Rob Heffernan has the walk of his life
Corkman’s win comes 30 years after Eamonn Coghlan’s gold in Helsinki
That good old time again. The where did it all begin. The who is behind it. The when exactly did Rob Heffernan believe he could be world champion. The how on earth did he pull it all off so utterly brilliantly, smiling, both hands waving free, in the most grimacing of athletics events.
Not so easily done, actually. No race ever begins on the starting line, no matter how long or short, and no one knows this better than Heffernan himself. Indeed his journey to the gold medal in the 50km walk defeats both summary and economy – which is a good thing, because no moderate or concise praise would be worthy of what went into his moment of triumph in Moscow.
How entirely fitting too Heffernan must also wait that bit longer to get his hands on that gold medal, and must set out on another little walk, back into the Luzhniki Stadium this evening, for the victory ceremony: because it’s been such a long time coming, and if the 35 year-old from Cork hasn’t run out of smiles and tears by then it might just be the most emotionally charged medal presentation of these entire World Championships.
One person who won’t be there, nor can’t be there, will, he believes, be looking down. Because the one person Heffernan will be thinking about more than anyone else is his mother Maureen, who died, tragically, in a domestic accident, just days before he was set to compete at the last World Championships, two years ago, in Daegu.
“My mam would have been so proud of me,” he said, openly addressing the matter on several occasions in the aftermath of his victory. “People go on about the disappointment of sport. But when she passed away it was the saddest, saddest time of my life, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. When I was coming through today, feeling good, I realised you have to appreciate the good times, enjoy them while you can. You use that stuff for strength, of course. But this is a big turnaround from a couple of years ago.”
That it all happened exactly 30 years to the day – August 14th – since Eamonn Coghlan won Ireland’s first gold medal, at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki, over 5,000 metres, has elements of both destiny and familiarity: like Coghlan, who went to Helsinki on the back of a fourth place finish at the Olympics – indeed twice – Heffernan came to Moscow seeking some redemption, not least for his fourth place finish at the 50km walk London Olympics almost exactly one year ago.
Challenging for medals
“People go on about medals,” he said, “but for the last 11 years I’ve been challenging for medals. For some reason or another I hadn’t yet won one. I still thought I had a great performance in London, even though it wasn’t a medal. I did everything I could. I still performed. This year I just had a better support team, starting with my wife, Marian. I’ve trained really well this year, but kept it simple. Marian took a step back from her own athletics career, to support me, and has been with me all year. All I had to worry about was racing. Everything else is taken care of.”
He noted, however, that he’ll be taking care of Marian for the next while, given she’s now four months pregnant: “Yeah I’ll have to put the hard yards back in when I get home. The tables will turn.”
What is certain is that none of it happened by accident, and if his support team starts with his wife and now coach, Marian, it continues with his physio Emma Gallivan, of Athletics Ireland, his strength coach at the Fitness Worx gym in Cork, Robbie Williams, his son Cathal and daughter Meghan, his father Bobby, and the long, long list of previous coaches and mentors, from the time John Hayes took him under his wing at Togher athletic club, the likes of Ray Flynn and Michael Lane at Athletics Ireland, former walkers Yvonne Cassin and Pierce O’Callaghan, and his former physio and chief motivator Liam O’Reilly.
It must also include Irish team manager Patsy McGonagle, who risked possibly imprisonment in Moscow yesterday by breaching the stadium security so that Marian could get through the finish line to greet her husband, or indeed when McGonagle himself kissed Heffernan on the lips, live on Russian television. It was McGonagle who also had to knock on Heffernan’s hotel door two years ago, in Daegu, to tell him about his mother’s death
“Sure we’ve been 15 years on the road together,” said McGonagle, “and to win that gold medal, in the way he did, was just unbelievable, really. In fairness, all the indications were that Rob was in the shape of his life. But he still had to go out there and deliver. Everything about his body language was perfect, these last few days, and there was a real sense of calm, that he was just ready for the battle.”
