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.”