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Ntrismpioti and Fortunato strike for contrasting 20km race walk victories in Podebrady

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  • Ntrismpioti and Fortunato strike for contrasting 20km race walk victories in Podebrady

A fascinating women's 20km race walk at the European Race Walking Team Championships in Podebrady on Sunday (21) finally fell the way of 39-year-old Antigoni Ntrismpioti.

The double European champion proved that age was no barrier when she made a winning move with a lap to go. In doing so, she got the better of Olympic champion Antonella Palmisano, who defied expectations to take silver two years after striking gold on the same course in Podebrady.

In fact, the Italian’s last-minute charge still allowed her to grab a national flag and finish only two seconds down albeit as a result of Ntrismpioti joyously waving to all around her to the distinctive sound of Greek bouzouki music.

Finally, Ana Cabecinha was able to celebrate a major medal with bronze in a season’s best of 1:29:35 - her fastest time since 2017 - in what has become a resurgent season for the 39-year-old Portuguese race walker.

Two Ukrainians Lyudmila Olyanovska and Olena Sobchuk were rewarded for their willingness to take on the pace with positions fourth (1:29:58) and fifth (1:30:48) and another early leader Clemence Berretta from France finished sixth in 1:31:14.

The heat had risen to 22 degrees by the time 43 walkers, many wearing caps, got underway. A reasonable 4:31 first kilometre saw the pace increase to four seconds quicker two laps later.

The major shock was world and European silver medallist Katarzyna Zdzieblo from Poland was clearly struggling, five seconds in arrears and fading out of contention already. She would eventually finish 14th in 1:34:18.

Ntrismpioti wisely joined the majority by donning a cap during the fourth lap and that dozen was down to eight with the diminutive Meryem Bekmez from Türkiye augmented by Valentina Trapletti joining the phalanx at the front.

The leaders went through quarter distance in 22:26 to underline another increase in pace - an injection that proved a gear too many for Bekmez who quickly became uncoupled from the leaders and later had the ignominy of serving time in the penalty pit-stop area.

The halfway point was reached in 44:47 with Ntrismpioti composed enough to have a quick word to those around her.

And for the first time, Palmisano showed in the centre of the group and moved a single second ahead at 14km much to the surprise of many aficionados of the discipline.

After all, Palmisano had endured an injury-ravaged 2022 with a solitary - and not particularly promising - 10km outing in Madrid last month her only race since glorious gold at the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games when she won one of Italy’s five gold  medals. 

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But slowly Ntrismpioti moved through the gaps with only the returning-to-form Olympic champion for company as Olyanovska finally had to let go and was eventually reeled back in by Cabecinha.

Palmisano was gulping air halfway through the penultimate lap, and the Greek’s sideways glance showed she knew it. She made her winning move and forged on to her fourth European title in the space of two years having also won the 35km race walk title on this same course two years ago.

In the team race, Italy edged out Ukraine - 21 to 25 points. The telling 18th place for former European Cup 50km champion Eleonora Giorgi proved the difference.

France took bronze thanks in part to a terrific ninth-place and personal best for Pauline Stey in 1:32:21. After dominating the 50km race walk, Spain had to settle for fourth in the team race led by Antia Chamosa who finished seventh in a lifetime best of 1:31:24.

Cautious approach pays dividends for Fortunato  

His name translates as lucky - but there was nothing heaven sent about the best win in Francesco Fortunato's career.

The Italian grafted from first to last and thoroughly deserved his gold medal in the men’s 20km race walk and also led his country to the team title.

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The 28-year-old was fifth in last year’s European Athletics Championships in Munich and fifth last time in Podebrady two years ago.

He set his lifetime best of 1:19:43 in the latter of those two championships but it was a 38:56 victory against a world-class field over 10km in Madrid just three weeks ago that filled his cup full of confidence.

Fortunato had to bide his time to pass the early leader and then come again to pass Perseus Karlstrom who was bidding for a record hat-trick of wins.

His eventual winning time of 1:18:59 - a massive improvement as well as a European lead, even allowed him to half stop and gather an Italian flag in the last 50 metres.

Earlier, the hottest time of the day greeted 48 walkers, but with a trademark cap on backwards, sunglasses and nasal strip in place, Olympic champion Massimo Stano set off like he wanted to end this early as a competition. 

He stopped the clock for the first kilometre at 3:54 with Fortunato no more than a heartbeat behind. Meanwhile, Gabriel Bordier from France, Karlstrom and nine others were already surging ahead of a strung-out field.

After the five kilometre checkpoint, Stano stopped the clock at 19:34 with Fortunato holding steady three seconds back but two-time champion Karlstrom had gone out to a deficit of 17 seconds.

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However, the chasing Swede could clearly see both leaders and slowly started to close the gap to a more manageable 13 seconds.

At the 10 kilometre mark in 39:27, Fortunato had defiantly drawn abreast of Stano, and the gap to Karlstrom was now only seven seconds. 

In fact, by 12km it was a trio contesting which medal they might win, not least because Karlstrom had just reeled off a 3:53 lap to bring himself into title contention once again. 

Having set a hot pace from the gun, Stano was the first of the triumvirate to break and by 13 kilometres, he had ceded eight seconds on the duelling duo.

And duel they did. Fortunato pushed on with a 3:56 lap to forge a six-second lead by the 15 kilometre checkpoint in 59:09. 

And there would be no change to the medal positions in the last five kilometres. Fortunato glided to the biggest win of his career thus far in 1:18:59 ahead of Karlstrom, the exertions of a hot and humid afternoon writ large across his face for most of the last 10 kilometres, battling to silver in 1:19:27 with an equally tired Stano safe in the bronze medal position in 1:20:07. 

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Behind the medallists Alberto Amezcua was fourth in 1:20:24 and Spanish teammate Paul McGrath came home for fifth in 1:21:15, a lifetime best and a European U23 leading time.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Portugal’s João Vieira deserves special mention for 10th and 1:22:08, barely two minutes shy of a PB set 19 years ago. At age 47, the multi-medallist showed he has plenty yet to offer.

The team race was the closest-run thing of the day. Thanks to Fortunato and Stano, Italy prevailed with 15 points - just a single point ahead of Spain (16), and Germany third with 45.

Full results here.

Paul Warburton for European Athletics

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