sábado, 27 de agosto de 2011

Sandro Damilano versus Viktor Chegin

Valeriy Borchin leads Hao Wang in Berlin World Championships
Photo. Andy Lyons/ Getty Images Europe

            You do not usually see that kind of thing in sport. Two man an a woman coming not just from the same nation, but from the same town, same sports centre and trained by the same coach, Viktor Chegin, won all possible gold medals in an athletic discipline at last World Championships in Berlin. Indeed all the main players in this eloquent victory 3-0 against the rest of the world are used to the highest place of the podium. Valeriy Borchin is the current Olympic champion, Olga Kaniskina has won every major title since 2007 and finally Sergey Kirdyapkin had had some disappointing years but was author of another outstanding triumph in the 50 kilometre race walk event at Worlds, back in 2005. (1) Russia had always been a powerhouse in the event but never in such overwhelming fashion. Especially it stands for the women: At last European Championships in Barcelona, Kaniskina led her compatriots Anisya Kirdyapkina and Vera Sokolova, to a more than remarkable clean sweep of the medals at last European championships.  But what are the reasons of such extraordinary success? Is it likely to happen again at next Worlds in Daegu?
           There are two towns in Russia, which own a high performance centre, oriented to race walking: one is Cheboksary in the republic of Chuvashia.  The other is Saransk, the capital of Mordovia.  Chegin, who every champion cited above credit as the key for his progression, comes from the last one. Once he retired from competition, the future guru of the discipline devoted himself to coaching. It did not pass too much time Viktor got his first world champion: teen Irina Stankina, who crowned herself in Goteborg, back in 1995. (2) The Mordovia government felt proud of this achievement and decided to invest in building the best performance centre in the world in their hometown of Saransk, naming Chegin head coach, with the mission of producing a dozen more Stankinas. This was the beginning of the rise of race walking in Mordovia. Currently, the annual budget is around 2 million dollars. The centre, set in an ideal environment, surrounded by a forest, dispose of the most complete equipment: weight room, sauna, swimming pool, massage room, hostel, cafeteria and restaurant.  A whole team of expert doctors, physiotherapist and coaches is engaged in granting the work reach the standards of perfection.
            At the same time, Nikolai Merkushkin, the head of the Republic of Mordovia has bestowed special interest in promoting culture and mass practice of sport in his jurisdiction, with two succesive official programs of development (3) Many sport facilities have been built (2425 by 2006), with special emphasis in the rural areas (1643 of them), so even in the most remote places of the region it is possible to access high quality sport. As a result about 20% of the population is now involved in sport, while in the rest of Russia the average is just 9%.  Boxers, tennis players, gymnasts, wrestlers, athletes, have been bound from here to Olympic glory as Alexey Mishin or Yuriy Borzakovskiy. Yet race walking stands as the most popular sport in Mordovia and their stars are highly admired by the population and recognized by the authorities. Olga Kaniskina for example has been offered an apartment and two cars for her triumphs. (4) Athletes are awarded the highest honors and Viktor Chegin, as the main responsible of success, had been named Cavalier of the order of Glory of Mordovian Republic and a statue is going to be erected to his living memory. Race walking is taught in every school and there are affiliates of the Saransk Olympic centre in every district, where talents are spotted and invited for a stage with Chegin and his assistants. Around 50 people from 12 to 35 year old gather in the hostel, living, studying and training, trying to prove their abilities. The best among them will be engaged.  
          Saransk walking school little by little increased its relevance in and out of the country.  Four years after Stankina, German Skurygin won again the World championship in Sevilla but was later disqualified because of doping.  It was the first of a serie of similar scandals, which would follow in successive years, always in the men´s side: Borchin, Voyevodin, Burayev, Morozov, Kanaykin… all had been caught in drugs and this is something which tarnish somewhat the awesome success of Mordovian walkers.  Another Saransk-born, Roman Rasskazov, was the first man in obtaining a valid victory in the contest for Chegin's team, heading a Russian swept of the 20 km walk medals at the 2001 edition in Edmonton. Also Aleksey Voyevodin would win the World Cup in 2002 and 2004 at the long 50 km discipline and Dennis Nizhegorodov would follow up with another two successive victories.  These two athletes won the firsts Olympic medals, among Chegin apprentices, at Athens 2004. The great Korzeniowski said goodbye in style and behind him Nizhegorodov won the silver, fainting after crossing the finish line, and Voyevodin the bronze. (5) Notwithstanding, by then still Chuvashian athletes like Yelena Nikolaieva or Olimpiada Ivanova were dominant among Russian walkers, and Korzeniowski, Jefferson Pérez, Paquillo Fernández or the Mexicans were often too much to handle for the upcoming Mordovians. Four years afterwards in Beijing the hard work and commitment of many people for two decades had reaped the fruits: Borchin and Kaniskina destroyed the field and became the first Saransk performance walking centre members on the top of an Olympic podium.  Interestingly, the precedent season, for Osaka Worlds, there were already seven Mordovian representatives among 11 Russian walkers. This year for Daegu the full team belongs to Saransk

