Vaiciukeviciute relishes the role of underdog with Doha approaching

Zivile Vaiciukeviciute
Getty Images

Lithuania's Zivile Vaiciukeviciute came from under the radar to win the 20km race walk at the European Race Walking Cup on home soil in Alytus on 19 May

This could be the year of the underdog - at least Zivile Vaiciukeviciute hopes so.

The surprise winner of the European Race Walking Cup on 19 May thinks a second bite of a tasty apple awaits in the heat of Doha.

The 23-year-old twin is more than aware that the next major 20km is like no other: the gun goes on the IAAF World Championships final at 11.30pm on 29 September - about the time Vaiciukeviciute normally sips her bed time cocoa, or the Lithuanian equivalent.

The effect of a unique race spanning two days is intriguing. Who will adjust, and who will turn into a pumpkin as athletes hit the midnight hour? “It’s difficult to imagine what will happen in Doha,” she offered. “That midnight start will be interesting for everyone, and probably different from anything else that's gone before, so maybe it gives a chance to everyone rather than a small group of favourites.”

Vaiciukeviciute believes the desert is as good a place as anywhere to replicate the calm and cool that saw her triumph in Alytus, even though there are more than 20 walkers with faster 2019 times.

That’s not the name of the game in World Championship racing, as Lu Xiuzhi found out two years ago. Headed for a medal at London 2017, the Chinese race walker met the dreaded red disqualification disc yards from the finish line.

The eventual bronze medal, Antonella Palmisano from Italy, was too distant to see she had moved into third until someone told her.

As for Vaiciukeviciute in the same race, she was nearly a lap behind but still scored a 1:31:23 PB for 19th. That was two years ago: this is now. The Lithuanian is three minutes quicker than her London mark and now mixing it with the best.

Last year at the European Championships in Berlin, she recorded 1:28:07 for fifth, also a national U23 record, while treading on the heels of long-time Lithuanian number one, Brigita Virbalyte-Dimsiene.

The latter had a bad day in Alytus, and looked slightly shocked as the understudy lapped her in the closing stages but even then the fierce fight for gold was far from over.

Vaiciukeviciute inched ahead of Spain’s Raquel Gonzalez but when that battle was won, Laura Garcia-Caro picked up the pace to push the Lithuanian all the way to the line.

At halfway through the final lap, it looked as if Garcia-Caro was making ground, but as both turned the final corner, the eventual winner dug deep to forge home.

In fact, Vaiciukeviciute reeled off 2kms splits with never more than seven seconds between them; and only appeared in the front two on the penultimate lap.

Buried behind shades with head down, she only made the telling move when it mattered.

The winner said she was surprised to break the tape, but her progress tells a different story.

Third in Dudince in March, and fourth a month later in Podebrady battling classy international fields suggests she is getting used to life at the top.

“When you start to win one thing; it’s easier to win the next, and gradually you have the mentality to expect to do well,” she added. “All the same, I was surprised to be where I was during the race in Alytus, but then got used to it and relaxed. I felt better the more the race wore on, and thought a medal was a good possibility.

“There was no pressure because I was really thinking about a team medal. Of course, it helped I was competing in Lithuania at home. Everything was familiar.”

That team medal didn't materialise as it did in 2017 when Lithuania took bronze. However, the country still finished fourth and with the likes of 20km race walkers Artur Mastianica and Marius Žiukas also knocking on the medal door, a tiny country of fewer than three million is clearly punching above its walking weight.

Vaiciukeviciute barely raised an eyebrow. She feels European success for Lithuania was always on the cards.

“We have a lot of great athletes,” she said. “It’s just taken time and dedication to gradually ease up the standings and achieve good results. I’m sure there is more to come.”