Tom Bosworth, Britain’s best race walker in a generation, talks to Ben Coldwell and Jon Mulkeen about his own ascent to one of the world’s best and the long overdue rise of British race walking
Tom Bosworth’s social media footprint – #Tomwalksfast – has gone from a mantra to being a statement of fact. Tom really does walk fast. He walks faster than any British person has. Ever.
“It was the best world class international performance from a British walker in 30 years,” is how Ian McCombie described Bosworth’s national 20km record-breaking performance of 80:41 and maiden international victory at the World Race Walking Challenge in Dudince, Slovakia, back in March.
That’s some praise for Bosworth, coming from the man whose 82:03 British 20km walk record had stood for 28 years and had rarely looked like being threatened before the astronomical rise of a slight 26-year-old from Tonbridge.
And some praise for an athlete who confesses to having the most “mediocre” of seasons in 2015, who finished in 24th place at the IAAF World Championships just seven months previous and who was left scratching his head at how on earth he would shave three whole minutes off his time before he could ever contemplate challenging for international honours.
“Finishing 24th in Beijing still bugs me so much because I wanted a top-20 finish,” says Bosworth of last year’s IAAF World Championships. “But I’m a different athlete now. I’ve come on so much from there; this year should be very different.”
It’s difficult to believe now, but there was a time when race walking was one of Britain’s strongest athletics events.
“Finishing 24th in Beijing still bugs me so much because I wanted a top-20 finish. But I’m a different athlete now. I’ve come on so much from there; this year should be very different” – Bosworth
In fact, there have been more British winners of the Olympic 50km race walk title than there have been at the men’s 10,000m, marathon, 110m hurdles and all men’s throwing events combined.
But Britain’s production line of championship medallists ground to a halt in the late 1970s. Although several national records were broken in the 1980s, the rest of the world had moved on at a quicker rate and British race walkers no longer challenged for podium places.
That could soon be set to change, though.
Bosworth, pictured above taking on AW‘s Ben Coldwell in a walk vs run, is under no illusion that he still has some way to go before he contests for medals at major championships, but there’s no doubt that he is well on his way.
“I want to be the best the country has ever had,” says the Leeds-based athlete, who is now British record-holder in five different distances of race walking and recently secured his spot on the British team for Rio thanks to his 20km victory at the British Grand Prix of Race Walking in Leeds.
“That’s moved on to me now wanting to get to a certain level and take race walking in this country and myself to a level internationally which would mean bypassing anything that we’ve ever done before.”
He adds: “I don’t know if I feel like I’m one of the elite just yet; I think I’m on the brink of that. The time I did [in Dudince] puts me up there but now I need to back it up and produce some decent championship performances.”
“Despite what I’ve achieved this season, I’m still an underdog” – Bosworth
Earlier this year, prior to his ground-breaking performance in Dudince, Bosworth won an indoor 5000m race in Bratislava, finishing well ahead of a field that included world 50km champion Matej Toth, 2013 world 50km champion Robert Heffernan and 2009 world bronze medallist Grzegorz Sudol.
Although he would have liked to have finished higher than 34th at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships earlier this month, there were still many positives to take away from his performance in Rome.
But Bosworth’s finishing position was still the best by a British man at those championships for 21 years. And the fact he was somewhat disappointed with his time of 82:55 – a mark which, up until April 2014, would have been a personal best – shows how far he has come.
“After some big wins and so many records from the spring, both my time and my placing was not what I hoped,” he said. “But it was a fifth Olympic qualifying mark and I’d have been overjoyed with that time a year ago.
“I’m going to take on board everything that happened in Rome – along with all the things I’ve learned from my other races this year – to be the best athlete I can be in Rio. That’s what it’s all for. I see it as next year I’ll be entering my peak. It’s all coming together nicely, but it’s been a long old journey.
“Despite what I’ve achieved this season, I’m still an underdog,” he added. “I’ve still got more scalps to take, I’ve still got more work to do. I’ve got the bug for winning races now.”
A British walking renaissance
Bosworth’s progression isn’t an against-the-grain, freakishly anomalous result as may have been the case 20 years ago had a British race walker started winning international races.
The Kent-born walker is the figurehead in a British walking renaissance emanating from the National Race Walking Centre at Leeds Beckett University; a sheriff to three ambitious, young, talented deputies in the form of national junior 10km record-holder Callum Wilkinson, Cameron Corbishley and Guy Thomas.
“All I did was work hard. That’s all I’ve ever done. Now we have this set-up here,” says Bosworth, gesturing towards the state-of-the-art gym available to him at a moment’s notice, “which means my commitment has come together with British Athletics’ timing. Andi [Drake] and British Athletics are really interested in walking and wanting to push it again.”
Overseen by Drake (pictured with Bosworth above), a former Great British international race walker and now head coach at the centre, the kind of facility Bosworth has access to almost quite literally on his doorstep is a world away from the former record-holder McCombie’s days as a double Commonwealth medallist and Olympian in both 1984 and 1988.
As a trainee and then fully qualified solicitor during his competitive days McCombie struggled to get the mileage under his belt during 60-hour working weeks, recovery days were enforced as a result of serious fatigue and nutrition was a mere afterthought.
While the former record-holder was having to decide whether a brisk walk home from work constituted as an acceptable part of an Olympian’s training schedule, Bosworth is waking up in an altitude tent and pushing himself in heat chambers replicating the kind of climate he can expect to encounter when he struts his stuff on the Rio roads this summer.
“We’ve not had the right people around and the right environment, dedication, attitude and talent. It took a while for all these things to coincide, and Tom is it” – McCombie
“It’s a luxury really now for me not having to work,” says Bosworth, who spent a couple of years out of university making ends meet. “I recognise how lucky we are to be in a country where we love sport so much we dedicate so much money to it.
“You’ve still got to be good enough to get there and it took me six years to get on the funding system that we have now.
“Plenty of athletes do work which is why I realise how lucky I am and need to make the most of it while I can.”
McCombie suggests, semi-jokingly, that he considered coming out of retirement in the mid-90s, such was the severity of the decline in standards.
“The record was anachronistic,” McCombie confesses. “There’s no way that record should last for 28 years.
“No disrespect to the guys in the ‘90s, but to get a British vest the times you needed dropped way down. You no longer had to do sub-85 to be in with a shout of a GB vest. People were getting vests with sub-90. I thought why have I retired? It was in the doldrums.
“We’ve not had the right people around and the right environment, dedication, attitude and talent. It took a while for all these things to coincide, and Tom is it.
“We’ve got these young lads coming through. We’ve never seen three lads that fast at the same time in UK walking history. Back in the day we weren’t walking those times at a junior age. So it all looks good for Tom’s succession. We’ve now got a proper conveyor belt of talent.”
» The full six-page version of this feature, with further stats and pictures of Bosworth training in Leeds, was published in the May 26 edition of AW magazine, which is available to read digitally here