Eugene Native Looks To Represent The US In Racewalking At The Olympics

Jun 29, 2012

Eugene has a long history as the adopted home of Olympic track and field hopefuls. But it’s very rare for a serious contender to actually be born and raised in the city. On Sunday a true local girl will be competing at Hayward, and she has a legitimate shot at making the team in perhaps the most unusual of the track events. KLCC’s Jes Burns reports.

The women’s 20k racewalk begins bright and early at 7:30 Sunday morning at Hayward field. It’s one of the few free competition events of the Olympic Team Trials. Fans don’t need a ticket to get in. The twelve mile race will take about two hours for the final competitor to cross the finish line.

As a distance runner in high school and college, Eugene native Erin Gray had some strong opinions about the red-headed stepchild of the track world.

GraY: “From a lot of distance runners’ perspective, racewalkers are losers. And that was what I thought: only dorks do racewalking. Why would I ever want to do that?”

Early on, Erin’s track career was looking bright. At South Eugene high school, she was state cross country champion. But then, later in high school and on the track team at the University of Arkansas, she began to get stress fractures and thought her competitive running career was over. And technically, it was.

Gray: “Dad said, well, in the end it doesn’t matter what event you’re in in the World Championships or the Olympics. You will, or can be an Olympian. And no one cares what event it was. When you look back on your life, do you want to be able to say I made the Olympics, even if it’s in racewalking… or do you want to say, I just kind of gave up on my dream?”

And “dad’s” words were exactly what Erin needed – at that point she embarked on an astounding two year journey – from racewalk beginner to being ranked second in the US by Track and Field News.

Dad, by the way, is also coach. Early on a Tuesday morning, Bob Gray is on the track at South Eugene High. He’s putting Erin through one of her last workouts before the big 20k race at the Olympic Track and Field Trials.

Erin’s stride is smooth, compact - very different from the awkward camel-with-a-limp gait most often associated with the sport.

Gray: "A lot of those walkers who are much, much faster than US walkers, have very little hip drop. So that’s one of the things we work on – minimizing any action that doesn’t contribute to going forward.”

Erin’s hips barely swivel, and from waist up, she doesn’t look much different from the other joggers sharing the track. But from the waist down…

Gray: “It’s obviously different than running, they stay in contact with the ground and you’ll notice her head doesn’t bob along..”

Racewalkers also have to straighten their front leg before it passes under their body. The other big difference: she’s faster than those other joggers on the track - much faster – on sub 8-minute mile pace with little apparent effort. Yet Erin’s racewalking career hasn’t always been as smooth as her quick, even steps.

Gray: “My very first race, I was disqualified.”

She was trying to make the US World Cup team, and had the time needed. But an official flagged her for leaving the ground a third time, an automatic disqualification. She was exhausted and blistered and she unleashed a tirade.

Erin: “I thought this is pointless. I’m quitting. There’s no way in anything good in this world that I’m going to continue for the next how many years training hard and being disappointed.”

Bob: “I said, let’s get some information. Because my rule is, don’t make decisions in the moment. Wait until you had a chance to process.”

For the next year, Bob says Erin was disqualified from half the races she entered. But then they figured something out. Through bio-mechanical testing, they saw Erin was achieving her speed with a long stride, but slow pace. And that left her vulnerable to the judges.

Gray: “The human eye cannot detect a flight time of more than 3 or 4 milliseconds, and since the judging in the racewalk is just by human, and not by camera or anything like that, otherwise we’d all probably be disqualified… as soon as your back foot comes up, your front foot is on the ground. Or that is how it appears.”

She raised her step rate from 180 to more than 200 per minute, and it seems to have made all the difference. She’s rarely getting flagged and has been walking faster with nearly every race. Erin will have to be at her best Sunday, if she’s to have a shot at making the Olympic team. Right now no American has the Olympic “A standard” time, and that means only one female walker will make it through. Second or third place won’t cut it, unless she walks the Olympic standard.

Gray: “I personally feel like I’m ready to go for the A standard, which is 1:33:30. So that would be about a 2.5 minute PR for me.”

Back out on the training field, Bob takes off the coach’s hat for a moment, and gives a rare glimpse of “dad.”

Gray: “Of course I want her to win – and her mom really wants her to win. For our 35th anniversary yesterday she said, ‘I only want one thing. I want to buy tickets to London.’ But no pressure…”

Erin, who is just completing her warm down, is a little indignant about the request. But then a couple minute later she gets into the spirit and admits, she’s already been practicing her wave to the Queen.

Northwest Public Radio