Brisbane Athlete’s Damon Locantro sat down with Brisbane born twenty-five year old Dane Bird-Smith, 2016 Olympic bronze medallist and 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, to get an inside look at his life as a champion race walker.
Dane, first of all, congratulations on your gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, how is life now?
It’s been a pretty big whirlwind so far with the whole media side of things, but this time around I knew what to expect. I had my friends and family around me, supporting me from Australia, so I think I’d wrapped my head around it a lot better this time, although it’s…this is just as momentous, just as special to me as an Olympic bronze medal. It’s just been an amazing experience so far.
You walked 20 kilometres in the Commonwealth Games, what went through your mind during that race?
For me, the race plan. I was chatting about the race plan—it’s a bit of a funny story—with Dad the night before and we were talking about how, for the first fifteen kilometres we wanted to sit behind the guys. The conditions were going to be hot, they were going to be windy, and we didn’t know what kind of form everyone was coming into at that time, because no-one had raced yet. So the plan was to sit back, watch what they were doing, and then try to make our advances toward the end of the race, in the last five kilometres. Literally one-hundred metres in after the gun had gone and something in my mind was just like, No, you know what, bugger these guys, this is my Commonwealth Games. [I had] some realisation going through my head that this was my Commonwealth Games—in my hometown—and it’s probably never going to come around ever again. The best way to do this was to do it in true Australian style; go hard from the gun and give these guys an absolute run for their money. And now I’m sitting fifth [in the world] after that race.
What impact does it have on your mind, knowing that the judges are watching you so closely and that you’re being so closely scrutinised?
For me, it’s actually something I turn into a bit of a weapon in my racing. I work so heavily with my coach—with my dad alongside me—trying to perfect the technique and make it as smooth and as safe as we can, so that over the years I’ve become almost world-renowned within the judging circles, and within the athlete circles, for my technique being nearly flawless. So that’s been my absolute goal; to make sure that when I go out there, I’m not just in fear of being disqualified at some point, and when I walk beside people, my technique can actually make their technique look flawed. Yeah, really it’s just mental awareness that we [develop over] each race; it’s a race craft. It’s really something you have to master; being aware of everything going on around you, but at the same time being one-hundred per cent focused on what you’re doing. It is really, really difficult to [maintain both]. That’s what it takes to become a champion. That’s what it takes to beat the best racers in the world; overcoming them mentally as well as physically.
What was it like growing up with a dad who was a champion race walker?
Dad was a dual Olympian in his sport. I didn’t really grasp too much in terms of what race walking was until I was probably between ten and twelve years old. I never took it up myself; I always used to kind of doddle around pretending to race walk. Dad always taught me that determination— never giving up—and working hard for things is the best way to take on life. So I’ve really got to thank him for that, but there was absolutely no pressure from either of my parents to follow in his footsteps. It was amazing to be able to share that with my dad and for him to be pushing me along the way. [He taught me] if you have a bad race don’t try to make it up, by adding pressure to yourself, just continue on with what the plan is. Don’t try to chase down missed opportunities, just take the ones that you’ve got and make the most of them.
Are you faster than your dad?
Well, not quite. Over the fifteen, three, and five kilometre races, I’ve got it over him in those, and the ten kilometre, but he still reminds me that I haven’t beaten his twenty kilometre personal best yet. So it’s always something that, even after the Olympics, he likes to throw around at the dining table, “You’re still not faster than me, son.” [Laughs]
How much faster, over the twenty kilometres?
About twenty seconds, yes, twenty seconds over the twenty kilometre race. So I figured that all I have to do is pick up one second every kilometre and I’ll be there. Then I’ll be able to rub it in his face. [Laughs]
Run me through the Rio Olympics?
Rio was two years ago now. I was working my way up into that top echelon, fighting the best guys in the world to see where I would be seated coming into that Olympic race. It was one month beforehand when I’d finished fourth at the 2016 World Walking Cup in Rome, so I knew that I had it in me to be able to stay with these guys and stick with them to the very, very end. When Rio rolled around, I was in great shape; we’d been adding some altitude training to my regime. We’d done a lot of training out on the sands at Rainbow Beach, just up north, near Fraser Island. So training on the soft sands, race walking on it, is incredibly tough for the legs, but I think that was one of the things that really pushed my body to a new level, where I could take on the fatigue of the twenty kilometre race and still be able to kick, like what happened at the Commonwealth Games, where I had that extra explosiveness.
How was that feeling after crossing the finish line at Rio?
So coming across the line I had an unbelievable kind of…I was in disbelief for the first couple of moments as I went across the line and I just wanted to celebrate, I just wanted to have an amazing time. It’s something where, the kind of gravity of it all really only kicks in when they’re handing me the medal, putting it round my neck, and I look out through a packed crowd, and it’s just a surreal moment when you realise what you’ve actually achieved; that the last eight years of working your butt off have just resulted in this shiny thing hanging around your neck. It’s just unbelievable, and there’re even days now when I see it in the house and it’s just a reminder of where I’ve been.
