If Maria Perez was looking for a way to show that she has put her 2022 disappointments well behind her, it doesn’t get much better than breaking a world record.
The 2018 European 20km race walk champion experienced back-to-back disqualifications at the World and European Championships last year, but wearing the Spanish vest again – this time to race over 35km at the European Race Walking Team Championships – she showed that all her work on technique has been worth it.
As the 27-year-old stormed over the finish line at the World Athletics Race Walking Tour Gold event in Podebrady, Czechia, on Sunday (21), the clock showed 2:37:15 – a women’s 35km race walk world record* that improves the mark set by Peru’s double world champion Kimberly Garcia in Dudince in March by an impressive 29 seconds.
“I had difficult seasons behind me, and I focused on this competition very seriously,” Perez explained. “We worked on technique, and I wanted to show that I am well prepared. The technique was still not the best, but I am working on it. It will be even better (in future).”
Born: 29 April 1996
Taking a step away from race walking during the latter part of 2022 provided the reset that Maria Perez needed to take her career to the next level.
The 27-year-old has been race walking for more than a decade. She represented Spain in the U20 race at the World Athletics Race Walking Team Championships – then known as the World Race Walking Cup – in 2012 and finished 29th in the 10km event. Still eligible for U18 competition, the following year she raced at the World Youth Championships and finished seventh in the 5000m race walk.
The year 2014 brought with it two more global competition opportunities. First she progressed to ninth in the U20 race at the World Race Walking Cup in Taicang and then she made her mark at the World U20 Championships in Eugene, finishing fifth in the 10,000m race walk.
Perez just missed the podium at the 2015 European U20 Championships in Eskilstuna but made a successful step up to U23 competition, securing silver in the 20km race walk at the 2017 European U23 Championships in Bydgoszcz. Her senior World Championships debut followed just one month later, and she placed 10th in the 20km race walk in London in a PB of 1:29:37.
After securing seventh at the 2018 World Race Walking Team Championships in Taicang, Perez walked her way to the top of the podium at the European Championships in Berlin, getting gold in 1:26:36 – a time that would remain her 20km race walk best until 2023.
Back on the World Championships stage, Perez improved by two places at the 2019 edition in Doha as she finished eighth.
All of her experience made the Spanish star one to watch at the Tokyo Olympic Games and she lived up to that billing, finishing fourth in 1:30:05, less than a minute behind the winner Antonella Palmisano and eight seconds behind bronze medallist Liu Hong.
But disappointment followed in 2022 as she was unable to build on her Tokyo performance at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 or the European Championships in Munich, Perez being disqualified in both competitions.
Then she took that step back.
“After those setbacks, I needed to reset and refresh mentally so I resumed my training in October, but I did running instead of walking,” she told European Athletics. “It was only by the end of December that I began my usual race walking sessions once I felt psychologically ready after several tough months.”
She made a statement early on in 2023, improving her national record at the Spanish 20km Race Walking Championships in Cordoba with a world-leading 1:25:30.
But she had her eye on the longer-distance event, too. She had clocked 2:44:17 for the 35km race walk in 2021 and improved to 2:39:16 in 2022, but there was much more to come.
After winning the Spanish 35km Race Walking Championships in 2:41:38 in February this year, she lined up for her fourth race over the distance at the European Race Walking Team Championships in Podebrady. She might not have started with her sights set on records, but as the race progressed, it was clear that history could be made.
“I did not think of any time or any special target before the start, I just wanted to finish the best I could,” she said later.
As it turns out, her best was a world record by 29 seconds – 2:37:15 to improve on the 2:37:44, which is awaiting ratification, set by Peru’s double world champion Kimberly Garcia in Dudince in March.
And Perez could continue to make history, as she hopes to combine racing both the 20km and 35km race walk events in future.
“After my good performance in Cordoba we decided to work on my stamina and mileage as I plan to double up at the World Athletics Championships this summer,” she told European Athletics.
Budapest provides the stage for that ambition, with the women’s 20km race walk taking place on day two – Sunday 20 August – and the 35km race walk on day six – Thursday 24 August.
Maria Perez’s PBs
3000m race walk: 12:00.87 (2018)
5000m race walk: 20:28.17 (2022)
5km race walk: 21:38 (2018)
10,000m race walk: 43:42.04 (2021)
10km race walk: 43:36 (2021)
20km race walk: 1:25:30 (2023)
35km race walk: 2:37:15 (2023)
Women’s 35km race walk all-time list
2:37:15 Maria Perez (ESP) Podebrady, 2023
2:37:44 Kimberly Garcia (PER) Dudince, 2023
2:37:46 Margarita Nikiforova (RUS) Chelyabinsk, 2022
2:38:24 Klavdiya Afanasyeva (RUS) Sochi, 2019
2:39:51 Darya Golubechkova (ANA) Voronovo, 2021
2:40:03 Katarzyna Zdzieblo (POL) Eugene, 2022
2:40:06 Liu Hong (CHN) Dudince, 2023
2:40:37 Qieyang Shijie (CHN) Eugene, 2022
2:40:59 Bai Xueying (CHN) Huangshan, 2023
2:41:00 Ma Li (CHN) Xi’an, 2022
*Subject to the usual ratification procedure