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Devastating back problems slow Bilodeau in Olympic race walk

"I told my wife after and even the media in Tokyo, you know, even if I was finishing on my knees, the goal was to just finish."
S30 Mathieu Bilodeau
Mathieu Bilodeau. Submitted Photo

SAPPORO – Fresh off the final 50-kilometre race walk in Olympic history, a beaten up Mathieu Bilodeau is changing up techniques with a new goal in mind moving forward.

The quick-footed 37-year-old man who calls Canmore home finished 45th at a time of at 4:20:36 at the Tokyo Games last Thursday (Aug. 5).

The result was far from the bold top 10 goal Bilodeau wanted, but a pre-existing back injury turned nearly disastrous during the grueling road race under extreme heat, which became a "survival" situation on the streets of Sapporo, Japan.

"I told my wife after, and even the media in Tokyo, you know, even if I was finishing on my knees, the goal was to just finish," Bilodeau said to the Outlook.

"[My back] was really sore, I was crying, I went through so many downs during the race and I was trying to stay positive and it was hurting so bad ... it was terrible. I don't want to live that again, it was just too much and now I think I need a break."

At 5:30 a.m. on August 5 in Sapporo, the temperature at the start of the 50 km race walk was 25 Celsius with 90 per cent humidity.

Throughout the race, Bilodeau consumed more than five litres of sport drink and dumped approximately 75 bottles of cool water on his head, body and arms to refreshen up. Although, heat and dehydration factors weren't an issue for Bilodeau that day.

His race's game plan was simple: start at the back of the pack and work his way up.

In the best shape of his life, Bilodeau was ready in every aspect, but the nagging injury was shooting spikes in his back and keeping him from making a significant push.

Suddenly the grit and determination in Bilodeau's eye was overshadowed by discomfort and pain on his face.

He worked with a physiotherapist and chiropractor leading up to the race, but at around the 20 km mark, he knew his strategy had to change.

"If you have something wrong going into a 20K, it's alright, but a 50K it's so hard on your body," he said. "If you have any issue for sure it's going to pop up and it did for me, but I was kind of expecting it a little bit because I was struggling during the pre-camp, but I just wanted to finish. You’re at the Olympics, everything is big, you train so hard for this."

Five years prior at the Rio Olympics, Bilodeau didn't finish the 50 km walk, and after it was announced the intense race would no longer be an Olympic event after Tokyo, there was extra motivation to push forward.

"I didn’t want to finish the last 50K of race walking with a DNF again, so I just cruised an easy pace to get to the finish," he said.

In the lead pack for most of the race was Canadian Evan Dunfee, winner of the bronze medal.

He and Bilodeau spent a lot of time training together prior the Games, getting ready for the physically demanding event.

After the race, with Dunfee wearing his hard-earned hardware, Bilodeau shared some laughs with his training partner.

"I told him at the end, you owe me maybe one-tenth of your medal because he was struggling with training," Bilodeau said with a laugh. "It was a good thing I went to Vancouver to train with him a bit and push him because he was super unmotivated so we were laughing with this. He was like, 'OK yeah, you can take a photo with my medal, you can take a picture you can hold it for a while,' so that was fun."

As the sun sets on the 50 km race walk as an Olympic event, Bilodeau – a two-time Olympian – is done with super long walks too.

Bilodeau will try his hand at 20 km race walking, which is in the Olympics, in a move he's motivated about.

The thought of learning new techniques and preparing for a faster, shorter race is welcomed bliss after his final 50 km walk.

“My goal is to qualify for Paris [2024] and if I don’t, if I struggle and if I see I reached my maximum potential, I might just retire," he said. "I think it would be a new challenge and one I’m excited about."


Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

Jordan Small joined the Outlook in 2014 and covers the vast world of sports in the Bow Valley. A Barrie, Ont. native, he also wrote for RMO's Mountain Guide section and the MD of Bighorn beat.
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