Rob Heffernan bows out with eighth place finish in London
Yohann Diniz takes the 50km walk gold as Irish great rages against dying of the light
Rob Heffernan crosses the finish line in eighth place in London. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
He took a quick bow on crossing the finish line, as well he might, Rob Heffernan exiting the World Championship stage for the last time.
His eighth place finish in the 50km walk wasn’t the result Heffernan came to London looking for, yet it also brought the realisation this is now as good as it gets - and the right moment to walk away from a long and illustrious career and all the success that came with it.
He may, for purely encore purposes, add another race or two - possibly even an entirely worthy one on his own Cork stage - but this will be the last appearance at global level for the only Irish athlete to compete in five consecutive Olympic Games.
“It’s positive,” he said, at age 39 - by no means ancient by race walking standards - and indeed the same age as race winner Yohann Diniz from France, who won the gold medal in 3:33:11, the second fastest 50km walk in history.
“I went through a very bad spell at 20km. My natural instinct is that I always want to win a medal, and when that wasn’t, it was trying to get something positive out it. The support from the crowd was incredible, and happy the way it finished up.”
Heffernan was competing around the same 2km circuit at The Mall and in front of Buckingham Palace, where five years ago at the London Olympics he finished fourth, before last year being eventually upgraded to bronze after the disqualification of Russia’s Sergei Kirdyapki.
With his World Championship gold from 2013, plus European bronze in the 20km walk from 2010, he has reached the medal podium at every major championships, another reason why he feels that moment to move on has come. The next World Championships are not until 2019, and Tokyo 2020 may as well be a lifetime away.
“I always said, when I’m not challenging for medals, it’s time for me to help the new generation now, put some of my experience back in there, and hopefully that opportunity is now going to arise. I’ve done enough in the sport.
“I also have to thank everybody, my career has gone on for so long because I’ve got such great support from everyone in Ireland. That’s what got me through the race today. The support of my wife, Marion, as well, because it’s been a tough year.
“But the body has just lost that desire to be massively competitive, massively hurt. I got it at the end, but didn’t have it for the whole race.
“What I’m proud of is that I dig in again, at the end. But I miss things with my kids, miss their matches, and when you’ve to do that again and again, so many times, it’s hard to the buzz and enjoyment out of it. I’ve always prepared to win a medal, and hate not being in the front, trying to win it.”
Around halfway, he was sitting back in 21st place, looking a long way off the top 10, but worked his way through to finish in 3:44.41. Not long after finishing he was called away to anti-doping, but with no regrets either about the way his career has likely finished.
“We’ll see, enjoy the rest of the day anyway. My body doesn’t have that rawness, that desire, that I had when I was younger. It knows what is ahead, and it holds back. To do it the whole way you need to be a bit of an animal. With no brain. The hard way.”
However he did make a small parting shot at the why some Irish athletes aren’t delivering the performances expected in London, his eighth position the only ‘placing’ on the overall table - based on top-eight finishes.
“Why? It’s no big secret, it’s work, it’s work, it’s work. The sport is so poisonous now with talk of doping all the time that we’re forgetting the main ingredients that makes our athletes good. What made Sonia good, Marcus good, Dick Hooper good. They trained very hard, and with the scientific support we have now, we should be bringing me more through.”
Sixth in Rio last summer, this marked his seventh World Championships, and his exiting of this stage also creates the realisation Irish athletics might never see his likes again, especially not in race walking.
Take a bow, Rob Heffernan.