Fast walkers

Gerry Dragomir and Mathieu Bilodeau hope to race away with gold in Rio.

Some 20 years ago, feeling in a rut, Gerry Dragomir (left, above) took a good look at himself in the mirror, did not like what he saw and firmly declared that it was time he became the very best in the world at something. Anything.

A few months short of 65, Dragomir can now look back — and into an Olympic future — at a breathless, yet lung-igniting series of successes in a field he had never previously given a thought to: race walking.

The hip-waddling, heel-to-toe long-distance sport may look akin to trying to make it in time to a far-off loo, but race walking is an agonizing physical, psychological and mechanically precise sport that few can master. Its history as a competitive international track and field discipline dates back to 1880, and it was first accepted as an Olympic event in 1904.

“I gave myself until 70 to reach the top of the podium [in Masters competition],” says Dragomir. What with his work as founding partner at Vancouver’s Pace Accounting, training full time to become competitive seemed an impossibility. But dogged can only describe his after-hours regimen and obsession to reach the top. At a sprightly 59, Dragomir won the 2010 10-km World Masters Championships in Kamloops, BC. “The elation was amazing,” he recalls, “and then 45 minutes later, having achieved my goal, [feeling] played out, I decided that was it for me.”

Yet this was only the beginning. Since 2001, Dragomir has been coaching budding race walkers. And all the while, he has been convinced Canadian athletes should be able to equal and perhaps topple powerhouse race walker nations such as Russia and China. Currently, the Coaching Association of Canada’s 2014 Coach of the Year has three world-class walkers ready to make a serious challenge at the Rio Olympics. Two earned gold and silver medals at last year’s Pan Am Games in Toronto, while another took Canada’s first international bronze at the world championships in China. And as a warning to their Rio rivals, Dragomir’s trio won a team silver at May’s world championships in Rome.

Mathieu Bilodeau (right, above), an accountant at Calgary’s MEG Energy Corp., and Canada’s entry for the gruelling 50-km race walk in Rio, was a member of the silver-medal team in Rome. Although he only took up the sport in 2014, the 32-year-old former triathlete likes to believe being a CPA has been part of his success on the track.

“It’s just so awful after 35k,” he laughs, “that you need that disciplined, calculating mind-set to compute how to effectively finish that last 15k. You’re crunching the numbers through the pain.”

The Quebec City native thanks his employer for allowing him leave since late winter to train for the run-up to Rio. “Normally I was up at four, did 30 km, went to work, then raced home. A 55-hour workweek with 35 hours

of training. MEG has been incredibly supportive,” he says. “Now I’m ready. We’re all ready!”

Dragomir’s race walkers call his style “corporate coaching” — a play on his interest in executive coaching. “I find sport coaching too paternalistic,” he explains. “In short, I use the planning concepts from my accounting body of knowledge.”

More adviser and sounding board than coach, Dragomir has been drawing out excellence in his athletes based on a simple management assumption: “The individual being coached is deemed to be professional at what they do — like any C-suite executive. So the ownership of the actual performance is in their hands, and the coach is more the catalyst providing that inspiration where insights can happen.”

It seems to be working rather well.