China's Chen Ding after completing the 20km race walk (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Taicang, China

Chen and Lu lead strong local fields in Taicang

Defending champions Pedro Daniel Gomez of Mexico and local walker Wang Yingliu will return to the 2017 IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting in Taicang on Saturday (15), but both will face a serious challenge.

As last year’s competition was only two weeks away from the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Rome 2016, most of the walkers from the Chinese national team chose to skip the races in Taicang and build up for Rome, leaving Gomez to become the first foreign champion in the five-year history of the event in 1:20:52.

But this year the 20km races in Taicang will play an important role in China’s team selection process for the IAAF World Championships London 2017 and nearly all the elite walkers of the country, except for reigning Olympic gold medallists Wang Zhen and Liu Hong, will be vying for a ticket to London on Saturday.

The men’s field will be led by 2015 winner Chen Ding, who has a fast personal best of 1:17:40 set in Taicang in 2012. He was the gold medallist at the 2012 Olympics and finished second at the World Championships the following year. But the 24-year-old Chinese has been often dragged down by injuries in recent years.

China’s Cai Zelin, who turned 26 on Tuesday, is another favorite to claim the men’s title. Although he has never won a gold medal in any major international competition, the athlete from China’s Yunan Province is well-known for his persistent high level performance. He was the runner-up at the 2014 World Race Walking Cup, 2016 World Race Walking Team Championships and 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. He has also finished second once and third twice in Taicang and is quiet familiar with the racing conditions here.

The 23-year-old local walker Wang Kaihua is another man to watch. He has been enjoying a flying start into the 2017 season, improving his PB by nearly two minutes to set a world-leading time of 1:17:54 en route to victory at the Chinese National Grand Prix in Huangshang last month.

Among the foreign entrants, Australia’s Dane Bird-Smith may pose the biggest threat to the hosts. The 24-year-old has a PB of 1:19:37 set when he collected the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics and two month ago he clocked 1:19:37 again as he took the victory at the Oceania 20km Race Walk Championships, which was also an IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting staged in Adelaide, Australia.

The field also includes several sub-1:20 walkers, such as South Korean veteran Kim Hyunsub, who just notched a third continental title at the Asian 20km Race Walking Championships in Nomi, Japan last month, as well as Ever Palma of Mexico and Sweden’s Perseus Karlstrom, who finished second and third respectively in Taicang last year.

Focus on Lu in women’s contest

With the absence of the reigning world champion Liu Hong, her national teammate Lu Xiuzhi will be the star attraction in the women’s race. The 23-year-old has also proven to be a consistent walker with a PB of 1:25:12. She was the runner-up at the 2015 World Championships and took bronze at last year’s Olympics. This season she has already proved her worth as she set a world leading time of 1:26:28 to win in Huangshan.

The 21-year-old rising star Wang Na is showing fast progress this season. The 2014 world junior 10,000m race walk silver medallist trailed only one second behind Lu in Huangshan, beating her PB by 1:52. And she went on to dominate the women's race at the Asian 20km Race Walking Championships, winning by a massive 2:30 in 1:30:51.

Defending champion Wang Yingliu also renewed her PB this year, clocking 1:28:15 to finish fourth in Huangshan. Her countrywoman Yang Jiayu, the 10km runner-up at the 2014 IAAF World Race Walking Cup, will be another serious contender on Saturday as she trimmed 1:37 off her PB to finish third in Huangshan in 1:26:35. 

The women’s field will also include Australia’s Regan Lamble, who secured selection to the world championships squad after winning her first national title in Adelaide in February, and Brazil’s national record holder Erica Rocha de Sena, who registered a winning time of 1:32:07 at the Circuito Internacional de Marcha 2017 in Monterrey, Mexico.

Vincent Wu for the IAAF