Eider Arevalo after winning the 20km race walk at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 (© Getty Images)
World 20km race walk champion Eider Arevalo could have been forgiven had he given up when the switch from junior to senior took its toll.
But if self-belief is half the battle, and patience also the name of the game, the Colombian has it in spades.
The 25-year-old took both into the IAAF World Championships London 2017 where he bided his time all the way to the last kilometre before a golden strike for home in the 20km race walk.
It was due reward for five lean years for the 2012 world U20 champion. But he stuck at it, if not exactly through adversity, then with nothing much beyond regional honours to show for it.
His roller-coast ride on the global scene started at the 2010 IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Chihuahua where he won the U20 10km in tough, hot conditions.
It was the lift-off to a raft of junior successes. In Saransk in 2012 he repeated the World Cup feat, and by almost a minute quicker. Better was to follow.
When Arevalo won the world U20 10,000m crown in Barcelona two months later, it seemed as though he would step into the senior ranks and carry on filling his trophy cabinet.
But the best-laid plans of mice, men and top athletes often go astray.
Three weeks later, and in his first foray up and down London’s famous Mall, Arevalo made his Olympic debut in the 20km race walk. He slotted into the large leading group at eight kilometres where he rubbed shoulders with eventual silver medallist Erick Barrondo. Just two kilometres later, the Colombian was 17 seconds adrift.
The gap to Chen Ding – who, at 20 years and one day, became the youngest gold medallist at the distance – grew to 29 seconds over the next two tough kilometres.
Thereafter, the race walker, a mere eight months younger than the winner, hung on to a lot of other tired athletes in the closing stages to eventually finish 20th in 1:22:00.
It wasn’t the worst result ever, but it was clear from Arevalo’s splits that he suffered over the demanding second half.
At the World Championships in Moscow one year later, Arevalo didn’t even get that far when he became one of six to step off the road before the end. Comfortably in the top nine at five kilometres, he lost almost two minutes by halfway, and that was that.
Coincidentally, one of the race walkers Arevalo duelled with over the last kilometre fours year later in London was Lebogang Shange, who was also a sorry DNF in Moscow. The South African has since pushed on in tandem with Arevalo after withstanding the vagaries of athletic fortune.
But it was to get worse before it got better.
When the World Race Walking Cup – now known as the World Race Walking Team Championships – was last held in Taicang, in 2014, Arevalo was disqualified from the 20km event.
Next month he will return to the Chinese city as a much improved athlete.
Change of fortunes
One of the key turning points in Arevalo’s career came in April 2013 in the Czech spa town of Podebrady.
The fast park course has been just the tonic for a number of race walkers, and this time Arevalo, wearing sunglasses and arm warmers to ward off the European spring chill, came to the front in the last two kilometres to beat Norway’s Erik Tysse and world and Olympic champion Matej Toth.
Arevalo’s 1:19:45 personal best at the time reignited confidence he was as good as many predicted for the Colombian as a junior.
“This gave me a different perspective of the world, and it meant I could be a world or Olympic medallist at any time,” he said.
“However, since making that mark in Podebrady, it took me four years until I improved again and apart from everything, became a world champion.”
An isolated but admirable seventh in 1:21:13 at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing suggested Arevalo was on the rise.
There were prestige wins in 2017 at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge races in Rio Maior and Ciudad Juarez. And then came London, and the stupendous reward for perseverance.
Arevalo reflected on the journey from 2012 to 2017.
“Those five years full of falls and stumbles, I only learned from it, I learned and I learned. Then everything came together in 2017, and I became a champion in London, the same place where I was doing my first elite race in 2012.”
His 1:18:53 national record that went with gold capped an undefeated season. To go with his London win, Arevalo also won the IAAF Race Walking Challenge series.
He produced a perfect score of 36 points in the standings – the highest score possible – after winning in London, Rio Maior and Ciudad Juarez. He also won at the Pan-American Cup in Lima.
Arevalo has prepared for Taicang with a leg-stretching 1:24:44 on home soil at the Pitalito Colombian Race Walking Challenge in February, followed by an emphatic 1:22:13 win in Dudince in March where he looked like he was headed for the ski slopes in head band, sunglasses, snood, and gloves.
But clearly, Arevalo has come in from the cold.
Now much in demand by Colombia’s media, he admits the rocky road since he first donned a pair of trainers has come full circle.
“The World Championships win has changed my life,” he said. “I’ve felt the welcome emotions of the people of Pitalito where I live, and Bogotá, where I was born.
“My training and my daily life is still the same, only now I do more media interviews.
“To think that when I was just a child in 2007 full of nerves before my first 3km race, and 10 years later I won a world title.
“Each person forges his way as he walks,” he added. “I forge my path by walking hand in hand with God.”
Paul Warburton for the IAAF