Easier on the body but harder on the mind-that’s what Lindsey Connolly found when she switched from running to race walking on the Westmont College track and field team. “Sometimes in running you can zone out or drift off,” Connolly said. “You have to be totally focused when you’re walking. If you’re not, you might lose form or get disqualified.”
Just a few months after taking up the sport, Connolly is getting the hang of it. The junior from Carpinteria finished eighth in the NAIA Indoor Championships in March at Johnson City, Tennessee. It was only the third race of her walking career, but she’s qualified for the outdoor championships, May 24-26 at Fresno. Her best time at the 3-kilometer distance (1.8 miles) is a shade over 18 minutes.
Race walkers compete under the watchful eyes of judges who enforce compliance with two rules: Contestants must have at least one foot on the ground at all times, and they must have their lead leg straight at the beginning of each step. Disqualifications are common in high-level competitions, where walkers are always flirting at the edge of restraint. In the women’s 20-kilometer walk at the Sydney Olympics, three leaders were ousted in the final stages of the race, including Australia’s own Jane Saville when she was 150 meters from winning the gold medal.
“In running, you go from Point A to Point B, and if you get there fast, you’ve done well,” said Joe Mendelson, who coaches Connolly and other walkers at Westmont. “In walking, you need to concentrate all the way. I compare it to golf. You’ve got to practice your shots and fine-tune everything. It’s technical.” The 69-year-old Mendelson was a distance runner at Notre Dame. He continued running in road races after college, and 20 years ago in Monterey he was introduced to walking by Giulio DePetra, an Italian who had competed in the 1936 Olympics. DePetra was 77 at the time.
“It’s a great sport for older people especially,” Mendelson said. “The thing that gets to runners is the constant pounding on pavement. I run barefoot on grass and sand. On pavement, I walk.”
Connolly started training under Mendelson at the suggestion of Westmont head coach Russell Smelley. She wanted to get in shape for track, since she had missed the team’s fall workouts while spending a semester in New Zealand. She wound up finding a new way to compete. “Joe tries to convert everybody to walking,” Connolly said.
Connolly, one of Westmont’s top scholar-athletes with a 3.57 grade point average in biology, had the curiosity and the self-discipline to pursue an activity that is often the object of ridicule. “In years past, we joked about it on the team,” she said. “It was so unfamiliar. My parents weren’t actually sure what walking was all about. When they realized how difficult it was, they respected it more.”
Mendelson said walkers “have to be their own boss. They can’t be afraid to be different.” If they are willing to take the challenge, they might see the world. “It’s a wide-open sport,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities to win medals. The U.S. has to take teams to various events.”
Connolly affirmed that race walking “provided an opportunity for me to be successful.” Although she had improved her times as a distance runner at Carpinteria High and Westmont, she wasn’t fast enough to win.
She will work on her racing form Saturday, May 12, at the fourth annual Mother’s Day 5/10K & Family Festival at Goleta Beach. She will do the 5-kilometer race that starts at 9:15 a.m. Details are on SBParent.com, which is hosting the event along with Moms in Motion.