A battle was what Heffernan had always expected – so much so that he’d built it up as his Rocky Balboa moment, going to Moscow to take on the Russians in the one event they believed they would be unbeatable. It looked that way, for a brief while, after the Russian pair of Mikhail Ryzhov and Ivan Noskov set off early in search of gold: Heffernan waited patiently, rolling with the little punches, before winning with a knockout – his time of three hours, 37 minutes and 56 seconds – just two seconds off his own Irish record – giving him over a minute to spare on Ryzhov.
“Everything just seemed to align for me today,” he said. “But I said it earlier in the year, I wanted the Rocky story, to come from very humble background, and make it to the top of the world. It shows as well that anyone can do it, if they have the talent, and if they train right.”
If there was an absolute beginning to his walking career it was in second year at Coláiste Chríost Rí, when his PE teacher was looking to fill the last few places for a team they were sending to the Munster schools track and field championships. The last vacancy was in the junior boys walk, so they looked around at the few boys still left waiting for a spot, and picked on the little man Heffernan. He was asked to walk one length of the sports hall, then asked to sign the sheet.
By then he’d already tried his hand in several sports, or at least those that would have him. He did taekwondo, for four years, and also played some underage Gaelic football with Nemo Rangers, before realising he just wasn’t big enough, no matter how hard he tried. He also tried hurling once, too, but broke his thumb, and that put him off that.
When the chance came to walk in the Munster schools for Coláiste Chríost Rí he took it up as a challenge, something different, given he’d already done well enough in cross country running, and did so throughout secondary school. In fifth year, at a time when Sonia O’Sullivan, Marcus O’Sullivan, and Mark Carroll were his big heroes, he was actually lined up with a running scholarship to America, but by then he fallen in love with walking, the intricate technicalities of it, which suited both his body and mind.
He was selected for the 1997 European Junior Championships, in Slovenia, where despite travelling with considerable hopes of actually medalling, with a bit of the Roy Keane mentality, he ended up last, about eight minutes behind the winner.
“Later that year I went through a bit of a growth spurt,” he explained, and by that meant to the height he now is – five feet, seven and a half inches. He also weighed in at around 55kg, same as he does now, too – except that he does allow himself fill out to around 65kg, in the off season, to keep him something to work off in the long, hard months of training. By the time he left school, he was effectively a full-time walker, although he still had plenty more learning to do: he went to the European under-23 championships, in Gothenburg in 1999, and while he also finished at the back of the field, it made him realise he wasn’t training half hard enough. He upped to tempo again and qualified for the Sydney Olympics, setting off as a 22-year-old which assured him, even though he finished 28th, that race walking was exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
Not that Heffernan hasn’t sometimes questioned his commitment: his son Cathal and daughter Meghan were among the horde of Irish supporters that lined the route of The Mall last summer, for the 50km walk, and after finishing fourth, he looked after at them with that sense of double wonder. “Seeing the kids here reminds me,” he said, “because you’re missing some of them growing up, going to their matches and going to their races, you miss out a lot of stuff like that. Or not being able to go out and kick around with them because you risk making your leg sore for training. Or having to sleep during the day.”
A year after Sydney, he sent an email to Polish race walker Robert Korzeniowski, widely regarded as the best ever, asking for some advice, and instead ended up joining his group. So began a personally close and yet somewhat professionally distant relationship that lasted a few years, before Heffernan essentially realised he was just a pawn in that game.
“I remember him saying I’d never walk a 50k,” Heffernan recalled yesterday, passing Korzeniowski on each 2km lap of the Moscow course. “He was my biggest inspiration ever, and my biggest motivation today, as well, to prove him wrong. I knew he’d want me to win it as well, in a good way.”
After that, when Heffernan needed somebody he could trust the most, he trusted himself. “It’s surreal, a great feeling,” he said, not long after crossing the finish line in Moscow yesterday, “because when I came into the stadium, it felt like an out of body experience. I was looking up at the screen, thinking ‘this fella looks good, like’. . . So I just rolled with it, and enjoyed the last lap.”