Elgin woman steps closer to realizing Olympic dream
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Anali Cisneros of Elgin is aiming to match the time of 2016 Olympic gold medalist race walker Liu Hong, with the hope of competing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Hong won the women's 20-kilometer race walk in 1 hour and 28 minutes at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Cisneros, 19, a 2016 graduate of Elgin High School, is studying pre-medicine at Judson University and is a member of its cross-country and track and field teams.
Her first international medal was the bronze in the North American, Central American and Caribbean Championships Under 20 category at the 2015 Pan American Race Walking Cup in Arica, Chile.
In July, she set U.S. junior and high school records with her best time of 49 minutes and 31 seconds in the 10,000-meter women's race walk at the International Association of Athletics Federations World U20 Championships in Poland, bringing her a few steps closer to realizing her Olympic dream.
Now, Cisneros' sights are set on training for her first 20-kilometer race walking competition Jan. 29 during the USA Track & Field 50K Race Walk National Championship in Santee, California -- an event that previously has doubled as a U.S. Olympic trial.
"You have to be the first three American women to cross the finish line in order to be on the U.S. Olympic team," Cisneros said.
Race walking is among the oldest Olympic sports, debuting in 1904. It is not supported by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, but rather by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. There are no race walking college powerhouses, only NAIA colleges with strong race walkers at various points in time.
The low-impact sport combines the endurance of the long-distance runner with the attention to technique of a hurdler or shot putter. Athletes must maintain contact with the ground at all times, and the lead leg must be straightened as the foot makes contact with the ground, according to USA Track & Field.
"It's a very intense sport," Cisneros said. "If more people knew how to do it, they would understand the amount of dedication and time it takes."
Though the 2020 Olympic trials are more than three years away, it takes years of training and competing to become an Olympic-caliber athlete, said Cisneros' coach, Diane Graham-Henry of the Elgin Sharks Club. Cisneros has been running with the group since she was 4 years old and race walking since eighth grade.
"Choosing the goal of the Olympics is a four- to five-year plan," she said.
Graham-Henry said Cisneros spent a year chasing the goal of breaking the American junior record for the 10,000-meter race -- previously set in 2005 by two-time Olympian Maria Michta-Coffey of Long Island, New York.
"When she sets her mind to it, she can do it," Graham-Henry said. "It's a serious accomplishment considering the record had not been broken since 2005."
The 20K is the next level Cisneros needs to master to compete in the Olympics. The Jan. 29 race is a test to see how she does and to develop a game plan for a 20K qualifier in April for the Pan American Race Waking Cup in Lima, Peru, she added.
"I'm a firm believer that if you want to race well, you need to race with good competition," Graham-Henry said. "It just spurs you on to do better. Anali has the spirit and drive, and that, I think, is the clue to being a winner. It's not just raw talent. It's not just physical talent. It's the drive and the mental capacity."
Graham-Henry, herself a competitive race walker, is working with Judson cross-country head coach Morgan Goetschel to prepare Cisneros for the Olympics.
Goetschel previously trained race walkers at Central Methodist University in Missouri.
Cisneros trains every day walking around her Elgin neighborhood or along the Judson track.
"I remember when I would watch the track and field events in the Olympics when I was younger ... I didn't really see myself getting to that high level," Cisneros said. "Once I started race walking and got to compete at the international level ... the Olympics was an attainable goal. I was just a lot better and natural at it."