independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Athletics: Heffernan comfortable at his own pace

Rob Heffernan has finally reached a place in his career where he is doing it for himself, writes John O'Brien

‘I’d no fight, no energy. Marian was at me again. “You know this isn’t worth it. Not for this.” He was just 32, facing the grim spectre of retirement’

THIS time Rob Heffernan would be ready. London would come and go. The Olympics would decant a moment of glory or another near miss to add to the litany of heartbreak he'd amassed over 12 years as one of the world's top racewalkers. Whatever transpired, he would be alright. He'd have given his all. No excuses. The wisdom accrued from hard experience would take care of the rest.

He thinks back to Beijing. The acute horror of that experience. The hype that followed him every step of the journey to China. Making his move early in the race. Leading after 14km. Finishing eighth. Sitting with his wife Marian that night, trying to make sense of the unexplainable. "She was crying, saying 'you fecked up, like. This was your time. It's not worth all the effort to finish eighth'."

He thought he'd work off the anguish of Beijing by spending a few months working in a sports injury clinic. Big mistake. "You can't split the pot," he says. "I was putting too much energy into too many things." So 2009 became the grimmest of struggles. The constant questions about his fitness, relentless queries about his appetite. They made him weary and irksome. "Give me a break, like."

The truth was he didn't have an answer for such questions and it wasn't in his nature to put a brave face on. That year's World Championships in Berlin offered little clarity He finished 15th, his worst finish at any major championship he'd completed in since 2001, and couldn't explain it. "I'd no fight," he says. "No energy. Marian was at me again. 'You know this isn't worth it. Not for this'." He was just 32, facing the grim spectre of retirement.

The turning point came when he sat down with Yvonne Cassin, a racewalking coach from Donegal, and talked about his future. Cassin helped him devise a new programme, and fundamentally alter the entire structure of his career. He had to become more responsible for his own performance. Restructure his entire life around himself. Become more selfish if that's what he needed to be.

Heffernan casts a cold eye back now and sees a career in two acts. The young, hot-headed athlete, full of competitive fire, muddling through as best he could, learning critical lessons every step of the way. And then, the older and more mature version, stumbling through a mid-career crisis to emerge as a more rounded athlete with the tools and the know-how to apply them to extract the maximum benefit.

Between Sydney and Beijing he was coached by the great Polish racewalker, Robert Korzeniowski, and he was happy enough with the deal. Korzeniowski presided over a group of elite racewalkers, among them Francisco 'Paco' Fernandez and Ilya Markov, and Heffernan never laboured under any illusions as to his place on the food chain.

"I was thrown in basically as a sparring partner for the boys," he says. "I didn't mind. Because Robert was getting big money off Paco and Ilya. I was kind of piggy-backing off it. Ultimately, Robert wasn't there for me. He was there for the boys. I did quite well out of it, but something had to give. I could do it up to Beijing After that you'd have no self-worth."

In 2009, Korzeniowki's group began to break up and Heffernan sensed it was time to take a new direction. A training regime centred around himself for starters. Nobody's lapdog anymore. So he coaches himself now, using Cassin as a consultant, one cog of a hugely efficient team that also includes his wife who has put her own career on hold to help out full-time. Gradually, all the bits have fallen into place.

What does he lack for now? Through his agent Derry McVeigh, deals have come with Kinetica who supply his supplements and a new footcare product, Micro Pedi Man, another valuable addition in his never-ending quest for improved performance. There's the €40,000 grant he receives from the Sports Council without which he'd likely have slipped into retirement. Every penny of it, he insists, goes back into his career.

"Everything in my year carries a purpose," he says. "To compete. I didn't want to go away to Spain in January for 10 days. I didn't want to be in Morocco for 25 days. But it's necessary. It provides different stimulus. Everything is geared for the World Championships in August. The same as the three years before London. Everything I did was geared for that one race."

He sees a wider, more fundamental issue here. He thinks again of his younger self. The eager, naive kid pounding the roads, mile after relentless mile, aggravating already existing injuries, not knowing any better. He missed almost the entire 2006 season because of an injury that was misdiagnosed and, already flat broke, faced the grim prospect of losing his funding and a future clouded by uncertainty. Meeting Marian around that time, he says, saved him from the clutches of depression.

