Evan Dunfee, Inaki Gomez and Ben Thorne after the men's 20km at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016 (© IAAF)
The perceived wisdom is that athletics is an individual sport. But there are three amigos from Canada who would beg to differ.
Inaki Gomez, Evan Dunfee and Ben Thorne train together, race together, eat together, argue, and make up together – and believe they’re the better for it as a result.
Thorne took an unexpected bronze at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, and the three plus Mathieu Bilodeau earned team silver – Canada’s first medal in a men's event in the history of the championships – behind the mighty China in the 20km at last weekend’s IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016.
They collectively finished well ahead of Ecuador in third, and none of the trio is surprised.
There has been group training to improve individual results since the dawn of time, but the Canadians have taken it to a new level.
The Canadian record had stood for 12 years when Gomez broke it at the 2012 Olympics. Just four years on, the record has been revised on three more occasions and the trio now collectively owns the 11 fastest times ever recorded by Canadian athletes.
Asked whether their individual success is dependent on the three as a whole, Dunfee is emphatic.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The fact is we’re so interchangeable, and on any given day we can all do well.
“We’re training every day together. We know our collective strengths and can play off them.”
Corporate-style coaching the key
They are coached by Gerry Dragomir at the Vancouver-based Racewalk West club.
“Gerry is unlike other coaches who follow the conventional hierarchical model of coaching,” says Gomez. “He has provided us with a unique opportunity to develop a partnership where we work together to tailor our own individual plans.
“Each of our relationships with Gerry function like a mentor/mentee model, like one you see in the corporate world,” adds Gomez. “Ultimately, I believe Gerry is not only trying to develop great athletes but also individuals that will go on to contribute positively to society.”
They combine both individual and group training, based on each individual’s plan. Generally, the bulk of their sessions are done individually and they only come together as a group for training camps.
But this year they have had more training camps than usual. After long stints in Canberra and Flagstaff, the upcoming months will see the group training together in Vancouver, Barcelona and St Moritz in the lead up to the Olympics in Rio.
Their recent performances reflect their joined-at-the-hip status.
Dunfee came within 21 seconds of his lifetime best earlier this year in Adelaide when he clocked 1:20:34, more than a minute quicker than his time from last year’s World Championships, while his 50km time over the past year has plummeted by a staggering near 15 minutes.
The bearded Gomez shaved a minute off his 20km best in March with a 1:19:20 clocking, smashing the national record that Thorne had set last year in Beijing.
Thorne dipped under 1:20 for the first time in Beijing and then inched two more seconds away In Rome for fifth place after leading the race briefly in the second half.
Even so, living in each other’s pockets must be wearing.
Dunfee says the three read other like the proverbial book when nerves start to grate and trouble brews.
“Our personalities are so different,” he said. “There are times when we tick each other off. We hate each other, and we know when we’re doing it. So we’re mature and smart enough to back off and regroup. That’s a great strength – knowing how to play off each other.”
When Thorne made the breakthrough in Beijing, Dunfee was in tears of joy after realising his pal had won a coveted place on the podium. He admits, half joking, they might need a laser to divide any future medal into three.
“We share each other’s accomplishments,” he added. “I was in tears in Beijing.”
Dawn of a new era
The three also believe it heralds a new start for Canada as an athletics force, not only due to half-decent funding, but because of a different and more determined approach.
“Last year as a country at the World Championships we won eight medals,” Dunfee said. “Canada has been a polite nation, always saying sorry and just happy to be there. That’s changed; the mind-set has changed and that’s rubbed off on the whole team.”
An example of a stiffer Maple Leaf that refuses to be blown away is the anger at the Commonwealth Games refusal in 2014 to include a race-walking event for the first time in 48 years.
“Two years ago they pulled the race walk out of the Commonwealth Games,” said Dunfee. “We had seven or eight (Commonwealth) walkers up there in the Worlds at Beijing, so I hope that sends a nice little message to Glasgow.”
Set to compete in both the 20km and 50km at the Olympic Games in Rio, Dunfee – whose PB in the longer event would have been good enough for third place in Rome – is under no illusion about his tasks.
“The 50km is my better chance, because I don’t have the raw speed to go with these guys,” he said, pointing at Gomez and Thorne. “But I have knocked 14 minutes plus off my 50km time.
“For me, the 20km is show-up; I help these guys over the first 10km and hold on for dear life.”
Paul Warburton for the IAAF