For the second time in less than 24 hours, Heroes’ Square belonged to Spain.
Following in the lightning-quick footsteps of Alvaro Martin in the lightning-delayed men’s 20km race walk the day before, Maria Perez completed a golden Spanish double in the women’s event at the start of day two at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23.
The prevailing conditions were markedly different, bright sunshine glinting off the sandstone structures lining the one-kilometre course, but the tactics were just the same. Tellingly so.
Like Martin before her, Perez kept her powder dry before putting the hammer down in the final 5km, the pocket rocket from the Spanish city of Granada breaking her rivals with successive splits of 4:06, 4:09, 40:05 and 4:06 before easing off with a 4:21 lap as she collected a Spanish flag from her coach, Jacinto Garzon, in the finishing straight.
The 27-year-old crossed the line in 1:26:51 – 25 seconds clear of her closest pursuer, the inspired two-time Commonwealth champion Jemima Montag, who upheld Australia’s fine race walk tradition with a silver medal in 1:27:16, an Oceania record.
Ten seconds farther back, Antonella Palmisano, the Olympic champion from Italy, returned from injury to claim bronze in 1:27:26 – despite a potentially damaging mid-race fall.
For Perez, it was sweet redemption following the disqualification she suffered at last year’s World Championships in Oregon – and continuation of the golden streak of form that took her to the 35km world record in May.
In Berlin back in 2018 she became European champion. In Budapest, five years on, she was on top of the world.
“I cannot put into the words how important it is to me to win this first global gold, especially at the 20km,” the Andalucian said. “Victory at this distance was my main goal for Budapest. Last night I felt so nervous I couldn’t sleep.
“I was forced to call our doctor for some help with medicines that could help sleep before the event. Thank God, it helped and I felt more or less fresh this morning.
“I had to give my maximum. I got a hamstring cramp, but I continued to work at 100%. Now I need a medical examination from our doctors to see whether it will be possible for me to compete in the 35km on Thursday.
“Maybe it will be better to start a fast recovery as the next year is an Olympic one and I would like to stay healthy to prepare for Paris on the highest level.”
For Montag, the silver medal was huge reward for the graft she has done under the direction of coach Brent Vallance while studying for a degree in biomedical science at the University of Melbourne and acting as an IOC youth leader.
The Victorian became her country’s first medallist in the event since the bronze won by Kerry Saxby-Juna in the inaugural women’s 20km in Seville in 1999 and the fourth Australian race walker to make the World Championships podium – after Saxby-Juna, who also took 10km bronze in 1987, 2007 men’s 50km champion Nathan Deakes and three-time 50km silver medallist Jarred Talent.
“It’s unreal,” said Montag, who came close to hitting the global medal standard with sixth place in the Olympic 20km race walk in 2021 and fourth at last year’s World Championships in Oregon. “This was like a special celebration with my family who came along and I’m happy to see all of my training partners too.
“This season we built my training so that we could have the opportunity to get a medal here. I believed but I did not expect too much from myself because I needed to focus on my technique and the process.
“This year I’ve really worked hard on my mind. I wear a bracelet from my grandmother, who survived the Holocaust. I think that she is on my arm during the race.
“I wanted to pay a tribute to her – to thank her for the opportunity that I can be here.”
As for Palmisano, she was not so content with her bronze. “This was a very difficult fast race,” the Italian team captain reflected. “It was just not in me today. I didn’t have it in my legs.”
It was Yang Jiayu who had the legs at the start, China’s 2017 world champion blasting through the opening kilometre in 4:24.
Kimberly Garcia, the Peruvian who made history in Oregon as the first women’s double race walk winner, then moved to the front and put her foot on the gas, drawing a pack of nine clear of the field as she powered through 2km in 8:44.
By 3km, the gap was up to nine seconds, with double European champion Antigoni Ntrismpioti of Greece leading the pursuers.
At the front, Garcia upped the pace with a 4:19 lap, whittling the lead group to seven women: the Peruvian, plus Yang, Perez, Palmisano, Montag, Mexican Alegna Gonzalez and Ma Zhenxia of China, winner of the 20km at the World Race Walking Team Championships last year.
The septet – featuring athletes from five different continents – reached 5km in a brisk 21:44. At that point, they held a lead of 14 seconds on eighth-placed Peruvian Evelyn Inga.
The pace dropped from 4:20 laps to 4:23s as the leaders hit halfway in 43:43, registering a 5km split of 21:59. That allowed South American champion Glenda Morejon of Ecuador to close the huge gap, making it an eight-woman battle at the front.
Negotiating a tight turn, Palmisano rolled an ankle and slipped to the floor, losing a couple of seconds before steadily regaining contact – indeed, getting back into her groove sufficiently to take over at the front at 13km.
Thereafter, the lead seesawed, Perez pointedly sitting back, content to allow her rivals to take the load.
The pace slowed with a 22:21 third 5km split, before Perez pounced at the 15km point, putting the hammer down with a 4:06 split that splintered the lead pack. Following up with laps of 4:09 and then 4:05 – the fastest of the race – she stretched out her advantage to a decisive 14 seconds with just 2km remaining.
By the finish, the gap had grown to 25 seconds and Spain joined the US at the top of the gold medal stakes with two each.
Garcia finished strongly but was still six seconds shy of the podium with 1:27:32 in fourth, followed home by Mexican Alegna Gonzalez, fifth in 1:27:36, and Morejon, sixth in 1:27:40.
With sixth women finishing inside 1:28 and 10 women finishing inside 1:29, it was the highest ever quality race at the World Championships.
Credit: World Athletics