The Long Saunter, or I Was A Champion Youth Racewalker

When I was ten years old, I was a competitive racewalker. It's a weird sport, but I was a weird kid.
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I grew up on a tiny farm about an hour from Birmingham, Alabama: my parents, an older brother and a younger sister and me. Calling it a farm is generous, maybe: there was an acre of planted land devoted to a tangled mess of corn, squash and okra, and sporadic attempts at animal husbandry, though none of our chickens or goats ever produced anything consumable. Our longest livestock relationship was with a sickly horse named Macintosh, whose eventual death resulted in a tragicomic burial involving a finicky backhoe.

My parents had good intentions towards the farm, but little time to manage it. As doctors at the downtown medical center, they worked long hours and lacked any real acumen for farming. The colony of beavers that lived nearby soon learned that we were not formidable opponents and started gnawing down our entire stand of fruit trees. Eventually, my father decided to reduce our arable liabilities by paving over part of the field and turning it into a tennis court that doubled as my big wheel track.

Our inability to live off the land wasn’t the only thing that separated us from the other families with whom we shared the mile-long dirt road off of Highway 41. That my parents were carpet-bagging New Yorkers made our family kind of a novelty in Shelby County, as did the fact that we had neither guns nor Jesus in our lives. But it was, in many ways, a normal childhood. The exception was that, in 1989, I was one of the best racewalkers my age in the United States. I was nine, and an odd kid. But racewalking is an odd sport.

***

In the early 1980s, my father, along with a great many other Americans, took up running. A former college rower, his idea of a workout was to push himself until he started seeing spots from the pain. His leisurely jogs soon evolved into marathons, which he eventually ran fast enough to qualify for Boston. My brother and I often joined him on his training runs; Mom would drop all of us off at the Food World several miles from our house, and we would run home over the mountain.

By the time I turned five, our family took to running 10K road races on the weekends, and my brother and I would take the top prizes in our age group, occasionally by default. But I struggled with exercise-induced asthma at times. My mother would slow down for me, while my brother—only two years older and blessed with twitch-free airways—kept up with my father, usually beating most of the adults in any given race. When I was seven and he was nine, my parents signed us up for the Magic City Track Club, a summer running group that practiced several mornings a week at a nearby high school. The club introduced us to the AAU circuit, and we became regulars at the local meets. In 1988, my brother advanced through the regional events and qualified for the Junior Olympics. I stayed behind at a friend's house.

I was not pleased to be left out while the rest of my family was, I could only assume, whooping it up in Wichita. (Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Kansas at the time.) A call came: my brother had come in seventh nationally in the 1500-meter run, running the equivalent of a six-minute mile at just 10 years old. Then the next day an even more jubilant call: Matt won the bronze medal in the 3000-meter race. I was annoyed, in the way that an eight-year-old would be but also in a way I still understand. I wanted some glory for myself. That's how I came to racewalking.

***

The first step was figuring out what racewalking was. I checked out a library book with some rules and schematics. My parents arranged a few one-on-one lessons from a slightly creepy guy who wiggled his way around the track during our running workouts at nearby Samford University. I quickly learned that the overarching rules were simple, at least in theory: keep one leg straight and one heel on the ground at all times. If you try to move quickly while complying with the rules, you'll soon find that the head of your femur exerts force against the outside walls of your pelvis as you push off the ground, resulting in an awkward hip-sway. This needs to be counterbalanced by a ramrod-straight back and forearms jutting out at a 90 degree angle from your sides. The resulting sensation is weird but not unpleasant, at least until you try to mix in a running workout as well; that seems to be an unusually good recipe for shin splints.

My progress was immediate. I soon found I could racewalk a mile in less than 15 minutes, which was about the same speed as a geriatric power walker, but impressive for a tiny nine-year-old. As the state meet approached, I felt confident that I'd be able to qualify for regionals. My confidence was justified, if only because there were no other young racewalkers entered at all. After a few leisurely circles around the track, I became the Alabama 10-and-under state champion, and advanced to the regional meet in Panama City, Florida. I had already gone further than I ever had by running.

I was happy but nervous. I was going to represent my state at a major meet and yet had never competed against anyone. I had no idea how fast the other kids could walk, and I had some lingering concerns that my technique might be embarrassingly wrong. I had no frame of reference, and no choice but to hope that I'd be racing against an empty track again.

When I got to Panama City, my fears were not assuaged. Several of my fellow competitors were much bigger than I was, and one of them—a heavyset kid with a bit of an attitude—was at least twice my size. This did, to be fair, not at all make him an actual giant: a team-issued soccer card from the following year shows I weighed just 78 pounds at the time.

