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Pied Piper of racewalking a leader of growing pack of enthusiasts

If you are ever out running in Boulder, Colo., and a striking, six-foot, blonde walks past you with straightened legs and swinging, right-angled arms, don't be surprised. She might be Viisha Sedlak, a racewalker on the United States track and field team and president of American Racewalk Association. And it's a safe bet you're not the only one who can't easily run as fast as she walks. Sedlak, a former Wilhelmina model and world ranking ultra-marathoner, is excited about her newly discovered sport and is not keeping quiet about it. Racewalking ``is the up-and-coming sport,'' she says. ``From what I've seen, this is the next big fitness boom. We have people coming up to us asking where can we read about walking. I'm scrambling to be able to get this information out to people.''

The growth of walking as an alternative exercise to running has been noticed by businesses such as Rodell Press, which puts out ``Walking Magazine,'' and shoe companies, which now produce shoes specifically for recreational walkers.

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Sedlak, an articulate spokeswoman of the sport, is involved in spreading the word about walking as well as improving her own ability. She believes that from the current fitness trend, ``there will be a natural follow-through to having interest in racewalking and racewalkers.''

Racewalk divisions are already being incorporated into established running races across the country. Straight walking races also are gaining pace in and out of the US, and Sedlak has been keeping in the lead pack. By taking gold medals in both the 5- and 10-kilometer women's races at the World Veterans Games (35 and older) in Melbourne, Sedlak earned the title of world veterans champion.

The perception of racewalkers as the ``people whose elbows flail around and whose hips sashay about'' does not sit well with Sedlak. ``By definition,'' Sedlak says, ``a racewalker must have one foot on the ground at all times - that's where the old term `heel-toe' came in. The weight-bearing leg must be straight at the knee. Those are the only two rules of racewalking, but judges watch all along the way and if a racer does not maintain his or her form, that walker is disqualified.'' The judging aspect of races, she says, ``adds an intellectual dimension that I think enhances the sport. You have to stay focused, you can't slop around - mentally or physically, and I like that.''

The ``distinct'' look of racewalking did not hinder Sedlak's interest, because for her one of the main attractions of the sport is ``how good it feels to do...It's more like dancing than exercising to me, because once the technique is comfortable, it's very fluid, very smooth, and powerful.''

People who see a walking race in person, she says, are impressed with the speed. The record for walking a mile is 5 minutes, 41 seconds - faster than most people can run a mile.

Sedlak's first exposure to racewalking was sudden - and surprisingly successful considering the difficulty most novices encounter. Some friends demonstrated the proper technique to her before a two-mile race in Boulder, and 15 minutes later she was at the starting line of a race she proceeded to win.

Ron Laird, the 1984 Olympic walking coach and a four-time Olympian, heard about her time and invited her to the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs so he could observe her technique and give her some tips.

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Initially, Sedlak used her newly discovered technique mostly in longer running events, such as six-day races, where competitors complete as many laps as possible. Her decision to stick to walking came when she made the US team.

Qualifying for the team led Sedlak to two realizations. ``First, there was a great deal of competitive potential for me as a walker. And second, I could motivate more people to stay fit through walking than I could through running,'' she says.

Male racewalkers have been striding through the Olympics since 1906, and there is now a strong move afoot to get a women's race on the schedule by 1992.

Although still a novice on the 10-member US women's team, Sedlak has already begun to break records in her age group. Last August, she set a new 20-kilometer American record in the 35-to-39 age group, and both of her times in Australia were world records.

``I have my best to look forward to yet.'' she says. When she turns 40 later this year she becomes an official ``masters'' athlete (ages 40 to 65) in the US. In the masters category, she expects to break a lot more American records.

For those interested in getting into walking, Sedlak recommends that ``first, you get a good walking shoe. If you're a woman, get a shoe specifically designed for women.

``Start at a level that's comfortable for you. Work hard enough to get your body warm, but don't try to keep up with someone else's level. Find someone to teach you proper technique at the beginning, so you don't have to unlearn bad habits. Local running clubs will often have someone who can give instruction. ``Don't let someone push you beyond what you're capable of, but, at the same time, work hard enough that you are exercising.''

Finally, whether for competition or just fitness, Sedlak stresses the importance of the right mental attitude.

``One cannot succeed in an individual sport without learning discipline, perseverance, and commitment,'' she says. ``I promote walking and racewalking to not only motivate people to get fit, but so that people develop those three necessary traits for a satisfying life. My sport has brought me far along in those areas and I enjoy transferring that to others.''

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