Dane Bird-Smith en route to the Oceania 20km Race Walk title in Adelaide (© organisers)
Dane Bird-Smith and Regan Lamble, Australia’s top finishers in the 20km race walks at the Rio Olympic Games, picked up 2017 pretty much where they left off 2016 with victories at the Oceania Championships in Adelaide on Sunday (19).
The championships served as the opening leg of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge, giving the duo a winning start in the chase for the challenge bonuses in 2017.
There was pleasing international depth to the Adelaide races, too. Three different nations were represented on the podium in the men’s event, South Africa’s Lebogang Shanghe taking second place and New Zealand’s Quentin Rew third. And no fewer than eight countries were represented in the top 11 finishers.
Lamble led home Lithuania’s Brigita Virbalyte-Dimsiene with another Australian, Beki Smith, taking third place. Five different countries were represented in the first six positions.
The race took place in cool conditions on a course on the banks of the Torrens River on the edge of Adelaide’s central business district. Temperatures were in the teens, a pleasant change from the sweltering conditions which are common during Adelaide’s summer months.
'I like to think that my dad is shaking in his boots'
Not only did Dane Bird-Smith come back to the 20km in Olympic form, but his winning time of 1:19:37 equalled the personal best time which brought him a bronze medal last August in Rio.
Much as that would have pleased the 24-year-old, he would have been even more pleased to go a little faster. He was only 38 seconds outside the Australian all-comers' record of 1:18:59 set by all-time great Robert Korzeniowski in winning the 20km at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the first leg of an Olympic 20km/50km double that year.
More importantly, Bird-Smith was just 15 seconds outside the family record set by his father and coach, Dave Smith, in 1987. The son has overtaken the father at 3000m and 5000m on the track, and exceeded him by winning an Olympic medal, but still trails at 10,000m and the 20km.
A generational hand-over may be imminent in the 10,000m, with Bird-Smith due to race over the distance soon. He said after his win in Adelaide that the track record and the World Championships were on his 2017 to-do list.
“I’ve got two things on my radar this year: the national 10,000m walk record of my dad and a better result than bronze in London.
“I like to think that my dad is shaking in his boots,” Bird-Smith joked.
Contemporaries of Dave Smith might be inclined to the view that more shaking and quaking was done in the boots immediately adjacent to Smith than ever occurred in his own. An outstanding race walker, dual Olympian Smith was also a feisty competitor.
Bird-Smith and Canada’s Evan Dunfee, who set a national 50km record in Australia 15 months ago, shared the early lead before the Australian took over on his own. His win, along with his Rio performance, makes him an automatic selection for the World Championships in London later this year.
Shanghe, who set a South African record in this race last year in finishing just two seconds behind Bird-Smith, was second across the line in 1:21:00, with Quentin Rew of New Zealand taking third (1:21:12).
Fewer than 30 seconds covered second to sixth place with Poland’s Artur Brzozowski taking fourth (1:21:16) ahead of Dunfee (1:21:22), Wayne Snyman of South Africa (1:21:26) and Marius Liukas of Lithuania (1:21:27). Chile’s Yerko Araya was eighth and Australian Rio representative Rhydian Cowley ninth. Jakob Jelonek of Poland rounded out the top 10.
Lamble to join Bird-Smith in London
Regan Lamble also secured World Championships selection in winning her first national title in the women’s 20km.
Lamble had almost as comfortable a winning margin as Bird-Smith, crossing the line in 1:29:58, some 57 seconds clear of Lithuania’s Brigita Virabalyte-Dimsiene (1:30:55). Australia's 2012 Olympian Beki Smith was third in 1:31:23.
As in the men’s race, there was a broad national representation at the sharp end of the field. New Zealand’s Alana Barber was fourth, Ainhoa Pinedo of Spain fifth and Bethan Davies of Great Britain rounding out the top six.
Next stop: Mexico
From Adelaide, the 2017 IAAF Race Walking Challenge will move on to two races in the North America, Central America and Caribbean area with stops in the Mexican venues of Ciudad Juarez (12 March) and Monterrey (19 March).
After that comes Europe, with Rio Major, Portugal, on 1 April, before a visit to Asia with Taicang, China, on 15 April. Then it is back to Europe for the last two of 2017’s seven challenge competitions, the traditional venue of La Coruna in Spain on 3 June and the finale at the IAAF World Championships in London in a unique festival of race walking on The Mall on 13 August.
Len Johnson for the IAAF