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Friday, September 22, 2000

Sydney, Olympic Village, Men's 20km

What a race!

I've just gotten back from the men's 20K racewalk and I am so tired. It was exhausting! I never thought that watching a race could be so physically taxing, but here I am with sore muscles, tight shoulders and this heart-ache that won't go away.

My friends and teammates, Tim Seaman (USA) and Jefferson Perez (Ecuador), both raced incredible races and came up short of their dreams.

I've trained with Tim for the past three and a half years and it was so hard to watch his race get taken away from him. From the very beginning, he was walking so well. He was strong, confident and had an easy rhythm that he looked like he could have continued all day. He started in the middle of the pack of 50 walkers and was simply beautiful, keeping pace with the world's best.

Then he got a red card for loss of contact (in competitive racewalking, judges monitor all the walkers to make sure they aren't violating the two rules: 1) you must maintain continuous contact with the ground and 2) your advancing leg must be straight on contact and stay straight through the vertical support phase). By 8K, he got another red card. If you get three red cards, you are removed from the course and not allowed to finish. He was on the brink of elimination.
I could see the anguish on his face. Physically he could go faster, but his technique was limiting him to a certain speed. The judges wouldn't allow him to go any faster. Rather than quit, or slow to turtle-like speeds, he kept going and raced a very tough, brave race. For the last hour of his race, Tim was within one red card of being eliminated and he pushed through to a respectable finish. Of course he would have liked a faster time, but he survived his first Olympics.

Jefferson, at the age of 26, is an Olympic veteran. He competed in 1992 and didn't do very well. In Atlanta in 1996, he did everything perfectly and was able to destroy a talented field over the last two kilometers and win Ecuador's first and only Olympic gold medal. He is one of only a handful of Ecuadorian athletes here at the Games and he carried the hopes of a nation on his small shoulders. Yesterday, he entered as one of the favorites for a medal, but his competition was fierce.

By ten kilometers, a pack of eight or nine guys had separated themselves from the field. Poland's Robert Korsenovski (forgive my spelling) was at the front pushing the pace from the beginning and slowly the pack begin to disintegrate. By 15k, there were only two Mexicans, Bernardo Segura and Noe Hernandez, a Russian, and Jefferson trailing Korsenovski.

Of the group, Jefferson probably has the best closing speed, so I was optimistic that he would do well. But I could tell that he was laboring. Usually when Jefferson is racing, he has this tranquil look on his face. He may be walking 4:00/km, but looking at his face you would think he was reading a book or playing cards. With 5K to go, he was either reading a very intense novel, or he was losing at poker.

Korsenovski kept pressing the pace and he and Hernandez made a break from Segura and the Russian. With three kilometers to go, Segura was out of the hunt for a medal; he was way back. Jefferson was holding his own but had drifted to a distant fifth position. Over the next two kilometers, miraculously, Segura closed the gap on the leaders. Entering the stadium, he was challenging for the lead, and coming across the line, he out-sprinted Korsenovski. It was too good to be true for Segura as he was DQed after the race. He had gather three red cards in the last few kilometers.

Jefferson maintained his position and crossed the line in fifth, moving up to fourth after Segura's DQ.

I talked to Jefferson afterward and expected him to be despondent and upset with his fourth place finish. He was happy. He was pleased with the way he had raced and said that he had given it everything that he had. There are some races, he said, that you won't win, but as long as you give your absolute best you should be happy.

He was impressed by his competitors and gave them credit for racing really well to take the three medals in front of him. I'm sure he would have liked another gold medal to go with the one he won in Atlanta four years ago, but he was so gracious after not having made it onto the podium. He has always impressed me as a great athlete, but today he demonstrated that he is a true champion.

Now that the race is over, I am exhausted from all that excitement and drama. I may not have raced, but I need to lie down now and take a nap.



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