A top-25 finish on a senior World Championships debut is remarkable for any athlete, not least a teenager.
But when Glenda Morejon crossed the line in 25th place in the women’s 20km race walk at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, she felt nothing but disappointment and frustration.
Just three months earlier, Morejon had stunned the race walking world with her 1:25:29 victory in La Coruna. Not only was her time the fastest ever performance by an U20 athlete and good enough for 13th place on the senior world all-time list, but she defeated a high-quality field in what proved to be one of the greatest depth races in history.
Not bad for a debut performance at 20km.
China’s Yang Jiayu, the world champion at the time, finished five seconds adrift of the Ecuadorian teenager. Liu Hong, the Olympic and multiple world champion, was a distant third while many of the world’s best race walkers were even further back.
One month later, and back competing within her age group, Morejon enjoyed a dominant victory over 10,000m at the Pan-American U20 Championships in San Jose, Costa Rica. It maintained her 2019 winning streak and she had every right to feel confident heading to Doha.
Her race along the Corniche started well and Morejon was prominent in the lead pack for the first 10 kilometres. But in testing conditions, Morejon faded during the second half and eventually finished 25th, seven placed behind training partner Karla Jaramillo and one place behind Turkey’s Meryem Bekmez, one of Morejon’s toughest rivals at recent age-group championships.
“I was disappointed with my performance in Doha because I didn't reach my target of walking as fast as I wanted to,” says Morejon, who was among the nominees for the Rising Star Award at the recent World Athletics Awards.
“But it's part of sport and it's a learning experience and a stepping stone. I have to remind myself that I'm only 19 years old and I have a long career ahead of me, so this is all part of gaining experience.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t expect to be nominated (for the Rising Star Award),” she adds. “In fact after Doha I didn't think anyone would take notice of me. When the nominees came out a few weeks later, I was really surprised to see my name on the list. It gives me huge motivation and inspiration to do better next year.”
From humble beginnings to global champion
Born in Ibarra, a city in the north of Ecuador, Morejon doesn’t come from a particularly sporty family.
Her mother, Maria, sells fruit at a local market while her father, Luis, has been dedicated to rearing his three children. Morejon started out as a distance runner before her race-walking ability was identified at the age of 13, but her parents struggled to afford training gear.
Coached by Giovanni Delgado at the Tarquino Jaramillo Athletics School, Morejon did most of her sessions on a dirt track. Often she wouldn’t wear shoes. The one pair of racing shoes she did have were patched up and in desperate need of repair.
Despite this, the early signs were promising. In 2016, at the age of 15, she finished second in the U17 race at the National Race Walking Championships. Little more than a year later, she won gold at the World U18 Championships in Nairobi.
In the closest ever finish to a race walking event at a World U18 Championships, Morejon crossed the line just 0.49 ahead of Bekmez to win in 22:32.30, becoming just the second Ecuadorian athlete to win gold at the World U18 Championships.
Given her difficulties with shoes during her formative years, Morejon's achievement was also reminiscent of Ecuadorian race walking legend Jefferson Perez, who took gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics while wearing a pair of torn shoes.
“Winning gold was very emotional,” Morejon said at the time. “I knew my parents were watching me from home and I thank them for their support.”
For the rest of 2017 and 2018, Morejon achieved podium finishes in all of her races. She finished second at the World Race Walking Team Championships in Taicang and third at the World U20 Championships in Tampere.
Her streak of top-three finishes came to an end in Doha. She knew that if she were to take on the world’s best in future, then she would benefit from learning from them.
In October 2019 Morejon moved 600km south to Cuenca to be coached by South American 50km record-holder Andres Chocho. She now trains alongside Brazil’s Erica De Sena, Chocho’s wife, who finished fourth in the 20km in Doha and London, and Ecuador’s Paola Perez, who finished ninth in the 50km in Doha.
Supported by the Ecuadorian Athletics Federation's high performance project and training on the Jefferson Perez track, Morejon is already benefitting from her new training set-up. At the end of 2019 the group completed a heat adaptation training exercise in Guayaquil where temperatures reached 33C, similar to the expected conditions in Sapporo where the road events for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will take place.
Looking back on her achievements in 2019 and ahead to the challenges of 2020, Morejon is optimistic.
“The thing I'm most proud of in 2019 is my debut at 20km in La Coruna,” she says. “It was my first 20km and I hit the Olympic standard so I was really, really pleased with my performance and I'm looking forward to doing more 20km races.
“In that race I also defeated Liu Hong (who went on to win in Doha) and other Chinese athletes. I consider them as the power houses in this event, so the fact I beat them in La Coruna – despite what happened in Doha – gives me a lot of motivation and confidence.
“It shows me that I can do this and reach my goals, and I hope that in future competitions things will go in my favour.”
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics