SWR senior among top race walkers in nation

By Joe Werkmeister | February 1, 2011 in Sports Share|

The name itself may seem like an oxymoron: race walk. In a sport that often comes down to precious tenths of a second, how can an event involve walking?

Danielle Opatovsky shared all the common objections to the race walk as a freshman at Shoreham-Wading River.

“I was at practice one day and I was kind of being a jerk, saying how race walk was a joke and if you’re just walking around the track it’s so dumb,” Opatovsky recalled.

ROBERT O'ROURK PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River senior Danielle Opatovsky won the 1,500-meter race walk Sunday night at the League V Championship.

Shoreham coach Paul Koretzki didn’t like the sound of that. So he placed Opatovsky in the event for a competition to give her a taste of just what it took to compete in the race walk.

The punishment became an enlightenment.

Now a senior, Opatovsky has developed into the top race walker in Suffolk County and one of the best in the nation. At Sunday night’s League V Championship at Suffolk Community College, she easily won the 1,500-meter event in 7 minutes, 33.6 seconds as the Wildcats finished in second place behind Bayport-Blue Point. An All-American during the spring last season, Opatovsky has posted a top time of 7:04.56 this winter and she has her sights set on cracking the seven-minute mark.

And now, rather than joke about the event, she embraces it for what it is — a challenge unlike anything else in track and field. It may look easy and even silly, but the reality is that performing well in the walk requires the skill of a strong runner who can master the technique.

A runner in the race walk must maintain contact with the ground and her knee must be straight when the foot makes contact with the ground until it passes under the body. It’s a sport with a long history that is contested at the Olympic level for men and women, although at greater distances than at the high school level.

As Opatovsky has learned, the awkward style of running leaves a runner’s legs feeling like Jell-O.

“The more awkward you look at it, usually the better you’re doing it,” she said. “I can really only run before a race walk because it feels so horrible to run after a race walk. You feel like you’re all over the place. There’s no control.”

Just as runners have different strides in which they move, walkers must find which technique works best for them. Opatovsky said she uses a shorter stride with a quicker turnover.

“I look like I’m dancing around on the track,” she said.

It’s a technique she mastered under the direction of Gary Westerfield, Long Island’s go-to coach for the race walk. Koretzki credited Westerfield, who works as an official at track meets, for teaching many of the top race walkers Long Island has produced.

“He showed me some techniques and I realized how intense of a sport it was,” Opatovsky said.

Opatovsky was the league champion and small school champion last year in the winter season, but missed qualifying for the state meet. Bay Shore’s Destiny Lalane, who has since graduated, was the state champion.

Opatovsky will be challenged at the small school championship by Kings Park senior Michelle Sygulski and at the state qualifier Northport junior Suzy Farber, who has posted a time of 7:11.30. But there are no givens in the race walk. Farber, for example, was disqualified at the league championship, a risk that always looms for race walkers. In the five league meets Sunday, a total of 13 race walkers were disqualified.

After winning the race walk, Opatovsky ran on the Wildcats’ 4 x 800 relay team, which finished in fifth place. While she’s known as a race walker, she still loves to run and compete in other events. In the fall, during cross country season, she emerged as one of the top distance runners for Shoreham. She posted the fastest time on the team at the state qualifier. During the indoor season she enjoys running the 1,500 as well, although the opportunity isn’t always there because those races tend to be close to the start of the race walk.

“I’m known for race walking when I come into a track meet,” she said, “but I want to be able to do the 1,500 run, too.” There are moments as a race walker when she yearns to break free, to be released from the shackles of straight legs and ground contact. At a meet earlier this season as she raced on the outside lane in the walk, the 3,000-meter run was in the inside lane.

“I was like, ‘I just want to jump in that race!’” Opatovsky said.

She couldn’t do that. But in the race walk she’s found her niche, an event low on spectator-appeal, but nonetheless fun.

“It’s fun to win,” Opatovsky said.