians. I followed her, and the rest happened very rapidly. I didn’t stop for water, even though it was hot. I only focused on the finish line and the victory. Only at the doping control I realised that Ortega had finished second and then Leontyeva and Yekaterina Medvedeva, the two Russians,” recalled Arenas.

“That title changed my sporting life. It gave me the assurance to believe that I could be among the best race walkers in the world. It also showed that I could reach the ‘A standard’ for the London Games.

“After a test over 15km in Medellín, my coach decided to compete in La Coruña (Spain), at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting. I was there along with my training partner Sandra Galvis. Her planned rhythm was 4:38 per kilometre, a bit faster than mine, but I decided to stick with her and help each other. It happened just like that. We went together the whole race, until the final 5km, where Galvis couldn’t keep up the pace.

“My coach told me to push at 15km and I had enough strength to do so. I beat Galvis by 48 seconds and I obtained the Olympic spot, setting a South American junior record, and Colombian record, of 1:32:36.

“My coach, Libardo, who’s always very reserved, was very impressed with my time (the fifth fastest South American performance ever). We never planned to qualify for the Olympic Games; that was a great bonus.

 “The next stop was Barcelona, at the World Junior Championships; with the same rivals as in Saransk. It turned out to be revenge time for Russians, Medvedeva and Leontyeva, but it was still a very positive bronze for me."

“In my case, the tracks always present difficulties, as the space to pass an athlete, or walk in groups, is limited at the curves. The race was decided on the final two laps. With 800m to go, I got ahead but then Leontyeva passed me. I tried to go clear, but it wasn’t easy. During that struggle, Medvedeva went by and opened a gap. Observing the distance and minding the two cards I had, I decided to settle for the bronze, as I feared disqualification.

Tactical lesson

“I wasn’t totally happy because I wanted to win. However, I realise how important it is to win a medal in a major event. The only regret is the fact that I missed not having a coach (in Barcelona). The Colombian delegation didn’t have one for the Race Walks. I feel that I could have beaten Medvedeva and Leontyeva with a better game plan.

“London was then a dream that came alive. The Olympic Games represent a great honour for any athlete, and for me it was a great place to learn important things for the future. The race itself was the toughest of my career. I had developed an inflammation in my shins that almost impeded me from competing.

“As I couldn’t receive medication, I ended up competing in pain. It was the first time in my career in which I thought about abandoning but, in my mind, I had the idea of being the first Colombian in the race. So, I concentrated on catching my teammates; first I passed Arabelly Orjuela and then Ingrid Hernández, in the final lap.

“I was 43rd at 16km and I finished 32nd but everybody paid the price of a very fast initial pace,” she added.

Race walking isn’t everything in Arenas' life. She is a physical education student and also enjoys dancing. “I love the Colombian rhythm called ‘Vallenato’; and I don’t like football,” she adds, laughing.

Coach Hoyos understands that Arenas will face some challenges in her first year in the senior ranks.

“Because of the transition to 20km, we must now increase the volume of workouts, develop her strength and improve her nutrition. She will need to do all that to continue her evolution”, explained Hoyos.

“Our goal is to be in contention for medals at the regional events of 2013, to improve her 20km time and to reach the top-20 at the World Championships,” added the talented teenager's mentor.

Eduardo Biscayart for the IAAF