It looks at first glance like a Monty Python sketch, or something else from the comedy world.
A group of runners gather up at the starting line to begin a race. It could be a sprint, it could be a longer distance event, no one knows. But at the beginning, it looks like any other track beginning.
Then, the pistol goes off and the competitors … walk. Quickly. Their feet stay on the ground, their hips stay level, and they’re all trying very very hard not to run. Running is frowned upon. Walking quickly without moving too too fast, that’s the goal.
In a pack, it looks bizarre, like a dozen people trying hard to find the nearest bathroom. But it is in fact an Olympic sport, called racewalk, and at Port Washington’s Schreiber High School, there’s a girl who’s one of the top three scholastic athletes in America doing it.
Samantha Benson-Tyler knows how it looks. Her friends get very confused watching her do it, and even her teammates on the Vikings track and field team are kinda puzzled by it.
But for three years now, this has become the sophomore’s passion, and wow is it ever paying off. In December Benson-Tyler recorded the top racewalk time in high school meets in the country, clocking a 7:04 in the 1,500 racewalk at a conference meet.
She’s since been surpassed by two other runners, but heading into this week’s county championships, Benson-Tyler has already quailed for the national championships, coming off a fifth-place finish at the New Balance indoor Nationals last season.
Not bad for a kid who two years ago had no idea racewalk was a sport, or how to do it.
“Coach (Jeremiah) Pope came up to me in eighth grade and said we needed points in some other events, and would I try racewalk,” Benson-Tyler said after a recent practice. “And of course I wasn’t going to say no, so I tried it and had no idea what I was doing. But I finished one race and I thought, ‘OK, I can learn how to do this.’”
Pope said he and Benson-Tyler “pretty much taught each other” the mechanics and basics of the event.
“We did our own research on technique and form, and watched some videos,” Pope said. “Once I saw her potential, I knew we could do something great in this event.”
In the beginning, Benston-Tyler laughs, she got “carded” a lot, which in racewalk means officials come up to competitors and tell them their feet aren’t staying put on the ground, or that their knees are bent (also not allowed).
Three cards in one race (the 1,500 is 7.5 times around a track) means you’re disqualified.
Eventually, Benson-Tyler learned the odd mechanics of racewalk, and the major benefits of a product called Biofreeze, which, when applied before a race, can soothe aching shins and ankles.
But asked how she started to get better, she laughed and admitted “I’m really not sure!”
Her work ethic clearly played a part, and Pope praised his athlete for having a fantastic work ethic and a willingness to learn.
Benson-Tyler said among the many challenges of racewalk are pacing yourself, and learning to go faster while keeping your form.
The natural tendency when trying to make up ground is to lift your feet of it, and it takes supreme concentration to refrain.
“I’ll make some mistakes caused by being really tired,” she admitted. “You just get better at learning when to push and when not to.”
Benson-Tyler does other events for Schreiber, including the 800 meters and the 400 hurdles. But racewalk is where she (pun intended) found her stride.
As a freshman she won the county indoor meet in 7:46, then got fifth at New Balance indoors and fourth at New Balance outdoor nationals.
She continued to improve and as a result follows her rivals online regularly, checking their times and thinking how she can get better.
The other racewalkers are encouraging of each other, she said, since they’re the only ones who truly understand their event.
“It’s a bunch of us at all the meets doing it, and it’s a lot more supportive than other events, a really good environment,” Benson-Tyler said.
Pope said he thinks Benson-Tyler has a great shot at being a state, and a national champ in 2024, and if it doesn’t happen she still has two more chances at it.
In the meantime, Benson-Tyler will keep on walking. Fast, but not too fast.
“It’s kinda funny when you’re out there and you hear people yelling from the stands ‘Isn’t she running? How is this walking?’” Benson-Tyler said with a laugh. “And my friends have no idea, but when I told them I had the fastest time (in the country), they thought that was cool.”