A hat-trick of 20km titles await Sweden’s Perseus Karlstrom and Antonella Palmisano from Italy at the 2023 European Race Walking Team Championships on Sunday (21) in Podebrady, Czech Republic.
The European Race Walking Team Championships will be streamed live with expert English-language commentary on the European Athletics YouTube channel from 7.25am local time (CEST).
However, the odds are somewhat shorter for the men’s European Championship silver medallist than the 2020 Olympic Games winner on the women’s side.
Karlstrom is in good form as he goes in search of a historic third title. But Palmisano is coming back from an injury-hit 2022 where her biggest challenge was surgery in September to ease swelling around a sciatic nerve.
Her first race since that golden moment in Sapporo was a 10km race walk in Madrid at the beginning of this month where she registered a modest 45:05.
Considering the 31-year-old’s best is 41:28, about a kilometre faster than Madrid, she will need to go a lot quicker around the Spa Park in Podebrady to add a third to victories in 2017 and 2021, the latter a precursor to her gold medal at the Olympics.
Karlstrom has what top Australian coach Brent Vallance calls ‘repeatability' - and has been a pillar of consistency in all major races since his first win in 2019.
The Swede walked a European leading time of 1:19:27 at the Australian Championships in February - only four seconds outside his time at the European Athletics Championships in Munich where he won silver. More recently, he clocked an acceptable 40:04 in Madrid.
If it is not to be Karlstrom, then maybe Italian, Francesco Fortunato, who won the 10km in Madrid against many of his principal European rivals in a fast 38:56. He has walked 1:21:11 this year, and there is nothing like a win against a world-class field to boost confidence.
Behind Karlstrom, Gabriel Bordier from France is the next fastest on the entry-list with 1:20:49 - just 39 seconds shy of his personal best - but two athletes who are yet to contest this distance in 2023 include Olympic champion Massimo Stano from Italy and Spain’s Diego Garcia.
The latter has a lifetime best of 1:18:58 and won silver at the European Athletics Championships in Munich last year behind teammate Alvaro Martin who will be stepping up in distance to contest the 35km race walk in Podebrady.
Stano’s CV speaks for itself. He set the Italian record 1:17:45 four years ago and backed up his Olympic 20km race walk triumph with gold in the inaugural 35km race walk at the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon last July.
Ominously for the rest of the field, he made his 2023 debut over 10k at Madrid and did so with a decent 39:06 clocking.
In the context of the team race, Spain will be looking to retain their title after finishing second, third and fourth individually in 2021. As well as Garcia, their team also features European U20 champion Paul McGrath who makes his senior debut for Spain in Podebrady.
Will veteran Ntrismpioti strike again for Greece?
In the women’s race, Stano's compatriot and fellow Olympic champion Palmisano will give it her best shot but at this stage of her comeback, it looks unlikely she will retain her individual title in Podebrady.
And with European leader Maria Perez from Spain focusing on the 35km race walk in Podebrady, this could be the moment for Poland’s Katarzyna Zdzieblo to upgrade her many silver medals to gold.
The European and double world silver medallist had to miss her season’s opener at the Korzeniowski Challenge in Warsaw last month due to a slight sprain but her sparkling 1:27:31 national record from the World Athletics Championships in Oregon last summer will be at the back of her mind.
But it would be foolish to rule out Antigoni Ntrismpioti. The Greek who helps out at the family restaurant when she can, is ready to serve up another title-winning performance.
At 39, the double European champion scored a national record of 1:28:12 in Australia in February - this makes her the fastest entrant on paper on season’s best performances - and just as importantly, she has also won in Podebrady before, winning the 35km race walk title two years ago.
However, all three front runners will have Ana Cabecinha to deal with.
She also falls into the veteran category but sprung a surprise in Rio Maior at the end of last month when the Portuguese stayed with a world-class field to finish in 1:29:55 - her first time under 1:30:00 since La Coruna’s super-fast race five years ago.
Cabecinha is enjoying a late career resurgence but a relative newcomer in Saskia Feige has made inroads on the world’s elite.
The German’s lifetime best of 1:28:28 dates back to only 15 April and that time represented a massive improvement of more than a minute on her bronze medal-winning time at the 2022 European Athletics Championships in Munich.
Paul Warburton for European Athletics