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A Step by Step on Racewalking


(sound of walking)

The track at Nashua North high school on any given afternoon has a few joggers doing laps, sprinters running intervals, even a hurdler practicing his jumps…and then there’s Bob Keating, who stands out a bit. The sixty five year old race-walker and one time Olympic trials qualifier is pumping his arms, his hips are swaying wide and as everyone else bounces, Keating seems to glide around the perimeter of the track.

(CUT) a lot of folks it looks silly, and it’s like this is Charlie Chaplin kind of walking.  I’ve had a lot of kids who will kind of mimic, and I’ve had a lot of people walk along side me and after a short period of time, they’ll realize, ooh this kind of hard work.

Don’t let the word walking fool you, Keating who’s sixty five, can still walk faster than many recreational runners can run, all while never leaving the ground. 

The sport of race-walking is nothing new.  The first documented races have been traced back to ancient Egypt, and by the 18th century, walking races were far more popular than ones involving running. Steve Viatones, is the managing director of the New England Association of Track and Field. He is also a race-walker who went to the Olympic trials in 1992.

(cut) They were primarily endurance events. I to the late 1800 there were walking competitions that would be up as long as 6 day races.  It was a popular spectator event and in those times the wagering made it more popular so you had guys can you complete 100 miles in 24 hours. Can they average a certain number miles an hour over 6 days. There were walks not only in stadiums but across the country.

And by the time the fourth Modern Day Olympics rolled around in 1906, race walking became an Olympic event. 

But as athletes began to learn how to go faster, the line between walking and running began to blur so rules were established to differentiate the two sports. In race-walking, one foot needs to be on the ground at all times, and, your knee needs to be straight when your foot makes contact with the ground and needs to remain straight until you reach the vertical position.  In order to accomplish that and still be able to walk fast requires a lot of skill, says Steve Viatones.

(cut) There is a high level of coordination involved; you’re working different sets of muscles than you are running. They’ve tried to get some distance runners into walking and they haven’t all been successful because many of the distance runners tested, but don’t have the flexibility and the coordination in a lot of cases. There’s a lot more upper body, your legs can only go as fast as  your arms can go. So, it’s a total body exercise

Yet despite the skill and the athleticism, the sport has never caught on in America.  Currently, only two states, Maine and New York, have even a semblance of a race-walking program in the High schools. And so many race walking enthusiasts say the getting the next generation of athletes up and walking has been a great challenge. Forty-eight year old Manchester native Joanne Dow is a 5 time Olympic trials qualifier in race walking and competed in the 20 kilometer event in the 2008 Olympics.

(Cut) The feeder systems aren’t in place like they are with other sports when you think about youth sports or pee wee football, you can go into any city or town and find a league where you can play soccer. Yout can’t find a Track and Field league or a cross country league… so were’ behind the 8 ball in terms of Track and Field, with Race Walking being part of that its even like less, we’re even further behind.  Its not a glamour sport certainly, not getting a lot of attention but it is a place where people with some athletic ability can have some success

And for women like Dow, the challenge has even been greater. Although race walking  has been a Olympic event for men since 1906, it wasn’t introduced for women until 1992. And while there are two events for men, a 20 kilometer and 50 kilometer race, the women only have one event, the 20k. 

(cut) Part of the problem is that there is still not a lot of support for this event. Its popular other places of the world much more so than it is here. It’s not a US event and let’s face it we’re one of the powerhouses of the world in terms of dictating what sports are going to be played or not played. So I don’t know that we’re going to see a 50K get added, not when there’s talk about dropping the event completely. You know I thnk they’d be more likely to drop it than there would be to add it.

But there are some who are working hard to get younger athletes excited about sport.   Enthusiasts are pushing hard to get race-walking programs in schools and local track clubs.  A pamphlet has been created to teach how to coach the event, and even an illustrated book is now being sent out to elementary schools to introduce the sport to kids. 

But perhaps the biggest hope lies in newest crop of athletes. Since the 1930s only one American, Larry Young from Missouri has ever won an Olympic medal in race walking and that was back in 1972.  And although hopes for a medal in London is still relatively low, Olympians like Joann Dow hope that solid performances could mean a new excitement for the sport.

(cut) There’s this group of young women now. And the sport is evolving which  it should be. you know I think that was one of our fears when I made the team at 44 and our best woman is 44 years old. I mean, still walking at a competitive level but still what’s the future of the sport?  You know I think the young walkers have a chance of representing the US well and I think that’s what we need. And the young kids that are coming up need to look at the 20 and 26 year old and say I can do that and  see myself there and wow, that’s something I can do .

Three Americans will be competing in the race walk this year. Last weekend,  20 year old Trevor Baron finished a respectable 26th overall in the men’s 20K event. While this Saturday, Maria Michta will be racing for the US in the women’s 20K while John Nunn will be racing the 50k. 

For New Hampshire Public Radio, I’m Keith Shields