Sofia Ramos Rodriguez wins the women's 10,000m race walk in Nairobi (© Roger Sedres)
For one proud race walking nation, this was proof their production line of talent is in full working order. For another nation, one long synonymous with endurance champions, it signalled a bright new dawn in a discipline where gold medals had once seemed a remote possibility.
At the World Athletics U20 Championships Nairobi 21 on Saturday morning (21), Mexico’s Sofia Ramos Rodriguez and Kenya’s Heristone Wanyonyi etched their names into athletics history by taking the 10,000m race walk titles with a pair of commanding performances.
For Wanyonyi, this was a momentous victory – Kenya’s first ever race walk medal at the championships, and while it was clear a long way out from the finish that drought was about to end, the 18-year-old fought with every fibre of his being to make sure it would do so with gold.
The race got off to a swift start with France’s Dimitri Durand and authorised neutral athlete Dmitriy Gramachkov breaking clear of the field and passing 3000m in 12:59.92. Wanyonyi was biding his time in the pack at that point, but he led the chase and ensured the field was back together at the halfway mark, passed in 21:30.12 with Gramachkov out front. Durand and Wanyonyi traded the lead for a while before a strong move from India’s Amit split the pack.
Coming into the last three laps, it was down to just Amit and Wanyonyi in the race for gold, and Amit led on the penultimate lap before surrendering the lead to Wanyonyi as the Indian moved out to grab water with just over 600 metres remaining. It was a lead Wanyonyi never relinquished, powering away over the final lap to hit the line in a PB of 42:10.84, with Amit taking silver in 42:17.94 and Spain’s Paul McGrath winning bronze in 42:26.11.
“I was inspired by Dominic Ndigiti who won bronze for Kenya during the World U18 Championships (in 2017),” said Wanyonyi. “What he did opened the way for most of us who love race walking. Becoming a world champion is testament that Kenyan athletes are diverse. This victory is not only mine but for the country at large.”
Amit was content with silver, having struggled with the cool conditions and thin air of Nairobi since his arrival earlier this week. “At some point in the race I couldn’t breathe properly but I am happy,” he said.
McGrath’s bronze capped a fine summer after already winning the European U20 title. “By halfway I thought I could only make it to fourth or fifth place but the last two kilometres I had the strength to push further,” he said.
The women’s race proved a far less competitive affair, but was defined by the individual brilliance of Sofia Ramos Rodriguez who became Mexico’s fifth race walk champion in the event’s history, with seven of Mexico’s nine medals at the championships coming in the 10,000m race walks.
She coasted through the opening 3000m among a pack of eight but soon after she began to turn the screw on her rivals, surging to build a seven-second lead at halfway, which she reached in 23:28.88. That grew to 30 seconds by 6000m and almost a minute by 8000m, with Rodriguez hitting the line with 80 seconds to spare in 46:23.01. France’s Maele Bire-Heslouis came through for silver in 47:43.87 with Czech Republic’s Eliska Martinkova taking bronze in 47:46.28.
“There is a lot of tradition in race walking in Mexico and I am very happy to continue with this,” said Rodriguez. “I have been working really hard. There are days where you don’t feel like training but all these efforts have now been worth it. My next big event will be the Pan American U20 Games at the end of November and after that I will start getting ready for next season with the 2022 World Race Walking Team Championships.”
After eight events in the decathlon, Belgium’s Jente Hauttekeete holds a 50-point advantage over Czech Republic’s Frantisek Doubek with 6816 to Doubek’s 6766. Spain’s Jose San Pastor is in third with 6299 points.
Hauttekeete started his day with a 13.95-second clocking in the 110m hurdles to extend his overnight lead and he followed up with a 41.47m effort in the discus and a 4.50m clearance in the pole vault. Doubek clocked 14.10 in the 110m hurdles, threw 45.64m in the discus and had a personal best of 4.80m in the pole vault.
In men’s discus qualification, Lithuania’s Mykolas Alekna produced the biggest throw of the morning, his 64.04m opener well beyond the automatic qualifying mark of 58.00m. Next best was Jamaica’s Ralford Mullings with 62.49m, with Uladzislau Puchko of Belarus throwing 61.08m and Iran’s Sadegh Samimishalamzari 61.01m.
Kenya displayed their growing sprinting strength in the heats of the men’s 4x400m relay, overpowering Jamaica down the home straight to advance as the quickest qualifiers for the final in 3:05.77. Nigeria won the first heat in 3:06.70 ahead of an inspired Ecuador, who clocked a national U20 record of 3:06.94 in second – third-leg runner Steeven Salas clocking the fastest split of the day with 45.85.
Poland produced a stunning effort in the men’s 4x100m relay heats, their quartet of Dominik Luczynski, Patryk Krupa, Jakub Pietrusa and Oliwer Wdowik smashing the European U20 record to win in 38.93, taking 0.20 off the mark set by Germany in 2016. Jamaica was close behind in second with 39.00, while Nigeria clocked an African U20 record in third of 39.33. That record was equalled in the second heat by South Africa, who took victory ahead of Italy (39.56) and Greece (40.13).
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics