By SB Williams

The phenomenal surge for physical fitness that began in this country, with the encouragement of President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, has propelled thousands to rush en mass toward the goal of having leaner, harder bodies and healthier hearts.

Running is an exhilarating and addictive sport, but serious running

can put an immense strain on the knees and other parts of the body that often brings a premature end to a dedicated runner’s career.

For many runners who have faced having to give up their favorite activity, a rewarding substitute is being found in racewalking.

In running, a stress of 11 times one’s weight is put on the knee joints.  In racewalking, the stress is zero because of the rolling motion of the legs and feet. The legs and feet have the forward motion of a bicycle wheel rather than the vertical pounding movement in running.

Racewalking has proved invaluable to cardiac rehabilitation. While it is equally beneficial to men and women, today’s statistics that say 60 percent of women’s deaths are due to cardiac problems make it especially appealing to women.

Although racewalking is new to most sports-conscious Atlantans, it is actually an ancient betting form of physical competition that dates back to the 16th century in England when nobles of the great estates pitted and championed their footmen and servants against those of other nobles, much as they did their thoroughbred horses.

This ignoble competition using servants gave way during the 18th century to men racing against time over long distances.  The walkers became known as “pedestrians” and could win handsome fees for walking as much as 100 miles within a proscribed time.

Americans were quick to import this new sport in the early 19th century and “pedestrianism” was a major sport in ante-bellum America, with victors taking home huge purses before it fell out popularity in the 1880s. However, it has been an Olympic sport since 1908, with women racewalkers finally allowed to compete in 1992.

Racewalking has not been adopted as a generally popular sport until now – probably because it looks funny. To get the smooth bicycle effect needed for speed, it was thought that the hips and pelvic must make extreme rotations to the right and left as the arms pumped forward and back, creating a disjointed and slightly ridiculous gate.

Now, experts of the sport promote a less extreme motion that has more graceful, fluid movements not unlike those of ballet.

One of the most knowledgeable sources for information about racewalking is Jim Norvill, the USA Track and Field Racewalk chairman and a racewalker for 18 years.

Norvill, who is also a past president of the Walking Club of Georgia, is working to introduce racewalking to public school students who, at present, have no physical education program within their school day.

“We are not taking care of our kids,” he said. “Those without parents to drive them to sports events have no physical activities. The Walking Club of Georgia is ready and willing to help with this, and we hope that young people will come to us for training and information.”

As chairman of the board of directors for Racewalking in Georgia, Norvill is now organizing the Southeastern racewalk championships. He is working also with officials of the Georgia Department of Education to bring racewalking into the public schools curriculum – an ideal choice for tightly budgeted schools because racewalking is essentially a cost-free and accident-free sport.

To learn more about racewalking contact Jim Norvill at jnorvill@mindspring.com or (404) 693-5026.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.