Jan. 4 2012 01:25 PM

Olympic sport is all about swaying hips, straight legs and surprising speed

Liz Kemp Salvato instructs novices to prance like ponies.
Racewalkers are a rare species of exerciser, but when you see one, you'll know.

They swish their hips back and forth like Jessica Rabbit on fast-forward, and their bowlegged, bent-kneed stride makes their legs look like rubber bands.

The racewalker's goal is simple: Walk as fast as possible. In fact, racewalking—an Olympic sport—has only two rules. One foot must always be on the ground (unlike in running) and each leg must be straight when its foot touches down. Three mistakes and you're out. And while all of the hip-swiveling action makes the athletes look like they just left the Ministry of Silly Walks or are headed to the bathroom as quickly as possible, it's actually sophisticated engineering designed to propel a walker forward without both feet leaving the ground.

Racewalkers take their walking seriously. Athletes compete in 20- and 50-kilometer events in the Olympics—about 12 and 31 miles, respectively—at speeds between six and seven minutes per mile (that's faster than a lot of runners).

Racewalking men from around the world will come to Santee on Jan. 22 for the 50K Olympic trials. Women can compete only in the Olympic 20K.

To observe local racewalkers out wiggling their hips in the wild, I headed down to Mission Bay one Sunday at 7 a.m. There I found Liz Kemp Salvato, once an American record holder and Olympic-trials qualifier, and her group, Walk2Win.

About 10 men and women, mostly middle-age, mostly clad in spandex, clustered in a circle to stretch. At Salvato's command, they broke into a series of warm-up exercises—walking with hands bent toward their armpits like monkeys, walking with arms outstretched like “Thriller” zombie dancers—making the silly-walks-ministry comparison harder and harder to avoid.

“Do you ever get made fun of while you're out walking?” I couldn't help but ask the group.

The men laughed knowingly.

“Oh yeah. Sometimes you'll hear, ‘Hey, nice ass,'” said John Murdzek, tall and lean in short running shorts. “I say, ‘You're welcome to join me, but good luck trying to keep up.'”

“Usually it's teenage boys,” said Jim Olson, clad in skintight spandex.

“One time a guy in a convertible slowed down, honked and waved,” Murdzek added.

I understand the inclination to laugh at—or maybe even catcall—grown men swinging their hips as they sashay down the street. But when the group started their walk, although they looked silly, they were fast—so fast, in fact, that I couldn't keep up without running, which, of course, is against the rules. Instead, I let them go, and they strutted along the bay, soon disappearing from sight.

Luckily, the next week Salvato granted me a private lesson (she usually charges $30 for a two-hour technique class and then $60 to be part of her walking group for three months). We began slowly walking around the Lake Miramar parking lot with regular strides and slightly exaggerated arm swings.

Salvato said someone like me (a 28-year-old marathoner) should take to racewalking easily. But when she saw my disjointed attempts to swing my hips (I can't even hula-hoop), she quickly changed her mind.

“You are not very well coordinated,” Salvato said kindly as she watched my attempts.

The concentration required to racewalk felt akin to swimming. There are so many elements that must be just right: Legs bend as you step and straighten as you land, arms sway, butt is tight, head is high, and, of course, hips must swing—or, for advanced racewalkers, move in a figure-eight.

Salvato's instructions to move “like a prancing pony” were also hopeless—I felt more like a stiff robot with a stick up my ass.

But after about an hour of practice, I had brief moments when it all came together and I could speedily strut through the parking lot. It was exhilarating to walk so fast—like I had a motor on my back that was propelling me forward as my legs wheeled beneath me—and after a series of fastwalking intervals with Salvato, I was out of breath.

I could see why people choose racewalking: The technique and skill, the competitive races, the cardio workout, all without the stress on your joints that running brings. Even though I'm a dedicated runner, I might give racewalking an occasional try. Just without the spandex.

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