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Feature03 Apr 2015

Nearing his peak, Lopez looks to produce his best in Beijing

Spanish race walker Miguel Angel Lopez

There was a time when Miguel Angel Lopez believed 27 was the optimum age to deliver the goods at a major championship.

The Spaniard will reach the milestone on 3 July, but like the famous song from the musical Oliver! He’s reviewing the situation.

In fact, such is his progress, Lopez predicts a future chasing medals up to 30 and beyond.

It’s been a good couple of years for the man who took bronze at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow.

Notwithstanding his first major medal, he qualified for this year’s Spanish IAAF World Championships team at Errenteria, close to San Sebastian, on 22 March – and equalled the national best for the championships while doing it.

Before that, Lopez could barely believe his luck when one of his 2015 focus races switched to his own backyard.

The European Cup in May had been scheduled for Ukraine. Such is the turmoil inside that country, the European Athletics Association moved it to the more tranquil and sunny Murcia in southern Spain, and guess what? Lopez is from Murcia.

A welcome change, but not one to deflect from his chosen goal of getting on the podium again at the World Championships 20km race walk ceremony in Bejing sometime after 9.50am on 23 August.

“This year my two main objectives are the European Cup and World Championships,” Lopez said. “I've already won the Spanish 35km and the 20km the other weekend was also a bonus.

“The change in the European Cup to Murcia has added a bit of motivation to compete well in my city, but does not alter my initial plans laid down at the beginning of the year.”

Spain is no stranger to medal success over the past three decades.

Olympic, World Championships, World Junior Championships, IAAF World Race Walking Cup, European Championships, European Cup gold, silver and bronzes in abundance have hung brightly around Spanish necks since Jorge Llopart race walked to silver at the 1980 Olympics.

The federation and country have come to expect winning race walkers rolling off the production line like cars in a SEAT factory.

But the haul has somewhat stalled since Lopez’s bronze in Moscow. Before that, one has to go back to 34-year-old Maria Vasco overcoming the Chihuahua heat to land an unexpected gold at the World Race Walking Cup in 2010.

Lopez is Spain’s best bet for a World Championships race walking medal by a distance. In realistic terms, he is their only chance, but he claims the burden of adding to Spain’s heel-and-toe heritage is a help rather than a hindrance.

The confidence gained from one World Championships medal already should also not be underestimated.

“I already have a world bronze medal, so the goal is to improve that position,” he said. “As for the Spanish tradition in walking, of course it helps. It inspires, motivates and serves as an incentive to try to achieve the maximum.

“My current form is good, although all preparation is focused on being 100 per cent ready for Beijing. So despite the Spanish Championships, I am training intensely and hope to peak twice: first in Murcia for the European Cup, and secondly in Beijing.”

Lopez’s progress has been one of steady improvement since he first graced the World Race Walking Cup in 2008.

Personal bests have been chiselled rather than hacked, and on four occasions he has covered 20km faster than 1:20 – the yardstick for medal ambitions.

He won the European Championships last year with a final stride along the Zurich tramlines, and before that was on track in a superfast World Race Walking Cup in Taicang, gaining fifth and setting his 1:19:21 personal best.

But with no one to challenge him at Errenteria, and on an overcast dank day, he still knocked out a winning time only 31 seconds slower.

Consistency, improvement, medals, no major disqualifications – this surely could be his year to add world to European gold. But how does he see the race in Beijing as he vies for the ultimate IAAF honour?

“It’s obviously going to be a high standard and very demanding,” he said. “Who do I think will be at the front? The Chinese, of course, Russian and Japanese walkers will be the main rivals, and I think the race will be quick, but especially so at the end.

“I hope to prepare well and be ready for any circumstance, whether fast throughout, or a sprint at the finish.

“According to the theory, the optimum age for a peak performance is between 27 and 30, although it does not mean you can go on when you are older,” added Lopez.

Yohann Diniz will echo the sentiment. The Frenchman was 36 when he set the world record for 50km and won a third European gold in Zurich, and a year older when he briefly held the 20km world record for just one week last month before Japan’s Yusuke Suzuke took it from him.

Lopez has no immediate plans to debut at 50km. After all, 27 is now just another number, and the light at the end of the tunnel is looming very large.

He lists one of his recreations as ‘walking around Murcia’. He means strolling with his girlfriend, family and friends, of course. But on 17 May the shop fronts and cafes will be but a blur as a first step towards gold in Beijing.

“You cannot set limits on yourself,” he said. “I want to improve and produce a better version of myself in every race. That means winning medals and, if I can, setting a personal best while I’m doing it.”

Paul Warburton for the IAAF