Gratitude – that’s what Evan Dunfee is feeling after winning a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in the scorching heat, racewalking 50 kilometres.
And much of that gratitude goes to his fellow Richmondites who have been cheering him on, many honking and shouting words of encouragement in support, as he trained on the streets of Richmond over the past year.
“I want people to know how many training sessions that support pushed me through,” Dunfee told the Richmond News just hours after his race. “(There were) days I was struggling and wanting to cut my workout short, and having someone pass by on the Railway Greenway and say ‘good luck at the Olympics’ just lifted my spirits in getting through that session.”
Dunfee just missed the podium at the 2016 Rio Olympics, coming in fourth.
The bronze medalist was initially disqualified, giving him hope for a medal, but then was reinstated, something Dunfee didn’t want to appeal.
So, his determination was that much stronger this time round.
During much of Thursday’s race, held in Sapporo, 800 kilometres from Tokyo, Dunfee was in the chase pack, a group of racewalkers well behind Poland’s Dawid Tomala, who would eventually take gold.
So, it was a matter of jockeying for the next top-level spots.
With just a couple kilometres left in the race, Dunfee was in fifth place when saw just ahead of him Portugal’s João Vieira – who beat him by three seconds in the 2019 world championship to capture the silver.
Dunfee’s immediate thought was “I can’t let him beat me again” and he pushed past him into fourth place.
But his next thought was “I can’t come fourth again.”
So with 500 metres to go, he started begging his body for a little more strength, struggling with a cramping hamstring.
“I was thinking about my parents and my partner and my nana who’s no longer with us, and I knew they were all walking every step of the way with me,” Dunfee said. “All of a sudden, my body went ‘here’s a little bit more’ and I was able to change gears and hunt down the athlete from Spain, Marc Tur, who was in third.”
The race was so tight, even the announcer mis-called the event, saying at first Tur had clinched the bronze medal.
She quickly corrected herself, realizing Dunfee had sidestepped Tur and moved into third just before the finish line.
But it was a bittersweet competition for Dunfee, who at 31 won’t have the chance to compete in the 50-kilometre racewalking Olympic event again as it is being withdrawn from the lineup.
Dunfee said the Olympic committee’s reason that it’s not a “youthful” event doesn’t fly with him.
He recounted how his physiotherapist’s 10-year-old daughter was glued to the TV back home during his bronze-winning performance, cheering him on, and he facetimed her afterwards.
“That breaks my heart, to know I had that impact on at least one little girl and to have that thrown in my face why the event is being taken away, it leaves me feeling pretty dejected” he said.
Dunfee hasn’t decided whether he’ll compete in future Olympic 20-km racewalking event as the 50-km is what he holds near and dear to his heart, a symbol of endurance in athletics.
“It just embodies the ability to endure,” he said. “Especially over the last 18 months, showcasing the ability to endure is incredibly powerful. It’s heartbreaking to me that we’re losing this event.”
The racewalking event was held in Sapporo where the temperature is normally balmier, but a heat wave had hit the city, and the competitors were racewalking in 30-degree heat by the final laps.
Dunfee, however, said he tends to do better in the heat – the world championship bronze he got two years ago was in Doha, Qatar.
His team around him “follows the science” and knows how to best prepare and compete in hot temperatures, Dunfee explained.
“Part of it is confidence in that I’ve had some good races in the heat and I’ve convinced myself that I’m good at racing in the heat and that made me have good races in the heat,” Dunfee said, adding it has become a “positive feedback loop.”
Besides a bronze medal, Dunfee’s win has netted a windfall for the Richmond Food Bank.
His sponsor, Kraft Dinner, is donating 35,059 boxes of macaroni and cheese for the Richmond charity – to symbolize his bronze-medal time of 3:50:59.
Silver went to Germany’s Jonathan Hilbert who was 36 seconds behind Tomala, and 15 seconds ahead of Dunfee.
Canada’s second racewalker, Mathieu Bilodeau, finished 45th, 30:28 behind the gold medalist.