"I did so much mad stuff with my training when I was younger. Ended up getting injured. Breaking down. It wasn't that I was stupid. I just didn't know any different. But look what can happen. I was improving after 28 and I'm still going at 35. My year is more periodised. With proper, structured training, every Irish athlete should be competing into their late 20s and 30s."

When the subject turns to the state of Irish athletics, his brow furrows slightly. After London he spent time with Marian, travelling around schools in Cork, talking to kids, seeking to spread the gospel. The response stunned them. Last week he conducted an impromptu session at the Leevale club and 600 kids invaded the track to walk behind him. No word of a lie, he says. He has the photos to prove it.

Seeing that palpable enthusiasm translated into genuine progress, though. That's the burning question. "If Athletics Ireland marketed their successful athletes," he says. "Kids are like sheep. They'll want to try it. But you have to capitalise on me doing well. The same with Derval [O'Rourke] and [David] Gillick. All have profiles. The GAA do it with their players all the time. Why can't we do it with ours when we're competing on a far higher stage?"

Right now Heffernan is the only Irish track and field competitor on a podium grant, ostensibly the only athlete regarded as a solid bet of delivering a medal at a major championship. There are dubious perks related to this status, of course. Like the two-week period in March when the drug testers turned up at his house five times to extract a blood sample. They paid him another visit in Morocco earlier this month and, with a quota to reach, he has little doubt he'll see them several times again before the year is done.

Not that he minds. In a sport with a proven doping profile, where Russian walkers regularly fall like ninepins, few will be as rigorously tested as Heffernan or as deserving of our trust and respect. He read somewhere that there are 33 Russian athletes currently serving bans for doping offences of one kind or another. He spent a time after London idly wondering whether any of the athletes ahead of him might fall foul of the doping authorities. Didn't happen, though. So be it.

And that brings him back, circuitously, to Derval. After she finished fourth in the 60m hurdles at the European Indoor Championships in March, it was subsequently reported that the gold medallist, Nevin Yanit from Turkey, had returned an abnormal blood test and O'Rourke might subsequently be upgraded to third. Heffernan remains perplexed by the absence of noise here. "It comes back to the power of media," he says. "We should be making a bigger fuss about it."

These things irk him. Seeing O'Rourke having her funding cut. Seeing his racewalking colleague Colin Griffin cut adrift completely and having to fight to try and get reinstated. He knows from experience how much these things can stress an athlete, sap energy that needs to be retained for training and performance. He sees too the worrying vacuum of Irish athletes in their late-20s when they should be approaching their peak, the most glaring indictment of the system as it stands.

"People talk about money being tight," he says, "but I've been close to the Polish system and they make careers out of it there. They develop them through. We have athletes who develop naturally up to 23. But after that? Like, Ciarán ó Lionáird could be a gold medal prospect in the 1,500m in Rio. He's proven it. We need to support the good athletes: Ciarán, Mark English, Brian Gregan. Not let them get to the point at 23 or 24 where they take a dip. Develop them until 28 or 29. Then they're rock solid."

Heffernan knows. He's been through it all himself, good and bad, and emerged in one piece. He doesn't imagine for a second he's got it all worked out now, just that he's reached a place where he feels comfortable and where excuses are a stranger. He posted the 15th best time in history, good enough to have won at least silver in every Olympic 50km walk ever staged. Sometimes he scans the list and, mentally, draws a line through those he believes to be suspect and realises he is right up there among the best. That's enough to know.

And the thought of reaching Moscow in top shape for the World Championships in August stirs him now. To be facing the Russians in their backyard, relishing the searing summer heat, giving it everything he can to finally wrest that elusive medal, knowing how much they will fear him. Beyond that, Rio is a faint speck in the distance. Nothing yet for a wise old head to get too excited about.

"The most important thing is financially you're okay," he says. "Your family is secure. You're motivated. Physically you don't have any injuries. Once everything is balanced and you're happy why not do it? What else is there to do? Then once you're stopped, you're stopped. That's it."

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