Anisya Kirdyapkina, Olga Kaniskina and Vera Sokolova celebrate their medals at the European Champs
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Europe 
             Saransk school is now performing at its very best and their standards seem unattainable for the rest of the countries. However another classic powerhouse in race walking, China, has found a way out of a big crisis of results during a whole decade. After a promising couple of seasons, they have reasons to feel optimistic and feel ready to challenge the fancied Russian stars.
            The Asian nation can be proud of remarkable performances in major championships ever since they joined the athletic family in the eighties. It is true especially among the women.  China was a new country in track and field and they needed to close the gap between them and other well established powerhouses in the sport. However, race walking was a newly introduced discipline in the female category and everybody else had recently started from zero too.  Cleverly, Eastern Asian efforts were focused in these new events which offered the best chances and as a result they  topped the third World Cup, held in Bergen in 1983, with Xu Yongjiu.
            By the next edition they were already the best team in the world.  Junior Hong Yan was the winner ahead of Guan Ping. That athlete was at the time the precocious world record holder of that young 10 km event, where outstanding teens abounded. Indeed the first European championship gold medallist was sixteen-year-old Spaniard Mari Cruz Díaz.  Both Yan and Ping were representing China the first time the World Championships in athletics held a female walking race, in 1987 in Rome. Ping was famously disqualified, when she sprinted entering the stadium to win the race and Yan Hong was only bronze, but they paved the way for all the new generations to come.  Wang Yan, Gao Hongmiao, Liu Hongyu and also two men, Li Zewen and Zhao Yongsheng, would win again the World Cup title for China in the nineties. Besides, the first time the World championships were held at the 20 km distance, in 1999 in Sevilla, Liu Hongyu and Wang Yan would achieve an historic 1-2 for their country. Chinese women have also won two Olympic Games: Chen Yueling struck gold and her compatriot Li Chunxiu bronze in the female walkers debut at the Olympics in Barcelona 92, and Wang Liping would obtain the second title at the controversial race of the 2000 edition of the Games in Sidney.  Since then a long drought. Almost a decade with no significative triumph.  

