Trajectory of Heffernan’s extraordinary career is pointing directly upwards
Cork man finally reaps the reward for his perseverance
Rob Heffernan with his wife Marian at Dublin airport following his 50km walk victory in Moscow. Photograph: Frank Miller
Yes, well, so here we go again. If Sylvester Stallone knocking out Dolph Lundgren in the 15th round stretched the realms of credibility it was nothing compared to the marvellous jolting of some events in Moscow this week. And we haven’t heard the last of them. Trust me.
Rocky IV, remember, had a couple more equally incredible sequels. Like that Rob Heffernan arrived home last night having written the perfect sporting fairytale – complete with love and grief and laughs out loud – and the best part about his story is we haven’t heard the last of it, either. Now that he has overcome all fear, including the kamikaze water slide, and any doubt that he might somehow be unsuitable for the 50km walk, the trajectory of Heffernan’s career is pointing directly upwards.
And even if Rio 2016 seems like a long, long time away, there is no reason it can’t keep pointing in that direction for another three years.
Because the 50km walk is unlike any other athletic discipline. Not only does it require levels of dedication, and appetite, above and beyond any other event, it demands a period of apprenticeship that can only come with age. It explains why when Heffernan realised he still had the young Russian Mikhail Ryzhov for company last Wednesday, he stopped his thoughts for a moment and decided, “No, he’s only a young fella. No way is he beating me.”
Indeed Ryzhov is only 22, a baby by race walking standards. Heffernan will be 38 by the time Rio rolls around, and that’s probably a walker’s middle age. Britain’s Lloyd “Tebbs” Johnson was 48 when he won the bronze medal in the 50km walk at the 1948 Olympics, in London. That still makes him the oldest athletics medallist of all-time.
Race walking demands a level toughness that can only come with age, too. Finishing almost an hour behind Heffernan on Wednesday, in last place, was the American John Nunn, a US Army sergeant.
“In the Army, we have a never quit attitude, we have to finish the mission,” said Nunn, after they’d cut off his soaking wet vest and shorts, because he simply could not move for several hours after finishing. By halfway, both of Nunn’s legs were cramping, badly, and not long after that his entire body seized up.
“It was like the death march,” he added, “one of the most mentally taxing things I’ve ever done. The moment I crossed the finish, it was so painful, I was screaming. The day after, it felt like I had been run over by a truck.”
One man missing, however, is still viewed by some as one of the toughest of the lot. Sergey Kirdyapkin, now aged 33, won the gold medal in the 50km walk in London last summer, in an Olympic record time 3:35:59.
This topped up the gold medals he won at the World Championships in Helsinki back in 2005, and also in Berlin, in 2009. Kirdyapkin appeared primed for another golden moment on home territory last Wednesday, only to withdraw – a few days before the event – without giving any reason whatsoever.
The Russians are being housed at the same Moscow hotel as the Irish team, Jamaica and Bermuda. Irish team manager Patsy McGonagle has been hearing lots of whispers about Kirdyapkin’s sudden withdrawal, although nothing is yet confirmed.
“All we’ve been told is that there might be some announcement, in the next couple of days,” he said.
Just as strange is the fact Olga Kaniskina was also a late withdrawal from the women’s 20km walk, having won the previous three World titles. Race walking can be a bit of a draw for performance enhancing substances, especially those of the blood-boasting type, namely EPO. Indeed Alex Schwazer of Italy, who won Olympic gold in Beijing, and the European title in Barcelona in 2010, when Heffernan finished fourth, has since admitted to using EPO.
Schwazer, in other words, denied Heffernan a European bronze medal, because his ban didn’t go back that far. When asked about Kirdyapkin’s sudden withdrawal, at his arrival in Dublin Heffernan simply shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said, and left it at that.
Heffernan sits proudly in fourth place from those London Olympics, and if there is any issue with any of the walkers ahead of him he will be the first to benefit. “I didn’t finish fourth, I won fourth,” he said at the time.
Heffernan got everything he deserved in Moscow, some payback, at last, for those countless hours out around the roads of his home Douglas in Cork, not far from where both he and his wife Marian were born and raised, and the athletic club in Togher that first brought them together, or else in Guadix, high in the Spanish Sierra Nevada, where he frequently goes to fully embrace the benefits of altitude training.
There, Heffernan drove himself to the point of utter sporting starvation, and after a career marked by minor euphoria and extreme despair, the medal simply had to come. And it won’t be last of them. Trust me.