Maria Perez might have had a 2022 season to forget having been disqualified at the World and European Athletics Championships but there will be high expectations when she lines up in the 35km race walk at the European Race Walking Team Championships in Podebrady on 21 May.
After her annus horribilis, the 2018 European champion has bounced back strongly this year by smashing her national record at the Spanish 20km Race Walking Championships in Cordoba with a world leading time of 1:25:30.
“After those setbacks I needed to reset and refresh mentally so I resumed my training in October but I did running instead of walking. It was only by the end of December that I began my usual race walking sessions once I felt psychologically ready after several tough months,” said Perez in an exclusive interview with European Athletics.
More than one month on and Perez is still surprised by that clocking, the fastest ever non-Russian time recorded by a European race walker in the history of the event.
“We didn’t expect such a quick time at that early stage of the season since we had barely done quality work; I only remember doing a couple of reps sessions (10x1000m and 6x2000m) but I also knew I had that kind of time in my legs after all the hard work done the previous years,” she said.
Looking ahead to the European Race Walking Team Championships, statistics play in the favour of the 27-year-old. She came sixth in 2017 and second in 2021 on her previous appearances in the 20km race walk in Podebrady but Perez prefers to take a cautious approach.
“To be honest, I’m not aiming to win or to smash any records, my two goals in Podebrady are just to romp home and show all the technical work we have done over the last months,” said Perez.
The Spaniard is an accomplished performer at both the 20km and 35km race walk distances but Perez explains why she is planning to contest the longer of the two distances in Podebrady.
“After my good performance in Córdoba we decided to work on my stamina and mileage as I plan to double up at the World Athletics Championships this summer. I am averaging over 125 kilometres per week with some peaks of 135 kilometres at the most,” said Perez, who is the European record-holder at the longer distance with 2:39:16 time set last year.
The upcoming European Race Walking Team Championships will be Perez’s fourth race over the longer distance but her first internationally in an event which only made its debut on the major championships programme last summer.
“To be honest, I haven’t got any hint on what type of race we’ll have in Podebrady, let’s see how the race develops,” said Perez.
“We shouldn’t forget that it’s a team championship so the primary goal will be to win the gold medal for my country alongside my teammates but Italy, Greece [gold and silver medallists in 2021], Ukraine and France have strong specialists,” said Perez.
Perez will meet up with them again in just over a week on a circuit which is of her liking. “It’s a beautiful circuit, quite broad except for the final stages when it narrows; in addition there are a lot of trees in the park which give shade for much of the race. I really enjoy walking in Podebrady,” she said.
"Fiercest rival but also the best teammate"
Unlike Perez, her compatriot Raquel Gonzalez enjoyed the season of her life in the 35km race walk in 2022 with a fifth-place finish at the World Athletics Championships and a silver medal at the 2022 European Athletics Championships in Munich.
“I couldn’t pick one performance over the other; to be fifth at a world level is amazing but a medal is a medal and that’s what every athlete fights for. After those results I feel more ambitious,” said Gonzalez, who was also crowned women's Spanish Athlete of the Year for 2022.
Boosted by such a brilliant campaign, Gonzalez spent over one month early this year in Australia – Canberra and Perisher Valley – to take part in the Supernova 7 training camp alongside other elite walkers such as Greece’s double European champion Antigoni Ntrismpioti who will contest the 20km race walk in Podebrady.
“The topic of the experiment was to study the altitude training effect on the haemoglobin of female walkers; we also followed a very specific diet program, combining a high energy intake over the first two weeks and a low energy intake for the last week,” explained Gonzalez.
The 33-year-old is looking forward to returning to Podebrady two years after a performance which left her with mixed emotions.
"Today I have a very positive memory as we managed the 20km gold medal as a team but believe me when I tell you, I had a bittersweet feeling for some time as I missed an individual medal and also a lifetime best for barely one second,” recalls Gonzalez, who came fourth in 1:28:37, tantalisingly close to her lifetime best which dates back to 2014.
Thinking about the upcoming 2023 edition, the Madrid-based walker said: “We have a very powerful squad and definitely we’ll go for team gold, that’s for sure”.
Asked on whether her fellow Spaniard Maria Perez should be regarded as her main opponent individually, Gonzalez says adamantly: “Of course, Maria will be both the fiercest rival but also the best teammate”.
Having raced over the shorter distances - 5km, 10km, 20km - so far this campaign, Podebrady will mark Gonzalez’s first appearance over 35km distance this season but far from hesitating on her outcome, she’s fully determined to perform well.
The Spaniard boasts a 2:42:27 career best for the event but she’s reluctant to reply when asked what kind of clocking we can expect from her on this occasion.
"That would be giving advantage to my rivals!" she laughs.
Emeterio Vailente for European Athletics