Before the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Taicang 2018, even the country’s most senior athletics journalists were not quite familiar with Liang Rui.
She was a gold medallist in the women’s 20km team event at the 2017 Chinese National Games. She took silver at the 2016 Asian Race Walking Championships, where she achieved her 20km career best of 1:28:43. She won a rarely-run 35km title at the National Race Walking Grand Prix in March, which also served as the qualifying event for the longer distance in Taicang.
But nothing else.
In a country that has been a global powerhouse in race walking for years with big names like women’s 20km world record holder Liu Hong and world champion Yang Jiayu taking the spotlight, the 23-year-old didn’t have much to show on her CV.
She had never raced in any major international competitions, never claimed any national individual honour in the 20km, the event that was her initial specialty. However, she just needed one race to make her name known to the world.
Liang clocked 4:04:36 to win the 50km title in Taicang, shattering the world record by 80 seconds. And it was just her first race over the distance.
Initial reluctance to move up in distance
“Last December my coach advised me to switch to 50km as he believed I would have sharper edge in terms of stamina rather than speed,” she said. “At first I was reluctant to change my focus because I am a little afraid of the longer race. After all 50km could be quite tiring,”
“The longest distance I ever walked during training was just 42km. But after finishing the 50km race, I feel alright. It is not as dreadful as I thought.”
“To be frank, my expectation for the race was just a podium finish. But my coach told me I had the ability to break the world record,” she added.
“It was after passing 40km that I realised I could break the record. At that time I felt I still had energy in reserve and could speed up further."
Following a cousin’s footsteps
Born in a small town in the western province of Gansu, Liang found her talent for stamina at an early age. She was a frequent winner in distance racess at her school’s sports meetings. After graduating from middle school, Liang begged her cousin, who was training in race walking in a sports school in Henan Province, to recommend her to his coach.
“I managed to enroll in that school and hence started my race walking career. My cousin has given up the sport for years but I hung on,” Liang said.
After two years of training, Liang began to compete at national level. Her first race was in Taicang where she finished 11th in a U20 10km event in 2011.
Two years later Liang was admitted by the Beijing Sports University and began to train under the guidance of former Olympic champion Wang Liping. And after another two years of progress, she was called up by national team coach Zhang Fuxin.
‘I can break four hours’
“Liang’s fundamentals and techniques were quite good and she trained very hard. I chose her because her potential impressed me,” said Zhang, who also has coached world silver medallist Lu Xiuzhi and Olympic runner-up Qieyang Shijie.
It is Zhang that persuaded Liang to train in 50km and it is he that encouraged her to make an assault on the world record. Those efforts paid off.
He believes her potential is still far beyond 4:04:36, an opinion Liang share.
“I believe I will continue to improve the world record, and I can break four hours in the future,” she said. “My goal for next year is setting a new record in Doha.”
Although she’s now the fastest 50km walker in the world, Liang doesn’t want to give up the shorter distance.
“Since 50km is not an Olympic event, I also want to improve my 20km PB so that I can make it to the national squad for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. I know it will be difficult to train for two different events, but I am ready to face the challenge.”
Vincent Wu for the IAAF