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Anything But Easy: The Unsung Sport Of Race Walking

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is less than three weeks away. Maria Michta-Coffey of Nesconset, Long Island, will be representing the United States for the second time in the track and field event of race walking. Michta-Coffey says her discipline is widely misunderstood.

“I think the word walking is the biggest thing that hurts us because everyone goes, ‘I’m capable of walking. I can walk. Or why walk when you can run?’” Michta-Coffey said.

Michta-Coffey says race walking is not easy. Her event is 12.4 miles, about the length of a half-marathon and during the race you need to maintain strict form, stamina and speed.  

“What separates race walking from running are two basic rules,” Michta-Coffey said. “One is that you maintain contact with the ground, and the other is your knee straightens on contact as it passes underneath you.”

Race walking became an Olympic event in 1904, but women weren’t allowed to compete until the late ‘90s. No American female has ever medaled in the event.  

Michta-Coffey got her start at Sachem High School on Long Island when she joined the track team so she could stay in shape over winter break.

“As a freshman and you don’t have an event, so you try everything. I tried the race walk and I was pretty good at it. They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said sure. One thing led to another. I qualified for nationals, met an outside training group that I’m still with now, WalkUSA, and found my Olympic calling.”

Currently, Michta-Coffey holds 30 national titles and six American records. She placed 28th at her 1st Olympic appearance in London 2012. She says race walkers in America need more support.

“It’s pretty hard to compete against people who are top in the world, that train 24/7, that make a salary doing what they do or live in another country where they’re taken care of by their government because all they have to worry about it getting out there and training every morning,” Michta-Coffey said.

She has a GoFundMe account to help raise money so her husband, sister and mom can travel to Rio to watch her race.  

Right now Michta-Coffey is training an average of 80 miles a week. Besides the race itself, she’s looking forward to the Olympics opening ceremony.

“That’s where the little girl inside of me is jumping for joy because that’s the defining moment of being an Olympian. That’s when you earn your rings,” Michta-Coffey said. “That’s when you’re an Olympian with all the other Olympians around you.”

She’s one of more than 500 Americans who will be competing in Rio, including 37 from New York and seven from Connecticut.

“When I go out there on race day, I’m not just racing for USA on my chest, but there’s a big special part of Long Island that’s going to be racing with me,” Michta-Coffey said.

She heads to Rio in a couple of weeks where she hopes to make the top 20 and get her event noticed.

The Olympics start Friday, August 5. Michta-Coffey races a few days before the closing ceremony.