Zhen Wang edges Chu Yafei at the 2011 Memorial Albisetti
Photo: Diego Sampaolo
          Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean lack of talent.  2005 was an illustrative year to understand what was going on.  Chinese walkers were massively represented in the yearly lists: no less than 22 men reached the top-50 in the 20 km event and 21 the 50 km.  Equally 21 women achieved this feat. Among them, 8 men dipped under 1:19 at the shorter distance and 9 under 3:45 at the longer, headed for the still existing Area records of Hongjun Zhu (1:17:41) and Chaohong Yu (3:36:06); while 10 women walked the 20 km event under 1:29. It stands clearly as the best year ever in male category and for the female’s, only can be compared with the 2001 season. And what this gifted generation did at Helsinki World Championships? A fifth position by 50 km specialist Zhao Chenglian and a best placement of ninth in the other two races. Things improved plainly at the World Cup, held in La Coruña the following year: Yuchen Han won the bronze at the 20 km and He Dan, junior Liu Hong and Zhao again were among the eight best. However, every member of the team failed badly at Osaka Worlds, where the main achievement was a poor 7th place by Chao Sun at the 50 km.
Now the legend was Chinese walkers were unable to replicate their awesome performances at home in international competitions held abroad. But, as we said, in the two precedent decades it was not really like this. If you look for the individual athletes during those weak years, you can discover many cases of highly inconsistency and incapacity to maintain a long term career. Wrong management brought to general failure and many burn-out cases.  Zhu Hongjun finished sixth at Athens Olympic Games at 21 and then went on to a sensational timing of 1:17 the following season, but by 2006 he had already dropped to 1:23.  Han Yucheng clocked 1:18:31 and 3:36:20 in 2005 and had an astounding following year winning the Asian Games and medalling at the World Cup but it was the only one: he finished 40th at Athens Olympic Games, dropped in Helsinki, placed 29th in Osaka and 22d the same year at Cheboksary World Cup.  Zhao Chenglian followed up his 2005 and 2006 excellent seasons with a DQ in Osaka and a 21st place in Beijing and has been unable to conclude a race in the last two years.  Li Gaobo, who as young as 15 years old had walked to an incredible Area Junior record and World Youth best of 1:18:07, back in 2005, obtained a so-so 13th position in Osaka and had been annoyed by recurring injuries, which sidelined him for the Olympic Games and Berlin World championships. Now he is trying to make a comeback in the 50 km distance but did not qualify for Daegu.
Among the girls, He Dang clocked 2:28 in 2005 and 2006, winning the Asian Championships and finishing a creditable 4th at La Coruña World Cup, but since then has not done better than 2:31 and has not gain any other selection for the national team.  Jiang Jing started her career with a bronze medal at the 2004 World Cup, still being a junior. In following years she won almost every outing she competed in at home but performed disappointingly in every major international contest. Now still 25 she has dropped her standards to 1:39 in 2010 and 1:49 this year. On the other hand Jiang Qiuyan, who won two consecutive editions of the Universiade, had not many opportunities in the national team and anyway retired after Beijing Olympics.  
Because of the weak performance in Osaka, China’s officials dropped some of the established stars and included some new names in the roster for the Olympic Games, where they were going to be the host country.  Unheralded youngsters Chu Yafei and Wang Hao (born in 1988 and 89 respectively), were selected for the male team and Yang Mingxia (born in 1990), joined 2006 World Junior champion Liu Hong for the female’s. This risky decision paid off: the general team impression was quite better than in previous major contests and Wang Hao and Liu Hong achieved remarkable fourth places. The following year these athletes improved further. Wang won the silver in Berlin, challenging Olympic champion Borchin and Liu grabbed the bronze in another excellent performance. For the 2010 World Cup, Chinese walkers were even more impressive. Some of the Russian stars were absent in Chihuahua but it does not detract in any way their awesome collective demonstration. In a truly challenging contest, held in high altitude and under extreme heat, China won three out of five team titles (both senior medal races and 10 km junior women) and climbed also to the podium in the other two.  Individually, Wang Hao and Chu Yafei achieved an impressive 1-2 at the 20 km event.  Then it was revealed behind that quality improvement in Berlin and Chihuahua were stages at Saluzzo training centre, where they had had the opportunity to work with Sandro Damilano. The legendary Italian Coach was offered a contract to take charge of Chinese walkers which he eventually accepted.

