A Long Walk : Race Walker Federico Valerio May Be Long on Talent, But He Still Has a Long Way to Go in His Quest to Become a U.S. Olympian

Federico Valerio was a good enough race walker two years ago to make Mexico's Olympic team as an alternate. Since then, he has improved his time and won several races in the United States and probably is going to be good enough to make the U.S. Olympic team. That's his goal.

But he's going to need more than talent.

He will need U.S. citizenship, permission from the International Olympic Committee, permission from both the Mexico and U.S. Olympic committees, a coach and a sponsor.

In the meantime, he is training on his own and paying his own way to competitions by working as a cook in a Costa Mesa cafeteria. He's living with friends in Santa Ana and taking an English as a Second Language class at Rancho Santiago College.

He knows he's up against long odds but is optimistic that he will be ready to compete as an American by 1992.

When Valerio, 25, decided to stay in the United States after the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, he knew he would have a long haul before he could walk in international competition. It wasn't the easiest way to go. He would have had top competition and coaching if he had stayed in Mexico.

"Ever since 1968, Mexico has had great Olympic race walkers," Valerio said. Raul Gonzalez won a gold medal for Mexico in the 50-kilometer walk and a silver in the 20K in the '84 Games. Teammate Ernesto Canto won the 20K. In 1976, Daniel Bautista Rocha won the 20K, and in '68 Jose Pedraza Zuniga was the 20K silver medalist.

As a four-time junior national race walking champion in Mexico, Valerio had a coach and a sponsor who paid travel expenses.

In the United States, Valerio has neither. It's all up to him as he trains for the Santa Monica Marathon Aug. 24. But he has done pretty well on his own.

Valerio won several race walking events in 1985, including the Long Beach Marathon, the Los Angeles Marathon and the 10K walk at the Mt. San Antonio Relays. He is ranked first in Southern California in the 10-kilometer division, second in the 5-kilometer division.

His personal best in the 50-kilometer walk is 4 hours 10 minutes, which would have been good enough to make the U.S. Olympic team in 1984, when the cutoff time was 4:16.

Valerio is hoping that results and times like that will earn him sponsorship from a sporting goods company, which would enable him to travel more and compete against the best in the country. But sponsors don't flock to back race walkers.

"I send my race results and letters to sponsors, but I haven't heard from them," said Valerio.

Said Bruce Palmer, representative of one major shoe company that sponsors athletes in many sports: "Race walking is such a small sport, it's something we don't get too involved in, except to keep our product visible. Unless a race walker is at an international level, he doesn't have much of a chance of getting sponsored."

To compete internationally, Valerio will have to work on the question of eligibility. Olympic rules state that because Valerio was a member of the Mexican National team, he must get permission from the Internation Olympic Committee and from the Olympic committees in both the United States and Mexico before he can join the U.S. squad.

Despite the hurdles involved in his attempt to walk for the United States, Valerio remains enthusiastic.

"It's my goal, and I think I can do it," Valerio said. "I need to practice more, get a coach and travel to all the big races.

"Having a coach is really important, because he sees things about your technique that you can't, and he can help you correct the things you are doing wrong."

Valerio hasn't located a coach yet.

Because race walking is not a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. sport, Valerio hasn't been able to find the coaching he seeks at most area colleges. The only way he can get instruction is through a private coach or through a race walking coach at an NAIA college, where race walking is a sanctioned event.

According to Tim Lewis, the national record-holder in the 5K, 10K, 15K, 20K and 25K events, a coach could significantly help Valerio.

"If you don't know what you are doing wrong, a coach can really point you in the right direction," Lewis said. "Since technique is so important, if a coach helps you, it can really improve your times."

Valerio admits that his technique, particularly indoors, needs some work. He was disqualified at The Times Indoor Games at the Forum in February, and from a meet at Madison Square Garden in February when both feet came off the track at the same time.

"Right now, I coach myself," Valerio said.

He trains from 6-9 a.m. six days a week on a variety of terrains. Three days a week, he walks 15 miles, usually along the Santa Ana River. The other three days, he walks seven or eight miles in the foothills of Irvine and El Toro, off the San Diego Freeway. He also works with weights and swims to build strength.

"The reason I practice in the mountains, on the plains and on the track is to build endurance for my speed work," Valerio said. "Five months before a big race, I will make out a program to follow. I start with long distances and continue for four months, then a month before the race I start sprinting."

After the daily workouts, he attends his English class and then hustles home, changes clothes and goes to work. On weekends, Valerio coaches two junior race walkers and attends their meets.

"Even though it's tough sometimes, I'm happy here," Valerio said. "I'm going to visit my family in Mexico soon, but I'll be coming back."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World