When the gun went off, amateur youth racewalking's dirty secret revealed itself: it's full of cheaters. Even though there were judges in the infield raising red flags when they saw walkers break form, competitors were allowed to accrue three penalties before being disqualified. And despite the grandness of the stage, there were only two judges, which left broad swaths of unwatched track; several of my competitors flagrantly covered those stretches at a run.

Gigantor was easily the worst offender. One of the slowest racewalkers but a pretty fast sprinter, he had no problem staying in front of the pack by utilizing the latter skill. As the peloton started to break apart after the third lap, I realized that the race would come down to him and me. Over the final half lap, a judge finally started following us. Gigantor quickly earned enough warnings that he couldn’t risk running or he would be disqualified. As I tried to pass him, though, he simply moved into my lane to block me, and threw an elbow into my ribs when I tried to cut back to his inside. As the far turn approached, I made my move, going high on the curve like Dale Earnhardt—a prepubescent, pedestrian Dale Earnhardt, but you get it—and cutting back down before he could cut me off again. I won going away, in less than 11 minutes. I was officially a Junior Olympian, and would head to Texas for the national meet a few weeks later.

***

It takes a certain level of disturbance to etch entire scenes into your brain. So while the elbow trauma seared the regional race into my memory as a hi-res film, the Junior Olympics themselves in San Antonio later that summer are filed away as a carousel of old Kodak slides, a set of grainy images somewhere between a Don Draper pitch and an older relative's vacation photos.

There's one of my buddy Nii-Amar—who would make the finals in the 200m and eventually become a star soccer player at Duke—and me walking behind Wilma Rudolph in the Opening Ceremonies.

There's one image of Cham Johnston, a cocky young Tennessean whose running feats I had read about in Sports Illustrated for Kids, stretching before he dominated the 800 meters.

There's one of an incredibly tall high schooler dunking in the adjacent gym over an overmatched Birmingham team. That was Shaquille O'Neal, who led the San Antonio All Stars to the AAU National Championship.

And then there's one of a goofy looking fourth-grader with a bowl cut and wraparound shades. I recently learned that was Arkansan Jason Lee, who took control of our race from the jump and never let any of us within sniffing distance of the gold.

I was in the main pack. A couple of other walkers tried to bridge the gap to him, but the rest of us wiggled in a tight group well behind the leaders, in what turned out to be a mad walk for the bronze; Although we didn't realize it at the time, the original third place finisher was informed after he finished that he had been disqualified after accruing too many cautions. I walked as fast as I could, but was out-leaned at the line and ended up in fourth place.

I had walked 1500 meters in just over nine minutes. Had I continued my dramatic trajectory of improvement, I would have been walking at championship pace in months. It didn't and I wasn't, but one of the kids I beat in that race, Mario Molina, kept racewalking through high school and six years later walked 3000 meters in less than fifteen minutes. By then, he told me recently, he had perfected "floating", a fluid hip swaying motion that straddles the line of legality in the sport. I never got to that level, and the Junior Olympics turned out to be my last competitive racewalking experience.

Soon after we returned from San Antonio, my family moved into Birmingham. Traffic from the suburban sprawl had extended the daily commute into the city to an hour each way, and we started to worry that my dad would stroke out during particularly bad episodes of road rage. In fifth grade, I started attending Altamont, a fairly traditional prep school.

Without the protective distance of a rural setting, my oddities slowly leaked out of me. I focused on more “normal” sports like basketball, running and soccer. During my tween and teen years, I stopped racewalking altogether. The shame of hipswaying and semi-floating around a track in Birmingham where I could potentially be seen—by girls, no less—was too much for a middle-schooler to bear.

By the time I got over that residual shame at my sport, I was in college, and no longer any good as a racewalker. My technique had atrophied, and the sport had passed me by: competitive adult racewalkers can walk faster than I can run. I reserved my signature hip swagger for rare occasions, such as after a successful game of Edward Fortyhands.

This was, I found out, common enough among my former peers. The racer who out-leaned me for bronze in Florida is named Charles Bedard, and was frat brothers in college with a good friend of mine, and now works as a management consultant.

Mario Molina got into the sport for the same reasons I did—he wanted to travel with his family, and his track-coach mother, to big meets—and stuck with it longer, but eventually he gave it up, too. He's an elementary school teacher in West Texas, just a few months from me in age. We joked that we'd meet up at the Junior Olympics in 2022, when our sons—themselves just a few months apart—compete in the 10-and-under racewalking nationals. This is silly, of course. The boys are not even walking yet.

Images courtesy of David Goldenberg

 

 

 David Goldenberg is an editor at Gelf Magazine. He occasionally writes for ESPN.com and Slate, and more often tweets about sports, apps and monkeys at @dgoldenberg. 

 


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