Giorgio Rubino and Elisa Rigaudo, current Sandro Damilano's trainees
Sandro Damilano(6) has been a coach in race walking for nearly 40 years, ever since he started training younger twin Brothers Giorgio and Maurizio, who went on to win the 1980 Olympic Games title at the 20 km distance, in Moscow.  Maurizio had one of the most successful careers in the long history of Italian victories in the speciality, also winning two successive World titles, at home turf in Rome in 1987 and Tokyo in 1991.  His brother Sandro, besides being a coach for the family, had a fruitful collaboration with the Italian Athletics Federation (FIDAL) since 1981 until December of last year, when they decided to split up, following Damilano’s engagement with the Chinese federation.  During this period he was Italian race walking head coach between 1990 and 2000.  Even Chegin falls short of Sandro’s impressive curriculum:  Elisa Rigaudo won at last World Cup in Olhao the 50th historic major medal, among walkers trained by Damilano, all over four decades. Throughout his career he has been the personal coach of an outstanding list of sensational athletes, as his brothers, Arturo di Mezza, Lorenzo Civallero, Erica Alfridi, Elisabetta Perrone, Rossella Giordano and more recently Elisa Rigaudo, Giorgio Rubino and Alex Schwazer.  With the latter he obtained his second Olympic gold, this time at the longer distance, in Beijing. Precisely, the problematic relationship with his pupil Schwazer after the Olympic year, and his breaking up with him was one of the main reasons for him to accept the Chinese offer. Despite his awesome trajectory, Damilano had also known such sort of disappointments, being perhaps the most remembered when her trainee Elisabetta Perrone was disqualified at Sidney Olympics, when she was to win the gold medal.   
  Maurizio and Sandro Damilano contributed significantly to the creation of the Race Walking Training Centre of Saluzzo in 2001, close to their hometown of Scarnafigi in the Piedmont Region, in order to continue with the rich Italian walking tradition, giving an opportunity of guidance and training to the country new hopes.(7) The centre is set in an historic building, with single and double rooms, which provide accommodation for up to 12 people, and is flawlessly equipped with the necessary facilities, specially a stunning gym. The environment is perfect for walking practise, with numerous roads for training and nearby mountains.  Saluzzo’s centre is also thought to help improve the discipline, with the discussion of new methods, by sharing common experiences in frequent Congress and meetings held for this purpose. Maurizio, the director of the walking centre, organise all these technical issues in Saluzzo, while his brother Sandro carries out the coaching.
            An important difference between Saransk and Saluzzo is the Mordovian High Performance Centre is exclusively oriented to local athletes, while the Piedmont one is also open to foreign guests.  Both 2007 World champions Jefferson Pérez and Nathan Deakes prepared in Saluzzo for their race in Osaka, and this year, besides the Chinese team, Japanese and Irish walkers as Colin Griffin have disposed of the centre facilities and Sandro Damilano’s guidance. The master of coaches also points out how positive can be for national athletes this exchange among different walking schools. He believes current Italian athletes will benefit of the arrival of Chinese athletes in the same way his brother Maurizio used to do in his long stages in Mexico, in contact with local walkers. Giorgio Rubino corroborates this statement, saying his training alongside the strong Chinese team in Saluzzo was decisive for his brilliant performances in 2009. (8)  China was also recognisant with Sandro Damilano’s efficient work with his athletes and tried to stamp in an official contract, what started as a spontaneous approach. Besides, despite leading the medal ranking in their host Games, the Asian powerhouse realised no track and field golden, silver or bronze had been obtained. Having London Olympics as ultimate goal, the Chinese federations offered Damilano to go to stay in Asia to become head coach of the national team of race walking, but Sandro was also attached to his Italian pupils and the centre of Saluzzo. In the end, the Italian veteran chose something in the middle. 
    Attired by the big economical incentives and looking for new challenges he agreed to participate in the Chinese project but at the same time he wanted to keep living in the North of Italy. Accordingly, he took just six athletes, who would be trained personally by him in long stages in Saluzzo.  On the other hand, in spite of resigning with the FIDAL, he would keep Giorgio Rubino, Elisa Rigaudo and hopeful Federico Tontodonati with him, to be coached alongside the six Asian athletes. He also committed to travel to China to be with athletes and officials in key moments of the athletic season. (9) The chosen ones were mainly some young athletes, which because not totally formed are able of further improvement. Yet it happens the current best athletes in the country are quite young so the decision was easy. Berlin medallists Wang Hao and Liu Hong were picked and so was Si Tianfeng, fourth at Chihuahua World Cup, the only veteran in the group. World junior medallists Li Yanfei (2008) and Cai Zelin (2010) joined them. Finally, the most surprising pick was Wang Zhen, who was not considered in his home country much more than average but Damilano has a smart eye to spot talent and his new protégée improved so much in his first year with him, he produced a major upset beating the field at the 2010 IAAF walking challenge final, in a new world junior record clocking. On paper only six athletes have been named but the matter of the fact is a lot more have travelled to Saluzzo in the last three seasons to take advantage of Damilano lessons: Mingxia Yang, Li Li, Gao Ni or Tong Lingling, among the girls; and Chu Yafei, Xu Faguang, Yu Wei, Chen Ding or Li Tianlei, among the boys. 

