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EVERYBODY'S TALKIN' 'BOUT A NEW WAY OF WALKIN' : Viisha Sedlak Is the Evangelist of Moving Fast While Always Keeping One Foot on the Ground

June 13, 1993|DORIS A. FULLER | Doris A. Fuller, a former Times staff writer who now lives and racewalks in Summit County, Colo., is a frequent contributor to the business section.

The sport of walking is like a nest of embellished boxes, each one more intricate than the last. The largest box is fitness walking, or power walking, or striding--moving with a normal gait at a faster-than-normal speed for a specified period several times a week. More than 31 million Americans are making power walking the nation's biggest fitness sport. Open this box and find the racewalkers. Numbering in the thousands, these are the technicians of walk, the speedsters of stride, athletes whose sport is defined by the distinctive flex and drop of the hips and the straightness of the weight-bearing leg as the body passes over it. Crack the racewalking box and find the competitors and, within it, the elite competitors.

Just over a year ago, I determined to broach the second box and learn the technique of racewalking. I had reached the theoretical midpoint of a life spent avoiding unnecessary movement, and I felt a growing need to wave my fist in the face of mortality. For my single act of physical defiance, I chose to walk in the annual La Jolla Half Marathon, a 13.1-mile footrace over the swells of the old coast highway between Del Mar and La Jolla. Since then, my act of defiance has become a way of life. Unwittingly, I stumbled upon a sport where concentration matters as much as coordination, where years are an asset rather than a liability: They condition the one gift that can match, even surpass, an athlete's muscle--the mind. By the time I crossed the finish line of that first race, ahead of scores of runners and all but one walker, the exhilaration of physical accomplishment had lured me into the fold of competitors and, perhaps inevitably, to Viisha Sedlak, full-time evangelist of the walking life.

Sedlak inhabits the center of the smallest box of walking. It is possible to racewalk in this country without hearing of Sedlak, but it is not easy. It is impossible, though, to compete seriously without marking her blond jet stream and endless legs. At 44, this seven-time member of the U.S. Track and Field Team and two-time Olympic trials qualifier competes with women young enough to be her children--and beats all but the very swiftest of them. At the masters level, for competitors over 35, she is the world's top woman racewalker; she holds six world records and raced for six consecutive years without a defeat.

Unmarried, parent only to a spirited young Italian greyhound, Sedlak lives to walk and convert others to it. She trains (seven days a week, two times a day, 45 to 90 minutes a session), competes (in North America, South America, Europe, Australia and Asia), coaches (Olympians and weekend walkers), teaches (weekly classes in Boulder, Colo., and at periodic clinics elsewhere), writes (articles, a book), makes videos and hawks walking. She once toured the nation's malls promoting Easy Spirit walking shoes by striding in high heels for hours on treadmills.

"This a spiritual mission for me," she says. "I feel like a doctor who can heal a broken arm. Racewalking offers people a way to live better lives. I have the ability to motivate almost anyone to walk better if they want to. When I am stressed by trying to compete, to hold my business together, to run my life, I think about walking away. But I can't. I feel it would be irresponsible. The sport isn't big enough. There aren't enough people to coach it. There aren't other middle-aged women role models that I could just walk away. I might want to, but not for long."

RACEWALKING IS LIKE STRETCHING THE GAG about patting your head and simultaneously rubbing your stomach into a feature-length film. At her four-day clinics, Viisha Sedlak is the film's director. Six months after my first race, I found myself traveling to one of Sedlak's workshops in hopes of shaving more than a minute off my mile. On the simmering pavement behind a Scottsdale, Ariz., hotel, she pointed a video camera at me and ordered me to walk while she commented on tape.

"Doris! Your arms are too open. You want a 90-degree angle at that elbow . . . . Pull your chest up a little more and tuck your waist in a little more so your body is in a straight alignment . . . . Now lean but don't bend your waist . . . . Let your hips flex behind you . . . but relax your hands, and when you pick your toe up behind you, don't let it flip out . . . ."

The distinctive gait of racewalking seems new--not to say awkward and graceless--because Americans have so recently rediscovered it. When Sedlak formed the American Racewalk Assn. in 1988, to promote racewalking for exercise and competition, few Americans outside of the athletic community even knew the word. Yet, Europeans have racewalked since the 1800s, and the sport was popular here in the first half of the 20th Century. A men's racewalking event was held in the 1906 Olympics and in most of the summer Games since.

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