But definitely after Rio there was a point where I was re-evaluating, trying to figure out what the next step was, and asking myself, Do I continue with the sport? Do I want to keep going down that path? I mean, training’s not easy. It is really tough. It is hard motivating yourself every day. No-one would know if you took a day off, it’s all self-motivated and that can be really, really tough. It was something I found quite difficult, to kind of get my love for racing back again.
After 2016, and into 2017, it took a full year until I went to a race in China which was four days long and basically like a Tour de France; where you race from point A to point B over four days and along the way you gather points and accumulate a time for your sections. They have yellow jerseys, and other Tour De France-type events within the race. It was one of the most amazing experiences. Going in there, racing against the best guys in the world, we all had no idea about what kind of format…what the format would throw at us, and it was just mayhem. People were pushing off at the start thinking they’d get an early lead, only to blow up the next day. I just found that amazing; I found this love again for what I was doing. That carried me through to the Commonwealth Games.
Prior to the World Walking Cup race, had you raced before, internationally?
Yeah, so leading up to that race I was steadily making my way up the ladder. 2012 was my first breakout year into race walking and I finished about fortieth. The year after that, I progressed up to thirteenth spot at the World Championship, the next year it was eleventh, and then in 2015 I finished eighth at the World Championship. So I was slowly stepping up, making those little gains on the guys in front of me and really pushing myself into the forefront. It was a full eleven months of training leading into the Rome race. Then yeah, it all just started to pay off, I dropped another thirty seconds off my personal best over the twenty kilometre distance. That was what led me to the position of pushing for medals.
So, behind the scenes, what training have you had to do, physically and mentally?
So, the general progression of training was trying to come out of a junior stage, which is only a ten kilometre distance, and then stepping up to do a twenty kilometre race against the senior men. It’s double your race distance, but at the same time, it’s way more mentally challenging than just saying, “Oh, do it twice!”. It’s backing up two ten kilometre races where you’re expected to actually get faster in your second ten kilometres than you did in your first, which was totally unknown ground for a junior athlete coming through. You really, really need to get the body strong by doing a lot of kilometres. Then all the while I keep up a lot of gym work. So I actually do about three, sometimes four sessions of gym in a week, on top of about 140 kilometres of race walking.
Where’s your favourite place to train or walk?
Oh, definitely along Coronation Drive! That’s my main kind of race walking zone. I go from Coronation Drive all the way out to New Farm and back and that’s usually my favourite walk. The Brisbane Riverwalk is just an amazing track; it’s unreal. It’s awesome to have support from Brisbane. Some people even try running along beside me for a little while and see if they can match my pace.
Do you have any plans now that the Commonwealth Games are over?
I’m actually going to take my wife Katie away; we’re going to go for our honeymoon, finally. We were married in October last year when I was in full-flight training for Commonwealth Games, and she’s been so supportive; kept me grounded, kept me focused on what I had to do. But now it’s time for me to spoil her a little bit and support her, so I’ll take her away for a little while and just enjoy a trip away, just the two of us.
So, slow walks on the beach?
Kind of slow, we’ll see how it goes. [Laughs]
Do you get frustrated in a traffic jam where you might as well get out and walk?
Oh, one-hundred per cent, yeah. There have been times when I actually have. Once, I was making my way from Toowong, where I live, out to the Queensland Academy of Sport in Mount Gravatt, and the traffic was just so bad along Coronation Drive; the news was saying it was bad all the way down the M1 where I was headed. So I parked at Milton, got my shoes on, and walked fifteen kilometres to the QAS, completed a gym session, and then called a mate to see if he’d take me home that afternoon. [Laughs]
Do you think Brisbane is a good environment for aspiring race walkers?
Yes, one-hundred per cent. Brisbane has been great in terms of the training environment that I’ve been able to have. We’ve got the track at the University of Queensland, where I am studying to be a teacher, and the University has been very supportive of my athletics. Outside of that we’ve got great parks; we’ve got great roads as well. Brisbane has a great atmosphere and I absolutely love it here. All the people here, the general public, have been so supportive as well, so it’s really, really great to be here.
You’re going out to schools and seeing kids now, what led you to begin that venture?
Giving back to the sport is one of the biggest things that I’m trying to do. When I was a kid I never actually met any Olympians other than my dad. I never got to see an Olympic medal. I think perhaps it would have pushed me, spurred me a little bit to want to fight for an Olympic medal at an earlier age. I think that if I can give these kids every opportunity to improve by supporting the junior athletes that are trying to make that transition to the twenty kilometre races, and supporting all the kids in schools who have no idea what they want to do, I will be contributing and giving back to the sport. That is very fulfilling for me.
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