Heffernan still defiantly walking the walk
Despite all his setbacks the little Cork man with the big racer’s heart is stronger than ever
Rob Heffernan coming down The Mall at the end of the men’s 50km Walk at the London Olympics, where he finished fourth. His time would have won him silver in Beijing four years previously, and gold in every other Olympic 50km walk. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
We were on the top floor of the West Edmonton Mall trying to bluff our way past two big Canadian bouncers. It was late, we’d had an incredibly long day, and any sensible person would have called it quits.
With that Rob Heffernan edged us aside, and looking about 13 years old, faced up to one of the bouncers.
“Come on, like,” he says, with that beautifully moaning Cork accent of his. “I’m after finishing 14th in the 20km walk. We’re just like having a little celebration.”
Both bouncers glanced at each other and then instantly parted, so we waltzed on through, Rob leading myself and Mark Carroll towards a crowded booth down the back. Race walkers are not a shy breed.
I recognised Tim Montgomery, sitting at the same booth, wearing a tight black T-shirt, and looking absolutely ripped. Few knew it then, but Montgomery must have been just coming off another loading phase of anabolic steroids, as designed by Victor Conte at his Balco workshop – yet at the time that image of this enormous American sprinter, surrounded by at three women, and sitting close to the elf-like Heffernan, stood out like a snapshot of what separates the big men from the small boys of this sport.
Heartbreak and setbacks
It’s hard to believe this was 13 years ago, at the 2001 World Championships, in Edmonton, because it’s still so vivid. It was the first time I met Rob Heffernan and what makes that hard to believe is despite all the heartbreak and setbacks he’s endured in the years since, he’s still standing, or rather walking – one of the big men now among the small boys, when any sensible person would have called it quits.
If only the same could be said about Montgomery. A year after Edmonton, where he won the silver medal in the 100 metres behind Maurice Greene, he ran a world record of 9.78 seconds. Two years later, he was banned from the sport, found out, just like his former partner Marion Jones, to be very fond of the old Smarties.
Last I heard Montgomery was serving a five-year prison sentence for dealing heroin.
Two years after Edmonton, at age 24, and still looking about 13, Heffernan’s own career was in doubt. He didn’t qualify for the world championships, in Paris, and two years later, in Helsinki, was disqualified.
By then he’d a young son, Cathal, and was laying bricks to help pay the bills. I remember Brendan Mooney, formerly of the Irish Examiner and one of Heffernan’s strongest supporters, trying to console him that wet morning in Helsinki, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Race walking is not the sort of thing you take up for pleasure, and truth is almost all race walkers are drawn to the event by accident. Of all the athletics disciplines, it is the least glamorous, and yet the most arduous
Like a contest to decide who can whisper the loudest, the rules are somewhat arbitrary, because they have to be.
Deceiving the naked eye
If slow-motion cameras were used for judging purposes, rather than the naked eye, there would be no such thing as race walking, because anyone who can master the technique of maintaining contact with the ground at all times, straightening the leg at the exact moment of contact, is, in fact, deceiving the naked eye.
Not many people claim to be great fans of all this, but most race walkers couldn’t care less, especially Heffernan. What unites race walkers of all abilities is the belief they are doing something unique.
Because of this, or perhaps as a result, they generally stop at nothing to get to where they want to go.
Six years after Edmonton, Heffernan went to the World Championships in Osaka and walked brilliantly, finishing sixth. A year later, at the Beijing Olympics, he was leading at 14km, and finished up eighth.
Then, it seemed, his career spilled into an inevitable decline, when in Berlin in 2009, at age 31, he could only manage 15th.
If this was hard to stomach it was nothing compared to what happened in Daegu, two years ago: having finished fourth in both the 20km and 50km walks at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona, Heffernan felt his time had come. Then three days before the championships started he got a call from home, to say his mother Maureen, one his keenest supporters, had just died in a tragic domestic accident. He got the next flight home.
This tragic backdrop was one of the first things I thought about when Heffernan started closing in on a medal, down around The Mall, in the 50km walk at last summer’s London Olympics.
When he crossed the line after three hours, 37 minutes and 54 seconds, nearly eight minutes quicker than his own Irish record, there were still three walkers ahead of him, and they got to walk away with medals.
His time would have won him silver in Beijing four years previously, and gold in every other Olympic 50km walk.
“I’ll just have to keep going,” he told us, the dry, salty sweat around his eyes dampening again.
“It’s just hard, it’s hard. I wanted to win an Olympic medal. It’s been my dream.”
He looks older than 13 now, more like the 35 he is, yet he travelled out to Moscow this week in the best physical and mental shape of his life.
“I’ve been waiting for this day since London,” he says, boldly. “Bring it on, like.”