Athletics: Rew on a roll with gold

By Grant Chapman

Quentin Rew won't repeat his finish line roll which cost him a medal at the nationals in 2009. Photo / APN
Quentin Rew won't repeat his finish line roll which cost him a medal at the nationals in 2009. Photo / APN

Race walkers sure are a different kind. Take Quentin Rew, the unheralded Kiwi stroller next in line for the London Olympics athletics team.

It's 2009 and he's shuffling up the home straight towards his first national track and field title. What's going through his head?

Some sort of celebration - arms raised to the heavens or a fist pump perhaps? Even a Michael Jackson-style moon walk, a clever reversal of his sport's "heel-toe" style?

No, he did a forward roll over the finish line - earning disqualification for unsportsmanlike behaviour.

Rew (27) can afford to chuckle now: "I was just starting out in the event and quite keen on stats," he reflects. "I had a look at the other athletes around the country and thought I had a chance of winning, which I did. I thought I'd do something light-hearted.

"Some people might get upset about [the disqualification], but I did what I set out to do and I wasn't too concerned whether they gave me a medal or not."

As it was, Rew claimed that elusive first gold in more orthodox fashion a few days later and hasn't looked back since.

A steep rate of improvement has seen the Hutt Valley physiotherapist take almost an hour off his 50km walk time over the past three years, culminating in his Olympic-qualifying performance in Dundince, Slovakia, two weeks ago.

His 3 hours 58 minutes 48 seconds was 12s under the international A standard and Rew's tongue-in-cheek lament was that he had walked a few seconds faster than he needed to. The following afternoon, the New Zealand Olympic Committee announced four athletes for the team to London and indicated Rew would be added as soon as his paperwork had been filed - that should happen in the next week.

His progress has been so surprising that, despite attending last year's world championships in Korea, he isn't among the sport's elite athletes receiving high performance funding. The trip to Europe was financed through a one-off discretionary grant, though he is likely to find more campaign support coming his way from now on.

New Zealand has something of a tradition in race walking. Harry Kerr won this country's first Olympic medal in the 3500m walk at the 1908 London Games and Norm Read won the 50km event at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Craig Barrett captured the nation's hearts when he collapsed within sight of victory in the same event at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games.

Yet walkers still tend to be regarded as the black sheep of the athletics world. Rew turned to the discipline after a persistent Achilles tendon injury ended his journeyman running career in 2006. He had clocked 3m 57s over 1500m and made the national final over that distance, but wasn't exactly setting the world on fire.

"I didn't know a heck of a lot about walking but it seemed like something people did when they weren't good at anything else," he admits. "You could usually pick up an easy medal - actually, I don't think my perception has changed.

"Walking is simply not a glamour event. Some walkers expect the same level of attention as, say, the 1500m, but that's just not reality."

To most outsiders, the technique of race walking seems unnatural and difficult to master, even physically damaging, which only adds to its unfortunate reputation. As a medical professional, Rew is at pains to dispel some of the public misconceptions.

"When you break them down, the movements are all very natural, but they're put together in an abnormal way. You're only ever taking each movement to the edge of their range and there's actually pretty good evidence that activities like walking are good for the body in the long term.

"That's one of the reasons other countries are better at the sport than us. They actually encourage kids to get into it, while the perception here is you'll end up with arthritis. It's a real shame," he says.

Another idiosyncrasy is that walkers blatantly cheat. Specifically, they are often captured by slow-motion TV replays with both feet off the ground, seemingly in violation of the strict rules of their code. Judges will warn and often disqualify for dodgy technique, but that doesn't seem to discourage offending. If anything, Rew wishes he was better at it.

"I haven't been disqualified in a race for a while, but that's a double-edged sword. The closer you can get to cheating, the more efficient the technique, the faster you can go and the more likely you are to get red cards. You want to push the boundaries, but you can't afford to go too far."

Rew chose the 50km walk - the longest event on the Olympic programme - because it presented his best opportunity of representing New Zealand internationally. That ambition has been realised and is about to go to the next level. "There's a saying in distance running - if you can't go faster, go longer - and I've seen a lot of people step up in distance over their careers.

"I tried to qualify for the Delhi Commonwealth Games over 20km and missed out by a minute-and-a-half. I'm not sure whether the longer distance suits me or if the standard just isn't as high, but I realised it was my best chance of going to the Olympics.

"I don't just want to make up the numbers. I want to give a good account of myself by finishing in the top 16, which would mean walking about 3h 52m. I don't know what it feels like to be in that kind of shape, but I'll need to get stronger, fitter and faster." Rew won't be rolling any time soon. "I've definitely put that on the back burner for now."

- Herald on Sunday

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