Racing for fun after a stressful career

Gao Hongmiao won four golds at the Asian Masters Athletic Championships.
Gao Hongmiao won four golds at the Asian Masters Athletic Championships.

Gao Hongmiao was the last Asian Games 10km race-walking champion in Hiroshima in 1994, before the race was lengthened to 20km in subsequent editions.

It remains her crowning achievement, but the Chinese athlete has discovered that she is still head and shoulders above her peers even at age 42.

In her first Asia Masters Athletic Championships, Gao won all of her four events comfortably at the National Stadium, sweeping the golds in the 800m, 2,000m steeplechase, 5,000m race-walk, and 5,000m run (all in the 40-44 age category).

Said the Shenyang native, who still runs 8km five times a week: "Honestly, I had never expected to be taking part in competitions again after so many years.

"But the Masters is a fun, relaxed and enjoyable competition. There's no stress at all to perform well."

Yet, she grimaced when she spoke about the fierce pressure she had to cope with as a Chinese national athlete. She felt that 1996 was the most stressful year for her because of the Olympics, and it became a major disappointment after she was disqualified from her race at Atlanta.

"There are bound to be many low points in one's life, I think one of my regrets was not to obtain a good result at the Olympics," she said.

That was to be her only shot at Olympic glory as a niggling left thigh injury caused her to miss the 2000 Games and forced her into retirement in 2002.

She still holds the Under-20 world record for the 10km race-walk, and won a bronze in the 5,000m race-walk in last year's World Masters Athletics Championships in Lyon, France.

Gao is now a race-walking and running coach to 18 students at Shenyang's largest sports school, which has over 1,000 student athletes between 12 and 18.

While walking back to the team's hotel in Geylang, she had to pick up a call from a worried parent whose child was about to sit for the university entrance examinations.

She said: "I have to take care of my students at school - that's my priority now."

Despite her sterling performance in the past few days, Gao insisted that her coaching career and family comes first. She married a state marathoner in 1998, while her 12-year-old son is a badminton player.

Race-walking is now purely a leisure activity for which she has to apply for leave from work and pay for her own expenses.

She joked: "This could possibly be my last competition, but I know I can always come back and compete after I retire."

Alvin Chia

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Racing for fun after a stressful career'. Print Edition | Subscribe