Stanislav Emelyanov, the ultimate Viktor Chegin's discovery
Photo: Getty images
In Damilano opinion, Chinese athletes are excellent physically but usually lack a fine technique. This is a strong point of the Scarnafigi native and everyone of his adopted Eastern team acknowledge it is the huge improvement with Damilano in this aspect which have propelled him to his excellent results. This is also a speciality of Viktor Chegin, who is believed to be able of giving advice and correcting the technique, without even need to look at the runner as he trains (10) Amazingly, Chegin had also been contacted by the Chinese team several times but rejected the offers.  He remembers that humoristically, saying something like “no good deeds go unpunished” (11)   
Chinese athlete performances this year have been more than remarkable so far.  Wang Zhen leads the season lists with 1:18:30 and has won impressively every one of his outings at the 20 km distance, followed by Chu Yafei and revelation of the year Ding Chen. Si Tianfeng is also ranked in first position in the longer distance this year, after his stunning 3.38:48 at Taicang IAAF challenge meeting. Eventually, Asian Games double champion Liu Hong has equalled her 1:27:17 PB and has proved one of the most solid athletes in the circuit, winning in Lugano, Taicang and Dublin. An atmosphere of euphoria is perceptible now among Chinese audience and press but, wisely, Damilano remembers it is not important to improve their timings but maintaining consistency, something we have seen was not able to do the precedent generation.  For this it is necessary to work also at psychological level. (12)  
        Russian and Chinese walkers have not really faced each other since Berlin World Championship and it is hard to say if the Damilano trainees have reached a quality level enough to beat Chegin’s astounding squad.  Zhen and Chu have been unbeatable this year and they will be joined in Daegu by 2009 world silver medallist Wang Hao, injured during the season but recovered in time for the Worlds.  However, Olympic champion Borchin and new kid in town Stanislav Emelyanov are in the race and also are the returned Kanaykin and Morozov. Borchin has not shown any sign of weakness ever since he became Olympic champion and Emelyanov has had a gigantic progression in the last seasons. (13). He has won all possible titles in age categories (World Youth, World Junior and European Junior) and in his 2010 senior debut continued the same way, beating the field at Winter and Summer Russian championships and then at the overall European contest.  This year has obtained a new Area title at Olhao European Cup and has lost only to Borchin.
The 50 km event is not an exclusive Saransk-Saluzzo duel like the 20 km and it can be anybody’s race.  Diniz, Toth, García Bragado, Nymark, Nava, everyone in Polish and Australian teams, all can be in the mix for the victory. Also should be Si Tianfeng, after his stunning clocking in Taicang and world record holder and double Olympic medallist Dennis Nizhegorodov.  Kirdyapkin is an irregular performer but if he has his day should be a fearsome opponent too. Xu Faguang and Li Jianbo in the Chinese side and Bakulin and Yerokhin in the Russian’s are all of them solid runners but do not seem contenders for the gold medal.
Olga Kaniskina remains unchallenged in the 20 km event since 2007 and targets a record third World Championship victory. She has been beaten only once at the distance in the last four seasons, when she finished fourth in unknown circumstances at the Russian winter last year, in a race won by Anisya Kirdyapkina. Yet she bounced back in the summer, with an out-of-sight display of power, for Barcelona Europeans, when Russia won all three medals.  Kirdyapkina and Vera Sokolova have won in consistency but do not seem match enough for Olga.  Sokolova says she can not even follow her in training and judging by Kaniskina's two showings this season at Rio Maior and Sesto San Giovanni she seems as unbreakable as ever.
Chuvashia-born Sokolova is the one with the biggest progression of the trio. (14) An outstanding runner as a teen, Vera was left on her own as her main coach was engaged for other duties.  Then she lived some difficult years and even stopped training.  Former world and Olympic champion Elena Nikolaieva asked Viktor Chegin as personal favour to take her and it was the first time a race walker came from Chuvashia powerhouse to Saransk. From then on she started to recover her lost fitness and this year she is in impeccable form.  She improved the official world record (Olympiada Ivanova and Kaniskina have better no-homologated marks) and won the European Cup in Olhao.  In Daegu we will see how close she is now to Kaniskina.  Not to be discounted is the fourth member of the team, former world junior champion and winner this year at the European U-23, Tatyana Mineyeva, and for the future, be ready for the arrival of newly minted World junior record holder Yelena Lashmanova. Liu Hong seems the only one who has the capacity to beat the awesome Russians but if she did it would really be a major upset.  Surprisingly, Li Yanfei, fifth last year at the World Cup and runner-up at the Asiad has not been selected. I personally ignore whether she is injured. The other two places in the team will be filled by young hope Gao Ni and Shenjie Qieyang, who has clocked 1:28:04, but whose two other races of the year were really far from it.  Also Spain and Portugal will come with strong squads.  The latter nation will line up Susana Feitor, who is going to the Worlds for the 11th time, a record of appearances in the championships in any event.
In the deep of his heart, Sandro Damilano would like Giorgio Rubino and Elisa Rigaudo to win. Rubino was brought by his former coach Patrizio Parcesepe to the fifth place in Osaka World Championships but was plagued by injuries in the Olympic year.  In 2009 he moved to Saluzzo with Damilano, who relaunched his career, giving him his confidence back, an improved technique and now he is working with him in the gym to make him acquire a superior strength to not fade anymore in the last stages of the races. After winning the 2009 European Cup in an extraordinary Italian clean sweep of the medals, he narrowly missed the bronze in Berlin. Maybe this time he is going to be luckier.  Elisa Rigaudo left orphan national female race walking when she took her maternity leave in 2010.  No Italian women finished the race at Barcelona Championships, something unbelievable for a country who had counted with the likes of Ileana Salvador, Elisabetta Perrone, Erica Alfridi or World and European champion Annarita Sidoti.  Antonella Palmisano, the junior race winner at Chihuahua’s World Cup is coming strong but, for the moment, Rigaudo would like to add a World Championship medal to the bronze she won in Beijing.                           

Hong Liu expects to challenge the best at the upcoming Daegu World Championships

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